Here’s why public institutions are perceived to be components of BN

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Putrajaya seems to be able to influence the decision-making process of public institutions to serve the whims and fancies of the government of the day, observes Vince Tan.

University of Malaya – Photograph: The Malaysian Insider

I opened my WhatsApp messaging system a few days back to find a message that caught my eye. Someone had posted a Malaysian Insider report citing sources saying that two University of Malaya deputy vice-chancellors would be removed allegedly for being too lenient with student activism and for being pro-opposition.

This suggests there could be political interference in the administration of our public institutions, and our local universities are no exception. This is happening despite University of Malaya being granted autonomy, particularly in human resources, back in 2012.

In a centralised system of government like ours, Putrajaya has a big say on how things are run in most public institutions in this country. We often hear of public institutions being helmed by an Umno member or a party loyalist.

An example is the Election Comission, which has a chairman who appears to be pro-Umno. How are elections going to be free and fair if the institution conducting the elections is perceived to be not independent and impartial when exercising its duty?

Appointment of officers

Many public institutions are established under the Federal Constitution, Acts of Parliament and State Enactments, for instance, the Election Commission, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, the Judiciary, Public Service Commission and the Education Service Commission. All these institutions have a similar mechanism for the appointments of their top officers.

The Federal Constitution provides for the appointment of top officers of these public institutions by the Yang DiPertuan Agong on the advice by the Prime Minister.

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The advice of the Prime Minister is usually accepted in line with convention under a constitutional monarchy. This leaves the PM with considerable autonomy to exercise his discretion when it comes to the appointment of institutional heads.

Putrajaya thus seems to be able to influence the decision-making process of these public institutions to serve the whims and fancies of the government of the day.

A centralised federation

The structure of our political system has centralised enormous powers in the federal government. This is made possible not only by the Federal List in the Ninth Schedule of the Federal Constitution but also through the appointments of the heads of state departments which also comes from Putrajaya.

The central government retains important portfolios such as defence, education, finance and health. It might be argued that portfolios such as education and health could be better executed at state level as decisions can be made more quickly and more suited to local conditions.

A highly centralised system would also mean that a whole lot of tax revenue would be centralised as well. This can be seen in the federal government’s huge 2015 budget of RM273.9bn, compared with the Penang state government 2015 budget of RM1.0bn.

Such disproportionality ought to be highlighted as some states which contribute the most tax revenue might not see their taxes paid properly used to suit their needs.

Decentralisation is needed to decentralise funds from the federal level to the state level to cater to local needs. The state government and the municipal councils would have a better understanding of local issues and provide solutions to such problems. But proper solutions might not be able to be implemented due to a lack of resources.

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Alleged political interference in public institutions

Due to the mechanism allowing for the appointments of top officers of public institutions at federal level, political appointments can be made to serve the interests of the government of the day.

People favoured by the ruling government can be planted to helm public institutions. These appointments may be some form of promotion of the ruling party’s loyalists or supporters. This would inevitably lead to patronage and cronyism even in public service.

Can we not say that our public institution are widely perceived to be components of the Barisan Nasional now?

Reforms to the system

A study needs to be done to relook at the provisions which allow political appointments to be made and amendments should be made to the List in the Ninth Schedule of the Federal Constitution. The appointments of top officers of public institutions must be done independently of the Prime Minister, who represents the Executive.

The Public Service Commission should be the body to make the recommendations and advise the Yang DiPertuan Agung on appointments of top officers in public institutions. The Public Service Commission’s top officer should also be appointed in the same manner. This ensures the independence of such institutions from the political agendas of the various political parties.

The Ninth Schedule of the Federal Constitution should be amended to vest portfolios such as health and education to the state level. Concurrently, the federal government’s jurisdiction over health and education should be restricted to coordinating and ensuring uniformity in the delivery of such services to the people.

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If not, our public institutions will continue to be perceived to be functioning as components of the Barisan Nasional.

Vince-Tan1Vince Tan is a student activist in a local university. He is currently involved in ‘Progressive University of Malaya’, a student rights movement championing academic freedom and student empowerment.

Vince first got involved with Aliran after attending our Young Writers Workshop on Good Governance and Democracy and a second one on Federalism and Decentralisation, both supported by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives. He feels he can contribute more to the sociopolitical arena in this country by writing about issues close to his heart.

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