Asia Malaysia’s states & some governance issues

Malaysia’s states & some governance issues

Letter from Kuala Lumpur

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Since the Pakatan Harapan(PH) came to power in May 2018 the overwhelming focus has been on the federal government which operates largely out of Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur. Parliament, the principal federal seat of the Executive and the Judiciary also operate out of these two areas largely and there is a tendency to assess, the sometimes immeasurable, performance of the government, based on statements, slants and statistics issuing out of these places and the kind of media and press coverage these institutions get.

Adoption of Good Governance

The PH Government made it abundantly clear from the beginning that their governance model would represent a radical departure from the previous government’s. The previous government of Dato’ Sri Najib Abdul Razak had been involved in many shady, speculative and kleptocratic activities that could not, at a certain stage, be contained and eventually attracted adverse public and press publicity.

The biggest expose of these illegal activities came initially from foreign sources including the US Department of Justice.

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It would seem that at the highest national level there were extraordinary and essentially illegal excesses that bled, bludgeoned and nearly bankrupted the country’s treasury. At the same time these dubious actions resulted in wrongful gain and burnished the bank balances of some of the perpetrators of these illegal actions.

With almost 21 months in office PH’s mantra of accountability, transparency and good governance has gained credibility and has attained some traction at the federal level.
There has been less focus on state level activities as the financial resources that were lost to fraudulent activities at the federal level were of such astronomical proportions.

Sabah and Sarawak are the not focus of this analysis as those two states are rather unique, sizeable in land area and vary greatly from the states in the peninsula with a lot more autonomy.

State Administration

It would be appropriate to take a peek at the real situation at state level in the Peninsula.
Most, not all, of the state governments were run by political leaders and parties affiliated with the previous prime minister’s political coalition and by PAS. The two exceptions were Penang and Selangor. It would seem that Penang and Selangor maintained a higher level of accountability, transparency and good governance and built up impressive reserves of funds. It would appear that they were also held to a higher level of accountability and scrutiny by federal institutions. It was partly that impressive record that stood them in good stead for the 14th General Election which they won convincingly. GE14 also changed the political configuration and colour of the country completely and brought the country more in sync with these two states’ higher threshold of accountability.

The state of Kelantan recently attracted some attention as their Menteri Besar and his Executive Councillors were each allocated one unit of a Mercedes Benz and a RM50,000 one-off allocation. The state is controlled by the conservative PAS, the nation’s biggest Islamic party.

It is known that there was nothing irregular about the state government of Kelantan providing funds for the acquisition of these premium cars. It was on the basis of a decision made by the state’s executive council. The state appears to have had the funds to purchase these vehicles and there seem to have been some precedents where the marque of cars were concerned.

Are the States’ Land Banks intact?

What needs to be looked at is how the state governments maintain not only accountability, transparency and good governance but also how they adhere to norms of proportionality, reasonableness and justice in governing their states. Practices of states in governance matters vary greatly. The states have at their disposal through their respective unicameral legislature the power to determine emoluments of state assembly persons, the sitting and travelling allowances and other perquisites including loans to purchase their vehicles, housing allowances and entertainment allowances.

Some states also provide miscellaneous allowances to cover donations and payments made to their constituents who face some extraordinary eventualities like a fire or flood. Being in the proximity of their constituency they would be obliged to assist in these situations while awaiting remedial action by the state authorities. These are obligatory functions that a state assembly person cannot avoid.

Ideally all state assembly members should be adequately remunerated and should be able to maintain a reasonable standard of living. It is equally important that state assembly members, including state EXCO members, are not overcompensated. From press reports it would seem that state assembly members draw emoluments and allowances that are lower that than paid to federal members of parliament.

One important asset that state governments have that is not so abundantly available to the federal government is land. The constitution vests power over land administration and local government in the various state authorities. It is known that previously some state executive councils allotted parcels of land to members of state assembly for their services to the state.

Under the Pakatan Harapan government it is not clear if this practice has been discontinued.

In any case with barely a third of the way through their five year term it would seem that it is highly unlikely that land parcels or leases have been offered and accepted by executive council or state assembly members. If this has happened however some inquiry should be held to determine the basis on which such land has been given.

Precedents set by a previous government’s practice should not be used as a basis to do so in the new Malaysia.

Peninsular Malaysia is highly urbanised and more than 80 percent of its population live in urban areas. Land prices have been rising over the years with the development of good infrastructure and connectivity. If states wish to reward their people’s representatives the quantum of land provided must be a one-off affair, it must be made upon the completion of an assembly person’s tenure at the discretion of the succeeding government and the land area should not exceed a normal sized house plot. It should not exceed 10,000 square feet, for instance. If a retired assembly person wishes to apply for bigger residential land the person must be prepared to pay the prevailing market rate for the excess applied for. Such allocations of land should be gazetted in the relevant state’s public documents.

This is a step that has to be taken because members of the state assembly qualify for full pensions after serving a minimum of five years. Civil servants have to serve a minimum of 25 years to qualify for a full pension. Both members of state assemblies and members of parliament also qualify for the best medical treatment at government hospitals.

It would seem that it is unreasonable, disproportionate and unjust to reward elected politicians with so much when able, efficient, dedicated and long serving public servants get so much less for nearly a lifetime of dedicated service.

It would also be appropriate for the federal authorities to counsel state governments on good governance. In order to maintain cordial relations with the states such counselling should be of an advisory rather than an admonitory nature.

Would popular will accept or endorse this transparent action in allowing parcels of land to state assembly members? Should not the state governments be subject to greater scrutiny? Two states, Sabah and Sarawak are several times larger than states in the peninsula and they may be justified in seeking a bigger allocation for their official transportation needs.

M Santhananaban

Dato’ M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore. /TISG

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