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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

The Longest Journey Starts with the First Step

By Ooi Kee Beng [Editorial in Penang Monthly July 2012]

The conference organized by Penang Institute and held on 25th June 2012 at the famed Eastern & Oriental Hotel is interesting for many reasons outside of all the fascinating things said by the impressive row of speakers.

The participants were certainly an impressive lot, and included prominent leaders from Laos, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and even China. The keynote speaker was Mr Abhisit Vejjajiva, the former prime minister of Thailand, the luncheon speaker was Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, co-chairperson of the Bersih 2.0 Steering Committee, and the closing remarks were made by Penang’s Chief Minister Mr Lim Guan Eng.


However, it is the title of the conference that I find stimulating—ASEAN Coalition for Clean Government. This is going to be a conference series, and Mr Lim Guan Eng, who is also the chairman of conference organizer Penang Institute, must rightly be given credit for getting the inaugural one off the ground.


ASEAN is of course officially set on becoming a community at three levels – economic, socio-cultural and political. As we know, pressure from the speedy growth of China and India was what forced ASEAN to drop airy-fairy talk and face reality; and so in 2006, the organization decided to aim for economic integration by 2015 instead of 2020.


Although the earlier date only serves to make ASEAN’s ambition seem all the more unrealistic, the state of Penang did definitely feel a major welcome change when the Open Skies policy was actually implemented in January 2009. Being strongly connected to airports in major cities in the region meant that the tourism trade received a tremendous boost, aided by the UNESCO Heritage Listing and the people’s sense of empowerment on voting out the old government.


On the back of initiatives to integrate the region economically, other measures that go beyond trade connectivity and that seek cultural impulse and intellectual inspiration from within the region had to follow sooner or later.


Now, coalitions in this context connotes willingness on the part of the actors involved to collaborate without waiting for the often idealistic conditions that are needed for proper integration to happen or for a sense of community to grow.


Something analogous can be said for the choice of the phrase “clean governance” instead of the more common “good governance”. Indeed, before one can talk about the many conditions that must ideally be in place before we can have good governance, we should first strive for “clean governance”, meaning a public administration that not only does not break or bend laws, but also works towards formulating laws that are transparent and that seek fairness in society.


In a word, fighting corruption is the first step in achieving good governance further down the road, just like coalitions can pave the way to mutual understanding. Good governance, in truth, requires much more than the absence of corruption. It requires sincerity, competence and transparency in absorbing feedback from the public; in formulating policies and in implementing them.



About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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