Good Politics as a Force for Positive Change

I recently spoke to a group of DAP local councillors with DAP Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng and DAP National Organising Secretary Anthony Loke. I told them that as representatives of the local governments, not only do they have the insurmountable task of taking care of the needs of their respective communities, they also shoulder the responsibilities of deciphering the visions and ambitions of the state government and the DAP to people on the ground.  

During the talk, I highlighted that one of the major challenges one has to deal with as a local councillor or at every level of government is to find unified purposes for a particular government. Governments around the world are not immune to silos, turf wars and the syndrome of the left-hand-not-knowing-what-the-right-hand-is-doing. 

But for any governments to achieve significant results, they have to “vaccinate” against this compartmentalised approach.

Unifying the silos and giving them a common purpose is a must for political leaders. It’s not easy and requires enormous political will, but it must be done if we care about the end results for the people.

Good politicians vs Bad politicians

There is a widespread but peculiar notion that societies do not need politicians. Some even argue that politicians should not be in local councils. Just appoint professionals, they say. But, I beg to differ.

In any society, political leaders are necessary to chart the long-term course of a nation, while at the same time attempting to safely navigate impending treacherous waters. Good politicians are agents for change who can lead the party, the constituents and the public to set agenda and to adapt to the ever-changing scenario.  

The primary role of a good leader is not just to manage daily occurrences but to set policies with short and long-term consequences. Leaders are more than managers. Leaders who spend too much time micro-managing would likely see the tree but miss the woods.

There are of course all types of politicians, just like how we have all types of people in general. Some can be self-serving and have sub-par performance. But there are many with convictions and genuinely want to do good for the nation and her people. Even if we ever get rid of all politicians, politics will still be all around us whether we like it or not.    

KPIs

I also emphasised to the councillors that one should be less concerned about KPIs (key performance indexes) for the sake of KPIs. If not marked against improving the well-being of the people, most KPIs are just for shiok sendiri.

This brought me back to the time when Tan Sri Koh Tsu Koon was first appointed as Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s KPI minister in 2009 after losing Penang on 8 March 2008. I was seated at the same table with Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, Datuk Seri Chet Singh who built the Penang industrial area from nothing, as well as Tsu Koon. Chet said with Chong Eu echoing, “Forget about the KPI, Tsu Koon! The most important KPI is the election.”

Similarly, at the end of the day, the most important mission of a government is the long-term well-being of the public and not mere KPIs, which are often drafted without any correlation with realities. Election is an important gauge of the general mood of the public. It would be the final indicator if we managed to win the hearts and minds of the public.

The DAP should be at the forefront promoting the idea of an activist government, a competent government with empathy as its core value.

The government we run must be one that feels the pulse, the pain, the desires and the aspirations of the people. We must be seen and felt as a government that cares deeply for the people and their long-term interests.

Post-Covid-19, the government we run must also show that it is one that focuses on science-based and evidence-based policymaking. We must be able to also convince the people with facts and not mere emotions or false beliefs. We have to be a government that the people can trust.

Cross-cutting agenda

In my talk, I also outlined five key cross-cutting agendas that all local governments with DAP’s participation should champion. In many ways, these are also urgent national agendas. 

First, jobs

There is no other economic agenda more important than good jobs with decent pay for Malaysians. Those who only focus on investment figures would soon find that investments that do not create jobs are politically meaningless and irrelevant to the ordinary folks. We must put good jobs with decent pay as the No 1 agenda.

When DAP and our allies won Penang, one of the most consequential acts of then Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng was to gradually remove garbage collection contractors in Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai (MPSP) which were mostly cronies that hired foreign workers. 2,500 contract jobs were created for Malaysians with a take-home pay of around RM1,900 per month. Taking a cue from this initiative, I urge all DAP reps across the states to emulate this effort and push the federal government to pay contract workers directly, without middlemen, as much as we can. 

Local councillors should do their best to help enforce laws that provide decent housing for foreign workers (Act 446 (Amendment) 2019 on Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities). There is a responsibility to explain to businesses, especially big factories, that if they do not comply with the laws on decent housing for foreign workers, Covid-19 and other diseases could rage through their facilities, which would end up costing far more in unwanted damages. Further, modern slave labour laws in United States, United Kingdom, Australia and other countries, are prohibiting trade with businesses that mistreat workers. For businesses, the reputational costs of sticking with the current way of working are mounting. The benefit of getting all businesses to provide decent housing to foreign workers is also to create jobs for Malaysians. The reason why the cost of hiring foreign workers is arbitrarily low compared to that of hiring Malaysians is partly because foreign workers are forced to live in accommodations that Malaysians won’t want to live in. Equalizing the accommodation cost would mean making hiring Malaysians a more sensible choice.  

Second, green agenda and climate change

DAP should be at the forefront of championing climate change prevention and mitigation. All DAP local councillors should be agents for change and the leading voices in this country to promote green consciousness and also to do everything possible to contribute to lowering emissions.

Yeo Bee Yin was Malaysia’s first ever minister responsible for climate change and we should be very proud of this fact. We need to educate governments and the public that investing in emissions reduction is actually creating green jobs and better infrastructure for all. For instance, the Penang island streetlights owned by the council are all LED lights which are energy saving. The local council, working with contractors, actually saves on electricity bills while contributing to energy conservation. Imagine if all government offices and streetlights across the nation undergo a similar exercise. When we mandate that all such businesses that receive contracts could only hire Malaysians, we would be generating growth and more jobs for them. The only entity that may lose out temporarily would be TNB, which should have a new set of goals anyway. TNB’s objective shouldn’t be about selling electricity. It should be about powering the nation with the least energy wastage.

We should also be at the forefront of promoting public transport and helping to reduce the need to own private cars.

Third, community building

Over the past half century, in Malaysia’s rush to urbanisation, we created two major problems. The urban centres are full of slums – some are high rise slums – which are in poor conditions for families and ordinary people, some of them moving from small towns to look for jobs. Local councils should do a lot more to help make these low-cost flats or mass slums to improve their conditions and build genuine community spirit and lives there. In the rush to migrate to urban centres, small towns are dying with less and less young people. For instance, most small towns in northern and central Johor do not have enough jobs for young people to return home to. It is time for those who run local councils to do more to build back pride and identity for small towns and to make an extra effort to create jobs or business opportunities for young people to return to small towns.

The local councils also have to work really hard to think through their built environment and social support in anticipation of an aging society. 

Fourth, women’s agenda

DAP should be the most progressive party in the nation when it comes to gender equality.

For local councils, a lot could be done to promote gender inclusiveness. For instance, local councils can help facilitate childcare and aged care in the community so that more women can be in the workforce for a longer period of their lives.

Local councils can also play a major role in ensuring a safe city for women and children, and of course for all. 

Fifth, digital agenda

There are two parts to the digital agenda. First, the infrastructure and equal access. Second, the use of data in management and daily lives.

We must push ahead for better digital equity in this nation to ensure children from poor families have equal access as others to digital devices and the internet at the cheapest possible rate, especially when they have to do online learning during the pandemic. Local councils can play a role here.

Also, in the management of the local councils, more should be digitalised to ensure efficiency and also eliminate silos as much as we can. Local councils should also help to digitalise the daily lives of ordinary citizens as much as possible.

To conclude, we need activist, competent and empathetic governments at all levels, which exemplify good politics, as part of a collective force for positive change. In this regard, DAP politicians including local councillors can do wonders if we keep in mind our unified purpose and are armed with a common set of agendas for the benefit of ordinary Malaysians.

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