My Say: Clean government and the consolidation of democracy

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 11, 2018 - June 17, 2018.
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In the first part of this article (Issue 1216, May 28), I discussed the recent transformative development in Malaysian politics and the opportunity this presents to build a strong nation. I continue that discussion here with emphasis on achieving clean governance through legitimate and effective state institutions and the measures needed to consolidate democracy in the country.

Clean governance requires a transparent and effective state. Although state and nation are commonly conflated in writings on Malaysian politics, the two are distinct entities and there is value in distinguishing one from the other. The nation refers to the political community whereas the state refers to the political structure and system through which the community is administered.

The state here is defined to comprise the political structure for governance (like unitary state, federalism and so forth), state institutions like the parliament, the judiciary, the rulers and their council, the civil service, the armed forces and police force, the system for the extraction and application of revenue, and the system for acquisition and exercise of state power.

Federalism is an apt political structure for countries with relatively large multiracial societies, which make integration through absorption rather difficult, and for countries with relatively well-developed states that seek to govern themselves and yet see value in belonging to a larger political entity. On both counts, federalism well suits Malaysia, which has been a federal state from the inception of Malaya in 1957. Federalism also enabled Sabah and Sarawak to join the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia in 1963.

In Part 1, I briefly discussed the relationship of Sabah and Sarawak with the political centre in the context of the Malaysian federation. For want of space, I will limit myself to summarising the key points of federalism. One, it gives voice and rights to so-called minority peoples. Second, it supports the devolution of power and authority based on the principle of subsidiarity (effective governance at the lowest possible level). Third, the political centre and where appropriate the state should assume coordinating roles in relation to delegated and overlapping governance areas. Finally, states must be accorded the right to restructure their relations with the political centre through peaceful means.

Although the present constitution — which was written when Malaya gained independence in 1957 — supports the concentration of power in the political centre, the vitality of federalism requires a periodic review (every 10 to 15 years) of the distribution of authority for governance at different levels. Such distribution of power and authority also prevents concentration of power that makes for “do or die” election battles and also denies or minimises opportunities for corruption.

In addition to federalism, clean governance rests on transparent and effective state institutions. In a parliamentary system like Malaysia’s, the parliament and the judiciary are designed to keep a check on the executive. In Malaysia, however, the parliament has remained weak, serving primarily as the executive’s rubber stamp. And a strong, professional and independent judiciary has been weakened over the years, beginning in the previous Mahathir administration and hitting a very low point during the Najib era.

In recent years, the executive has lorded over the parliament and judiciary. It is now opportune and necessary to strengthen the parliament as a strong legislative body and to rebuild the judiciary into an independent and professional institution that can check the executive if necessary. Both these bodies need reform and strengthening.

Before discussing the reforms for these institutions, I would like to discuss an institution that is peculiar to Malaysia: the rulers.

The rulers are an integral part of government in Malaysia. At times they have been referred to as the fourth branch of government. Rulers are simply not a relic of the past. They have important roles to play in the contemporary Malaysian political system. In addition to highlighting their symbolic roles, the public must be made aware of the important roles they play in the politics of the country, including in the passage of legislation, the appointment of the prime minister and menteri besar (chief minister) for each state, declaration of national emergency and as protectors of Islam and the Malay community. The rulers are a historic fact. In the lead-up to colonialism, they entered into agreement with the British colonial authority and played a significant role in the independence and formation of the Federation of Malaya and later Malaysia. They cannot be wished away.

It is crucial to recognise the importance of the rulers and their council and firmly incorporate them into the Malaysian political system. Unlike other state institutions, there is little that one can do about the composition of the rulers, which is entirely Malay. However, their position and roles can be altered and reformed. The rulers have a constitutional position that should be respected. The sultans are constitutional monarchs. Any aspiration or effort to go back to the earlier era of absolute rule should be resisted and curbed. Moreover, the rulers’ role should evolve to become protectors of all ethnic and racial groups and religions in the country as well as the constitution and the legal system.

They could become prime movers in constructing a strong nation, in opposing unconstitutional developments, in ensuring the rule of law and in facilitating interfaith dialogue. They can also be influential in restraining and guiding politicians. In sum, the rulers can play key roles in Malaysian politics and should be reinforced as a state institution and as the fourth branch of government. It is important to return full power to declare national emergency to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong with final approval resting on the parliament.

The parliament must be developed into a supreme legislative body in the land that is on a par with the executive branch of government. To strengthen it as an independent body, parliamentarians must come from their respective constituencies. Only then can they speak effectively and genuinely about the concerns of their constituents.

Party affiliation is important but should not become the determining factor in the positions of parliamentarians. There should be movement away from “parachute” parliamentarians, which has been the practice in both BN and PH. Further, there should be limits on the number of terms a parliamentarian can serve. That will ensure turnover and the expression of different perspectives. Parliamentarians should also have the resources and institutional capacity to conduct research, formulate policy positions and become experts in specific issues. Only then can the parliament be on a par with the executive branch of government.

Likewise, the judiciary needs to be reformed and strengthened. Impartiality, merit and effectiveness are particularly important for the judiciary, which has to be built anew. An independent and professional judiciary is a prerequisite for effective governance and to check the executive. Entry and exit from the judiciary and its functioning must be free of political interference and be subject to professional regulation. The parliament and judiciary along with the rulers can all check the executive as and when necessary.

Now I come to the civil service, which plays a key role in formulating and implementing government policy. The civil service must be politically neutral and service oriented. It must have the capacity to perform its multiple functions in an effective manner. To enhance its legitimacy and service orientation, the composition of the civil service must reflect that of the society at large.

This should also be the case with the security forces. Reflecting the ethnic approach to nation-making adopted by the BN government, nearly all state institutions have become exclusively or near-exclusively Malay. It is necessary to correct this. More non-

Malays should be recruited by state institutions to reflect the ethnic make-up of the country and career advancement should be based on merit.

My discussion thus far has been limited to the key state institutions that require reform. In general, state institutions must be seen to be legitimate, impartial and effective. Legitimacy derives not only from elections in a democratic system but also from the composition, impartiality and effectiveness. Composition is important especially in a multiracial country like Malaysia.

In a nation in which all citizens have equal rights and obligations, it is crucial that the ethnic make-up of the country is reflected in the composition of all state institutions. State institutions must also be effective and able to deliver. This will create confidence on the part of the public. Both composition and merit are important and Malaysian state institutions must be based on an acceptable mix of the two criteria.

Equally important as reforming state institutions, it is necessary and opportune to review certain legislation that has undermined the rights of citizens as well as that of civil society and the media. The series of security legislation, including the Official Secrets Act, that compromises the rights of citizens and legislation that cripples the freedom of the press should be reviewed and revoked or amended as appropriate. Legislation should also enable the development of a strong broad-based civil society oriented to delivering on its multiple functions and a strong, free media, both of which are vital for the effective functioning and consolidation of democracy in the country.


Consolidating democratic governance

There can be many systems for the acquisition and exercise of state power like democracy, authoritarianism, communism and monarchies. Only democratic systems rely on the principle that sovereignty resides in the people. The public in Malaysia has been exposed to the democratic system and has affirmed its preference for that system. The holding of periodic elections and the outcome of GE14 demonstrate the power of democracy in the country.

Notwithstanding this, democracy in Malaysia has been subject to considerable abuse and in certain respects has become a dictatorship. It is important to rejuvenate democracy in the country. Abuses have occurred at the individual and institutional levels. Individual-level abuses would require the removal of specific individuals as well as investigation into scandals like 1MDB. Institutional reforms discussed in the previous section will also help rejuvenate democracy in the country. In this section, I will focus on preventing abuse.

Most of the abuse before GE14 was committed by the incumbent government in the lead-up to the election. To prevent that, it is important to prefix the election date (every four to five years) and hand over state power to a non-political entity several months (three to six months) before the election date. That will help level the playing field and minimise opportunities for abuse by the incumbent government. Choice of the non-political entity to run the government before a general election is crucial.

The Election Commission, for example, was supposed to be non-political but the leadership of that entity became political and a party to abuse. Regular change in government and the cultivation of non-political persons will help alleviate this problem.

Redelineation of constituencies is necessary but must be done well ahead of the election (at least 12 to 18 months before an election) and a procedure developed for strong oversight by parliament. Delineation of constituencies must accord greater weight to the one-man-one-vote doctrine and less weight to the space consideration. This gets to the deeper problem of how to delineate all constituencies. Not just the new ones. This must be addressed by a special committee.

Democratic governance requires healthy competition for state power. If a PH government continues to dominate politics in the country for more than a decade, it could become another BN. The voting public must have alternatives. To ensure its own survival, BN must reform. It should jettison raced-based politics and genuinely embrace the ideas of a civic nation and a multiracial country. This would also ensure bipartisan support for critical ideas like the civic nation and clean government. The PH government need not wait to win a two-thirds majority before it can amend the constitution. Support for BN and other political parties can telescope this and also ensure there is broad support for amendments to ensure clean government and to jettison race-based politics.

Democratic governance also requires limited government. The PH government already has a vision to limit the power of government, including limiting the tenure of the PM to two full terms. Measures proposed in this column will further limit opportunities for corruption and prevent do-or-die election battles as was the case in GE14.

It should be stated here that the purpose of the democratic system of government is to facilitate the election of a new government. It is not intended to resolve other political, social or economic problems, although elections may bring about a change in government that is more focused on resolving such problems.

My hope is that Malaysia does not have to “seize the moment” often. The rot does not have to go deep before there is a change in government to address these issues. Malaysia should become a healthy democracy in which there is regular genuine competition for state power and become a beacon of hope to other countries in Asia and the world.

Datuk Muthiah Alagappa is Distinguished Scholar in Residence at American University, Washington DC. He was the inaugural holder of the Tun Hussein Onn chair at ISIS Malaysia and was visiting professor at Universiti Malaya from 2014 to 2017. He will be resuming the position in January next year.


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