Mainstream media: Thanks for lessons about Malaysia’s centralised federalism

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Believe it or not, we can learn much from our mainstream media about how heavily centralised our system of federalism is. Francis Loh, tongue in cheek, expresses his gratitude.

The mainstream media have been highlighting several issues that have shed light on our centralised federalism these past few weeks. In so doing they have clarified the roles of important government officers whom we hardly take notice of, or hear about, let alone are aware of. Discussions about development and privatisation are commonplace – but across a federal-state divide? That’s news and new for readers of our mainstream media..

What a nice change from whole newspapers full of pronouncements by the PM and his deputy, and the echoing back of those pronouncements by Ministers Hishamuddin, Koh, Ng, Liow, Nazri, Ahmad Zahid, S Subramaniam (a fast learner), etc, etc. Also nice to get away from all that silly discussion about Valentine’s Day!

State Sec, SLO, SDO, SLO and all that

For instance, the saga about the Selangor State Secretary – when will he be sworn in – has gone on and on. In this case we have learned that the State Secretary is a federal government officer who can be appointed to any of the states without first consulting the Menteri Besar of the state. We have also been told by no less than the Federal Secretary himself that these top officers are “neutral professionals”, do not bend one way or another politically, and simply serve the government of the day ‘without fear or favour’. Come, come, ask the ousted PR-led Perak government how they came to be undermined! I suspect that the mainstream media editors do not believe this ‘without fear or favour’ shibboleth either, and were just telling us readers about the principles that ought to guide our civil servants! Nice touch, mainstream media.

We have also been informed about the State Financial Officer (SFO), State Legal Officer (SLO), State Development Officer (SDO), etc – all federal officers, who can be appointed by the federal government to the states, again without consultation of the state government executive. That was why the Selangor state government attempted to pass new legislation to insist that they be appointees of the Sultan and MB instead. Good lesson here about how the federal government penetrates into the workings of state governments via these important federal appointees. Neutral professionals? Without fear or favour?

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Not so long ago, the mainstream media had also headlined how Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng had been very vocal about his SDO, who was in charge of the disbursement of federal development funds to Penang, including funding the new Penang Hill railway system and the expansion and upgrading – including those awful two arches now demolished, thank goodness – of the Penang Botanic Garden. Apparently, Lim’s government had not been duly briefed of on-going developments in these two and other federally funded projects. Yet his government was being blamed for some of the resulting fiascoes.

Development – States in the dark about EPP, NKEA, Pemandu and coordinators?

Quite cleverly, the Penang state government has created new state corporations to oversee the expansion and rehabilitation of these two tourists cum heritage icons. In so doing – so I learned from reading between the lines of the reports in the mainstream media, again thanks – these new state corporations which will get launching grants from the state government, can now create positions and appoint their own persons, therefore bypassing the need to request for more federal officers.

A related lesson pertains to federal allocations for the states. Recently, the mainstream media reported that the deputy premier took Lim to task for suggesting that Penang was not receiving federal funds. The mainstream media clarified that the deputy PM is right: funds have been made available for development projects such as the Penang Hill and Botanic Garden projects.

But Lim’s complaint was actually that not a single one of the 19 EPPs, part of the NKEA (ahem, EPP means Entry Point Projects while NKEA means National Key Economic Area – thanks mainstream media), that were unveiled last month, was located in Penang.

Subsequently it was clarified that Penang would benefit from 95 EPPs! Whereupon CM Lim claimed that he had not yet been briefed by Pemandu (that’s Performance Management and Delivery Unit). He was completely in the dark where they would be located and what type of projects they would be. Yet, Pemandu disclosed that the 199 EPPs already disclosed would facilitate “a total of RM67bn in investments which would generate a per capita GNI of RM35bn and create 35,000 jobs”.

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Why would a body called Pemandu, involved in such high-powered economic activities, bypass the Penang or any of the state government? Unless, of course, we are a highly centralised federal system that is afraid to involve the state and local authorities directly? Indeed, it is proper for CM Lim to ask how the 95 EPPs promised to Penang over the next ten years could be successfully implemented and completed without the cooperation of the state government.

At any rate, the mainstream media also clarified, perhaps inadvertently, that development funds are directed to the SDOs, which actually means not to the elected state governments in the PR-led states. More than that, the mainstream media have also reported that BN so-called ‘co-ordinators’ had been appointed to constituencies that were lost to the Pakatan, and that these unelected co-ordinators have even been able to acquire funds for minor projects, apparently from federal allocations, in the Pakatan-led states, including in Penang.

Confusing? Not if one remembers that we have a centralised federal system the workings of which, thanks to the mainstream media, we have become more aware of.

Privatisation and the federal-state divide

Then there is the problem of privatisation and the federal-state divide. Even before the political tsunami of March 2008, the federal government had already decided to privatise solid waste management. This privatisation policy was implemented in the south and central parts of the peninsula. Since the tsunami, solid waste management has also been privatised in Perak and Kedah. But the Penang government believes that the two local authorities can do a better job at lower cost to the rakyat, after all they have been doing so for a long time). CM Lim’s government fears that the private company, E-Idaman, to which waste management has been privatised, will impose a new surcharge similar to IWK’s, on households and commercial enterprises to collect their garbage. (Silly us for thinking that our rubbish is not worth any money!).

Meanwhile, in Selangor, the federal-state divide involves water. The state government has asked the federal government to revoke the concession given to Syarikat Bekalan Air Selangor Sdn Bhd (Syabas) claiming that the company had breached the original agreement when, in the name of collecting money for its charitable fund (Tabung Budi), Syabas also collected funds from its consumers who opted to forgo the subsidy provided by the Selangor government for the first 20 cubic metres of water (valued at RM11.40) used each month.

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According to Selangor MB Khalid, Syabas was receiving double payment, given that the state was already paying the concessionaire for free water supplied to Selangor residents. In fact, the Selangor government contended that the water concession agreements with four companies – Syabas, Puncak Niaga (M) Sdn Bhd, Konsortium ABBAS Sdn Bhd and Syarikat Pengeluar Air Selangor Sdn Bhd – should be ended and the industry taken over by the state government. Water, water, everywhere, so much fighting over there! But thanks to the mainstream media, we get to know about these things, though the details remain a little foggy to the lay person.
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Selangor PD?

Most recently, the Selangor state government floated the idea of establishing its own auxiliary police force to combat the worsening crime situation in the state. Subsequently, the mainstream media carried criticisms by serving and former police chiefs, by pro-BN NGOs and lawyers, etc. In fact, the Selangor government’s proposal is not such a far-fetched idea.

In many federations, policing is conducted by the state, rather than by the central government authorities, which is exclusively charged with high-powered defence and strategic matters. Why, in the US, a federal system, the local authorities also maintain, and sometimes elect their police chiefs or sheriffs to conduct policing of the local areas. The local main stream media didn’t teach me this lesson. But the mainstream TV crime serials from America – remember the TV hit ‘LAPD’ and previously ‘NYPD’? – make this point clear.

At any rate, thank you to our mainstream media for mixing these accounts of federal-state relations, pro-BN though the biased accounts might be, with the boring pronouncements by the PM and his deputy, and those reverberating echoes by the BN Ministers. Believe it or not, we can learn much from our mainstream media.

Dr Francis Loh, a professor of politics, is Secretary of Aliran.

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