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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Decentralise Political Accountability and Public Funding

For The Edge, Malaysia
September 29, 2013
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A popular confession often voiced by Malaysians is that they as a nation lack a sense of maintenance, especially of public goods. House-proud they may be; nation-proud they wish very much to be; but upkeep of their surroundings is not something they take to intuitively.

The combination of the sense that maintenance is somebody else’s responsibility with the feeling of insignificance that one’s little contribution really doesn’t make a difference, would explain much of this.

But is this disregard for the need for maintenance—and good public services in general—something that the country should continue to take for granted? I think not.

Most things are changeable if done right.

Something that surprised many back in 2008-2009 was how the gradual ban on the use of plastic bags in Penang—in itself quite a simple measure—very quickly led to the city looking much cleaner. And the effect was not only due to the greater absence of plastic bags on streets. There was something more. The measure taken by the new state government—whether or not it was populistic does not matter—got the public to start thinking about their long-lived habits of littering.

Suffering the inconvenience of bringing their own bags to shops made sense only if they also acted to limit littering in general. And so, the effect of the simple measure was greater than had been expected.

This reminds us that the job of political leadership is to inspire not only the right type of behavior in the public but in the work ethics of the civil service as well. Trying to fix everything by oneself without trying to inspire one’s followers is the mark of a bad leader.

However, the ability to inspire in itself is seldom enough for a leader to initiate positive changes and responsible habits. Structural and institutional innovations are also necessary, and are preferably carried out simultaneously.

Now, there is one subtle difference between the streets of Kuala Lumpur and those of key Asian cities such as Singapore or Hong Kong.

What exhibits the pride—or the lack of pride—in a city is the condition of the in-between spaces. Hotels, shopping malls, residences and offices, not to mention places of worship, tend to display pride of ownership. But the test lies in the condition of the spaces in between.

In Kuala Lumpur, which is indeed a city vibrant and exciting enough to match any in the region, the spaces between buildings never really live up to the high standard of upkeep maintained in the buildings themselves. There is an embarrassing gap between what private interests are willing to maintain and what the public sector is able to provide. That gap measures the standard of local governance in the area.

Japanese aesthetics has a concept for in-between spaces—it is called ma. According to it, what is between A and B is not without relevance. On the contrary, that space decides totally how A and B are to be considered and are experienced.

Putting energy, thought and resources into maintaining in-between spaces is how pride in one’s city and one’s surrounding is made apparent. A clean house immediately surrounded by rubbish is not the sign of a house-proud household. If it were, painting masterpieces wouldn’t have to be so expensively framed. The frame is part of the picture.

Now, to cut to the chase, how do we jolt into being an upsurge of interest in the maintenance of our surroundings?

While revisiting Stockholm recently, I noted how well surroundings around residences or offices are planned and maintained, and how conveniently services are designed and integrated.

How this has been achieved, I believe, is quite easy to see. Sweden has three layers of income taxation, and the taxes collected stay at the level at which they are taxed, and are pumped back into services required at that level. These three levels are also the three levels at which popular elections take place.

Every fourth year, the Swede votes at the communal, the provincial and the state levels, and the taxes he or she pays every year go to these separate levels. The progressive tax system means that those earning low incomes pay only communal and provincial taxes.

This combination of clear accountability and short-distance funding of service stimulates a strong culture supporting the maintenance of immediate surroundings. And since taxes are so clearly ploughed back into public services, the willingness to pay taxes among common Swedes is surprisingly high.

In the Malaysian context, what needs to happen is a democratization of the providing and a decentralization of the funding of public services. Those responsible for providing public services have to be accountable to the public and to taxpayers at the local level.

Contractors providing public services should fear the criticism of the public instead of the long-distance interest of dispensers of patronage at the centre of national political power.

So even if local elections are not brought back into Malaysian politics any time soon, the funding and responsibility for providing services should be brought down to the local level, and concretized there.

This is a measure that gets easier the more urbanized the population becomes. Since Malaysia is certainly urbanizing, the conditions for a change on this front are in place.



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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