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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat: Rating Selangor


THE Selangor government has come under a lot of fire of late. From the attacks on illegal sand-mining activities in Selangor and the questioning of two Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) assemblypersons to Umno’s Save Selangor campaign, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) government must surely have its hands full.

Still, the PR-led Selangor government has also demonstrated innovation such as by setting up the Select Committee on Competency, Accountability and Transparency (Selcat) and by tabling a Freedom of Information (FOI) bill. It also passed a motion to appoint an opposition member, the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s Datuk Mohd Shamsudin Lias, to chair the Selangor Public Accounts Committee (PAC), although he will reportedly reject the offer.

This week, The Nut Graph asks political scientist Wong Chin Huat to comment on the Selangor government’s performance thus far – what it has done well, where it can improve, and whether the criticisms have been justified.

TNG: The PR Selangor government has been quite innovative in its governance so far. It set up Selcat, it is the first state to table a FOI bill, and it passed a motion to appoint a BN member to head the Selangor PAC committee. How would you rate their performance so far?

Wong Chin Huat: Selangor is the Darul Islah (Reformasi) in Malaysia. Selcat and the [motion to appoint] an opposition chair for the PAC committee helps to balance the power between the executive and legislature. The FOI enactment, when passed, will empower the public. It is setting an example for the federal government and Parliament.

What do you think of the motion to appoint an opposition member to head the PAC committee? Does this establish a good precedent that should be practised at the federal level and in other states? What are the benefits of such cross-party appointments?

Such an appointment is significant in two ways. First, check and balance will be more effective when someone has a vested interest to expose rather than to ignore any wrongdoing by the ruling parties.

Second, it provides a meaningful role for the opposition parties to perform and compete with the ruling parties.

If we want a multiparty democracy, then the same must happen at the federal level. Selangor Umno’s resistance to the offer (to chair the state PAC) is perhaps a way of avoiding that from happening [at the federal level].

(Pic by spekulator / sxc.hu)

(Pic by spekulator / sxc.hu)

Can Selangor be considered a role model for other states for the strengthening of democracy in government? Do some of their measures, such as the FOI bill, put pressure on other states such as Penang, which hasn’t tabled their bill yet?

Yes. A key advantage of federalism is exactly to allow for regional variation and competition. By implementing these institutional reforms, it puts pressure not only on the BN federal and state governments, but also on other PR states.

It especially pressures Penang, which is equally urbanised, developed and claiming to be reformist, and Kelantan, which has failed to even form a task force on FOI or local elections after 20 years in power.

Are there ways that you think the Selangor government should improve in strengthening democracy? What do you think of the recent complaints that non-governmental organisations (NGOs)’ representatives in the local councils were replaced by NGO reps who were also members of political parties?

[The lack of] local government elections is certainly a pressing concern. We have not heard anything from Selangor since their gently worded letter to the Election Commission to ask their opinion on local elections. There is no timetable for local elections in Selangor at all. This is worse than Penang, which has repeatedly said that it would be held, at the latest, together with the state elections.

The complaints that NGO local council seats were taken over by PR “NGO people”, and [reports that there was] some in-fighting among PR local leaders suggest an excess demand for local council posts among the PR cadres. Unless you have enough resources, like the BN, to pacify the losers in the party-controlled selection process, the appointment system will come back to haunt the state government.

Unless the PR believes that they can win federal power in the next general election and overcome the problem of excess demand, [delaying] local elections will only hurt their reputation and may eventually cost them seats.

Two other issues deserve the state government’s attention. The first is the constituency development fund. At the moment, the PR denies the opposition (BN) members access to these funds, on the excuse that the BN has been doing the same [when the BN is the one in government]. The PR should do as they have done with the PAC chairpersonship: show the BN a good example.

The second issue is to provide public funding to all [political] parties.

There have been many criticisms of the Selangor government recently, from the sand-mining issue to the apparent water shortage in the future. Do you think this is a concerted effort to undermine the Selangor government, or are these criticisms justified?

I am inclined to think [this is an effort to undermine]. Look at what Utusan Malaysia has to say. On the one hand, they attack Selangor for allowing the sand theft. On the other, they blame Selangor for not giving out enough licences so that the sand thieves have to do what they do. If this is not a concerted effort to undermine Selangor and Penang, then let’s discuss the issue nationally. Show Malaysians how well sand extraction is managed in BN-run states and how the PR should just learn from them.

But such attacks may just backfire. For example, if people perceive that the federal government is unable to cooperate with Selangor to solve any projected water crisis, Selangor voters may just opt to change the federal government by voting all the way against the BN, and hoping others will do the same.

Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. If readers have questions and issues they would like Wong to respond to, they are welcome to e-mail editor@thenutgraph.com for our consideration. Courtesy of Nut Graph

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