My Say: Excessive governance is not good governance

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 3 - 9, 2016.


The word “governance” has the same roots as “government”. However, the recent popularity of the use of “governance” comes from the growing notion of looking at political control as a technical matter, and of an increasing tendency to think of the government — and governing — as the management and managing of a country.

We should also be aware that governance seems more at home in the context of corporations, and in line with that, the word assumes the existence of the entity to be unproblematic — be it a state or a corporation.

For countries and states that are relatively new, and that are still being “built”, the increasing usage of governance may be in response to the initial and, over time, excessive focus on the notion of nation building rather than on state building.

Governance as a notion necessarily highlights rules and regulations, technocratic mechanisms and corrective procedures. Except where security is a concern, it is of great advantage that information is free and reliable since policies have to be based on them — as are punishments.

So what constitutes good governance on the part of a national government?

I would deconstruct the term into the following related processes:

1. State building — developing and maintaining the apparatus of the state;

2. Nation building — managing inter-ethnic ties, developing a sense of national belonging and handling extra-national relations;

3. National economy building — integrating economic activities within the country, managing budget income and expenditure and investing for growth and economic stability;

4. Improving the socio-economic situation of the citizenry and maintaining the promise of a stable and better future; and

5. Managing the relationship between state and citizenry (rakyat), such that security and justice, freedom from fear and protection from arbitrary power are maximised.

Each of these involve complicated and often strongly interlinked itineraries. The focus differs from country to country and from regime to regime, and necessarily shifts over time as well.

The important point being made here is that the historical context of any given case must be considered in deciding what good governance is and is not.

Where building a state is concerned, the focus is mainly on technocratic capability and legal reliability. Building a nation, which is the more commonly adopted notion, deals more with the emotive aspects of social harmony and with matters of identity. Here, the areas for contention and contestation are many and are most open to politicisation.

Building a national economy today, must involve the global economy. No man is an island and no economy can grow on its own. Modern China is a case in point. Despite its size, its economic development really began only with the opening up of its workforce to the international community and it was the need to facilitate international trade that brought many of its present institutions and its legal system into being. In that important sense, China’s state building and nation building have, since 1980, been tied to the building of its national economy through international trade.

The income gap and the high level of corruption which ensued have now come to threaten China’s continued growth, and so, reforms to achieve a higher level of governance have become necessary. These reforms seek to curb corruption and lessen the income gap while trying to broaden the basis for the country’s economic development.

The size of the income gap measures in an effective way the socio-economic situation of the citizenry. Keeping the population fed is one thing, but just as important is the need to provide the present and next generation with hope for a good future.

Whether or not governance through all these simultaneous processes is good has to be judged from its historical situation. The concrete context in which a society finds itself in terms of social cohesion, economic dynamism and state capacity decides what needs doing, and what needs doing in that context would decide what policies are considered good.

Having said that, it should be noted that contexts are never static and good policies would therefore not merely be reactive but also normative and forward-looking. Furthermore, differences of historical context tend also to be overplayed, often for political reasons. At the technical level, good governance is not rocket science, and much can in fact be learned by governments from each other.

In conclusion, let me say that a discussion on good governance often errs in focusing too much on government action, and not enough on the capacity of individuals and the ability of society to arrive at solutions that are for the common good. The state is not the only actor in society.

To push the point further, relying too much on the state and the government would lead to a preference for micromanagement. Now, micromanaging the behaviour of individuals and groups may be necessary for short periods under threatening conditions. But as a model for state or nation building, it is bad governance indeed.

Ooi Kee Beng is the deputy director of ISEAS — Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. His recent books include Merdeka for the Mind: Essays on Malaysian Struggles in the 21st Century.