GEORGE TOWN: The adoption of the open tender system for all public procurement in Penang following the 12th general election in 2008 was rooted in the idea that cities that achieve greatness are those that are efficient and competent, which cannot be accomplished without good governance.
Towards this end, the Penang state government adopted the concept of competency, accountability and transparency (CAT) in governance, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng said at the launching of the Penang Institute last Friday.
“The open tender system is par for the course for the rest of the world, but in Malaysia it is groundbreaking,” Lim said.
Among the results of the policy, he pointed out, was the reduction of the state government’s debt from RM630 million when the Pakatan Rakyat government took over the state administration in 2008 to RM30 million today — a 95% reduction. This is believed to be the highest among all states in the history of Malaysia.
He was addressing the question “How to improve the policymaking process in Malaysia” in his keynote address at the launch. Lim is chairman of the state-funded institute, which was established in 1997 as the Socio-Economic and Environmental Research Institute (SERI). He is also secretary-general of DAP, MP for Bagan and state assembly member for Air Putih.
Lim said Penang’s commitment to transparency and competency were important factors that attracted foreign capital into Malaysia — with the state drawing the highest amount of investments in 2010 — and for the reduction in crime, making it the most liveable city on par with Kuala Lumpur.
It also made it possible for the state to record budget surpluses every year since 2008, which were directed towards social programmes such as financial aid for the hardcore poor, cash handouts as an anti-corruption dividend, upgrading of public housing and free bus services within the city and between the island and the mainland for workers.
“All these social programmes are in fact a revolution because [they were] achieved simply by plugging the leakages that were happening before,” he said. “Where previously the road to government contracts was through political connections and middlemen, it now only requires an internet connection, as we have replaced middlemen with an on-line procurement system.”
Addressing the issue of freedom of expression, Lim said the time has come for the government to allow the people to express their views. He noted that Penang took the lead by establishing the first Speaker’s Corner at the Esplanade, where the people are free to criticise the government.
“This shows that freedom of speech is possible in Malaysia,” he said.
Earlier, the incoming executive director of the Penang Institute, Prof Datuk Dr Woo Wing Thye, said Penang faces three types of challenges in its pursuit of continued prosperity,
which he called “hardware”, “software” and “power supply” issues.For the economy, “hardware” failures could include the failure of the financial sector and declining industrial productivity, while “software” problems include disagreements over the direction of the economy and social discord. The third type of challenge relates to issues such as the degradation of the natural environment and the inability to overcome barriers to the state’s progress.
Woo, who has been tasked with running the institute from next July, said the dialogue at launch was aimed at bringing together the leading minds of the world to discuss these challenges and propose the way forward for Penang to achieve its full potential.
Penang Institute executive director Liew Chin Tong noted that the changes being witnessed in the global and regional environment today are unprecedented. Developments such as the Arab Spring and the impact of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, particularly the way the world views nuclear energy and energy in general, requires new approaches to be adopted for continued progress.
Liew, the MP for Bukit Bendera, said the institute is unique among state-funded policy institutes in that its purpose is to provide alternative policy inputs for the state’s development.
Lembah Pantai MP Nurul Izzah Anwar, a panellist at the launch, said a key issue in improving the policymaking process is to examine the independence of democratic institutions to ensure that they do not function as rubber stamps for the government.
Lim syas Penang's commitement to trans-parency and competencywere important factors thatattracted foreign capital into Malaysia.
“In Parliament, all kinds of laws and measures are passed that affect the daily lives of the people,” she said. “The Computing Professionals Bill, for example, requires all computer professionals to be registered and certified by a board, to pay fees. [It] will make it technically illegal for anyone to submit a proposal, idea or anything online if they are not registered.”
Such over-regulation will not encourage innovation, she said, although a primary focus of the government is to encourage the people to be as creative as possible in order to develop new areas of growth.
There is therefore a need for checks and balance of the legislative power of Parliament, she said. However, especially after the amendment of Article 121(1) of the Federal Constitution, the judicial power of reviewing legislation has been removed, said Nurul Izzah of PKR.“The power of judicial review is extremely crucial,” she said, “and we therefore have to rehabilitate the system.”
Parit Buntar MP Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa, a second panellist at the session, said the Malaysian experience has taken the form of the rationalisation of the government’s goals in public policy instead of reflecting the public’s choice through democratic participation.
“After doing what it wants, the government presents it to Parliament for debate,” he said, “expecting it to be passed by brute majority. For example, the Peaceful Assembly Bill was presented in Parliament and they expected it to be passed in four hours, although it touches on a very important issue, which is the freedom to assemble.”
Another issue in policymaking that involves the process of globalisation, said Mujahid, is the free trade agreement process. “By signing the agreement with countries like the US, the government is giving up its power to decide on the country’s policies. This will have serious implications for our people,” he said.
Mujahid, who is a member of the PAS central committee, is the author of several books, including the controversial Menuju PAS Baru (Towards a new PAS), that outlines a vision of reform for the party.