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Articles, Commentaries, Philosophy, The Edge

Rules of the Road are Best Practices for Good Governance

By Ooi Kee Beng

For The Edge, 30 July 2012

One fantastic thing about globalization is the knowledge easily available to us about how best to do things in any specific field.

This can be about managing a company, educating a child, running a kindergaren, organizing a kitchen, growing a garden, or maintaining your car.

This incredible access to information is also a great spring for inspiration. A virtual world for competitive innovations is created. And so, through globe-spanning dynamics, we are able to develop for any chosen field what are called “best practices”, which can be applied by anyone.

The world is turned into a laboratory because ideas put into practice in one part of the world can be judged by other parts for efficacy and suitability, and adopted. In a real sense, technical practices are successively improved through learning from the faults of others anywhere in the world, and in any field.

But what about good governance? Can we learn from one another in how best to govern a country? Just as important a question to ask is, how is compliance to be inculcated in members of society and how do citizens best contribute to good governance?

The relationship between the maker and the follower of rules is dialectical, to be sure. The one responds to the other while the other adjusts his behaviour accordingly.

Needless to say, governments do study each other, but more often than not, whenever they see some promising innovation that seems to work but that may threaten their world view or their power, they can always find an excuse to abstain from importing it.

However, there is one wide area of governance where see a lot of borrowing, and a lot of streamlining towards what must be called “best practices”. This is in traffic control.

Signage and traffic rules tend not to differentiate between rich and poor, young and old, or man and woman. There is an inherent fairness in that sense. The sign that says No Parking demands that of every driver and every vehicle. A proton must obey as must a Ferrari.

A No Entry sign is not aimed only at bumiputera drivers and not at non-bumiputera drivers, but at all drivers. Breaking the speed limit is not allowed for any driver. The red light means Stop, as does the amber, and the green basically says Don’t Stop.

Now, getting a driving licence involves a process of social learning, just as social life in general does. You learn how to behave. You learn your rights and you learn the rights of others, and you learn how to give way. You learn your duties, at least ideally.

Now this ideal picture provides as peacefully functional a situation as one can hope for in complex societies. We do have here all the requirements of “Best practices” where governance is concerned.

The regulations are clear, simple and easily understood; they can be amended when found to be inadequate; and they apply to all. Controversies are also in principle resolvable, and are often technical in nature. The goal is also obvious—safety on the roads and efficient traffic flow.

Exceptions to rules are no doubt necessary here and there since rules can be too categorical. We do have No Entry signs which may not apply to ambulances or delivery lorries; and we can grade stopping on roads from Parking Allowed, to Waiting Allowed But Not Parking, to No Waiting Allowed. The reason for exceptions is often obvious.

Real trouble starts when exceptions appear through inefficient law enforcement or bribery. When rules need not be obeyed, then they lose legitimacy. When law enforcers can be bought, then the law-breaker calls the shots.

On a related matter, we have all over the last 50 years or so seen anti-littering signs in Malaysian cities, but when have they ever exerted any control over our littering behaviour? I dare say, never. Not since the beginning because there was never any serious enforcement. Same thing goes for traffic rules and for the rule of law in general.

If the process of law-making is dubious through excessive politicking or because of a lack of popular participation; if laws are formulated to serve clearly partisan interests; if laws once passed are not respected by law enforcers themselves, or by the country’s leaders; then one cannot expect citizens to develop respect for them.

Abiding by the law will not become second nature to them. Instead, what develops in them aside from a deep disdain for authority is a culture of looking for shot cuts and a penchant to try to beat the system.
Where road behaviour is concerned, obstructive parking becomes endemic, speeding becomes a common place, the amber light means Hurry Up and not Stop, and the traffic police are just an eternal nuisance to be waved off with a hundred-ringgit bill.

A reliable traffic police is therefore key to good governance. If the public cannot trust its traffic police, it can disregard the rules, and it cannot feel any sense of respect for the country’s governance, not to mention its government.

And the dialectical relationship between top and bottom, instead of going upwards towards more compliant and lawful behaviour, spirals downwards into a disrespect for rules even when these were developed for the obvious good of all.

Good governance is not a difficult thing. We already know how it can be obtained. It is not nuclear science, it is found in the highway code.

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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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