Building Pakatan states

Three visible themes emerged from the recent Pakatan Rakyat Menteri Besar/Chief Minister Summit: some forms of decentralisation are a must for Malaysia to move forward; there is plenty of room for collaborative efforts among the Pakatan states, especially in the face of a “hostile” federal government; and, for the states to leapfrog, one must see beyond national borders to engage regional neighbours.

On Nov 29, mentris besar, chief ministers and officials from the states governed by Pakatan Rakyat, namely, Kedah, Kelantan, Penang and Selangor (and nominally Perak), met in Shah Alam to look into ways for closer integration. The first of such meetings was held in Alor Setar in January 2009. From now on, it has been resolved that the Mentris Besar and Chief Ministers will meet quarterly while the officials will meet more frequently.

Finding ways to circumvent the stranglehold of the federal government on the Pakatan states was a major theme.

Decentralisation is a worldwide phenomenon as tight central planning has been proven to stifle local agency in economic development and improvements in quality of life. While other countries like Indonesia have to “build the ship while sailing it” in its decentralisation process, Malaysia is centralising by day despite being blessed with a federal framework. States control land and resources, local governance and religion. Even in these limited areas which are clearly the states’ prerogatives, there are endless attempts to federalise them, especially sewerage, solid waste and water.

While nominally a federation, Malaysia’s central government is more powerful than most of its counterparts in a unitary system. Provincial governments in Communist Vietnam and China have far more power than ours. For instance, the federal budget for 2011 is RM214 billion, while all state budgets combined do not exceed 10% of the federal figure. Penang’s budget for 2011 is RM897 million while Selangor’s is RM1.43 billion. The states often receive less than 5% of federal tax collected in their own states in the form of federal grants. No major infrastructure work can be done without federal funding.

Further, the federal government through the Public Services Commission has a major say in the appointment of civil servants in Selangor and Penang, while Pakatan governments in formerly unfederated Malay states, namely Kedah and Kelantan, face other problems with their respective state civil services.

The New Economic Model Part I made clear the recommendation for decentralisation, which unfortunately seems to disappear in the recently launched “concluding” volume. The Economic Transformation Programme and other federal planning documents make scant references in passing to the role of state governments as if there are of little relevance.

Necessity is the mother of all invention. In the context of a central government showing no sign of pursuing a successful federal system, collaboration among Pakatan states is imperative. The Pakatan MB/CM recognised the need to collaborate and for mutual learning among the states, especially in areas like water, tourism, investment, and local governance.

Penang’s water is the best managed in Malaysia and the academy of Penang’s Perbadanan Bekalan Air trains water technicians from various states in Malaysia and water authorities in Indonesia. Surely it has something to offer other states. It is only logical that Kedah and Penang build synergies in tourism, especially between Penang and Langkawi, while the varied levels of development in these states mean that attracting investment is not necessarily a competitive exercise. There is plenty of room for complimentary collaborations.

It is worth mentioning that Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim, Menteri Besar of Selangor, committed RM10 million to a “club deal” to set up an investment fund for Pakatan states. Datuk Husam Musa of Kelantan spoke about the possibilities of an inter-state rail to link Kelantan to Penang for greater connectivity.

Local governance is another area where a common stance or at least understanding among Pakatan Rakyat states is important. In the face of the federalisation — the most imminent concerns solid waste management — Pakatan States need a coordinated stance. Improving local democracy and good governance is another shared goal.

The Kelantan government was able to survive in hostile circumstances for two decades in part because it has a formidable communication machinery dedicated to informing its citizens that is not matched elsewhere. Other Pakatan states can replicate it.

Looking beyond national borders for regional collaborations is another theme. All Pakatan states are keenly aware that their answer to the federal stranglehold is to build stronger ties with the regional market. Kelantan’s efforts in attracting investments from China have shown some results. Likewise Penang, Kedah and Selangor are all aware of the opportunities presented by Indonesia, India and China.

Moving forward, issues like sustainable and liveable cities, as well as civil service reform, in my view, deserve further attention.

Nonetheless, this is a landmark summit in heralding new patterns of growth in Malaysia based on decentralisation, inter-state collaborations and stronger external regional ties.

Liew Chin Tong is the member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera. Pakatan Rakyat will hold its convention on Sunday.

This article appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, December 16, 2010.

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