Decentralisation is not a seditious term as some negative elements have claimed, writes W H Cheng.
Decentralisation is defined as the distribution and delegation of functions and powers from the federal government to state and local governments.
In aftermath of the 12th general election in 2008, which saw the Barisan Nasional losing its two-thirds majority in the parliament and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat capturing five state governments, discussion arose about the need for decentralisation following some friction in federal-state relationship which are seen to be jeopardising the states’ administration, roles and development plans.
In every kind of governing system, pros and cons are sure to exist. Much depends on on who, how and what kind of party or coalition of parties is elected. Other relevant factors including the ethnic groups or combination of ethnic groups involved; the ideology or combination of ideologies; the attitude of the governing parties and the governing policies at the federal, state or municipal levels.
But in the highly centralised federal government we have in Malaysia today, its administrative system has proven to be ineffective and open to abuse of power, mismanagement and corruption.
One of the reasons is that the federal government itself does not have adequate resources and staff to oversee all its roles and responsibilities scattered nationwide. Apart from this, state and local governments too have limited options and powers on what they can do for the citizens due to financial and constitutional constraints.
A clear example of limitations that state governments have experienced involve issues that are well within their knowledge, territories and localities such as transport, which falls under the federal government’s jurisdiction. When the Penang International Airport reached its maximum capacity, the call for an additional runaway to be built appeared to fall on deaf ears.
State governments are also powerless when it comes to deciding which routes local bus services and taxis should take as all such decisions are made by federal agencies that are supposed to be monitoring the public transport system.
Another issue that has seen conflicts arise pertains to the recommendations and appointments of civil servants or officials to state offices and agencies. Currently, the Public Service Department (JPA) is the only federal government agency that deals with civil servants and the assignment and deployment of officials, whether at the federal, state or local level, without the need to consult or inform the state governments.
Even if a state government were to recommend its preferred choice, based on the officer’s experience and track record, the JPA can opt to ignore it. Both the Selangor and Penang state governments had a bitter experience each when their preferred choices for the state secretary and president of the state religious council positions were being ignored.
In Malaysia, the public security apparatus too has been highly centralised under the direct control of the Home Ministry, which oversees the police central command at Bukit Aman. This kind of public security system has been in place from the British colonial period in the 19th Century Malaya and has not changed since.
Having total control over the nation’s security apparatus allows the situation to tip in favour of the federal government whenever there is a federal-state inter-government conflict. A clear example was the successful intrusion into the Penang State Legislative Assembly building by a pro-Umno group despite a heavy security presence. Another issue was the refusal of the Home Ministry to grant permission to a Selangor-based city council to establish an auxiliary police unit to help combat crime in areas under the council’s jurisdiction.
A decentralised public security system like the ones in the United States, India and Australia would certainly see improved and fairer policing. The service would be closer to the local electorate and more responsive through the implementation of measures to ensure effectiveness, competency and accountability.
On matters related to housing, town planning and regional development, although the state and local governments do have a fair share over control of land matters, the federal government still has significant control. This could stir up conflict and manipulation when it comes to issues involving development, land clearing, and reserve sites.
State governments should be allowed to determine their own housing and development policies as they have the best knowledge and know-how over their territories and localities. In this case, the property market price too can be better managed in terms of restrictions and approvals to protect the interests of the middle- and lower-income people.
On public health care, the Health Ministry has total control over all public hospitals, health clinics and other health care system nationwide. Even so, this sector has always been underfunded and faces a drastic shortage of experienced medical practitioners. In many cases, patients need to be referred from one hospital to another and these public hospitals are invariably overcrowded, thus affecting the quality of public health care.
More powers should be delegated to state governments to better manage public health care so that more funding and resources can be obtained to improve facilities, provide better service, and educate the public on health care planning.
Decentralisation is not a seditious term as some negative elements have claimed. It is defined as delegating and improving the governing system so it can become better managed and equipped, efficient and fairer to the general public.
Decentralisation may also applies to other public sectors, such as education, local government, trade and industry, environment and sanitation as well as agriculture.
But let us set an initial benchmark before we go further.
W H Cheng, an Aliran member, is director of Inter-Research And Studies (IRAS), a Penang-based mini-research outfit and pressure group.