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

Governments and Citizens – Who Should be Grateful to Whom?

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By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial in Penang Monthly, October 2013

An important issue that should surface during coming debates about the impending Goods and Services Tax (GST) is how it affects the basic relation between the government and the Rakyat.

The curse of having ample natural resources – which Malaysia has suffered from to a considerable extent – is the mentality and culture developed among politicians and civil servants that taxes – and thus citizens – are not really essential to its budgetary balance. In fact, in such a situation, citizens are perceived more often as just a cost item and not a source of income, and therefore without a right to demand accountability of the government.

This then means that the government is more the definer of the identity of the country than its citizens are. And so, when such a government is challenged, it sees the situation as a threat to the country.

A citizenry that is taught to believe that the good things in life depend on the goodwill and generosity of the government will turn a blind eye to bad governance to a degree that is shocking to citizens of countries where the government is instead answerable to its tax-paying citizenry.

Subsidies and grants in Malaysia may have, in many cases, had good redistribution effects, but have become a permanent fixture. Today, their function is not only to secure votes for the government, but also to inculcate a feudal sense of gratitude among citizens. What has developed is a patronage-based prejudicial system of government which now faces huge deficit problems.

If a government is instead one that is significantly dependent on taxes from its citizens to finance the machinery of the state, then it will have to be more accountable for how it manages the national coffers.

We are already seeing clear signs that wageworkers in urban settings – whatever their ethnic background – are harder to incorporate into traditional patronage-based politics. They tend to be more concerned that the government actually handles collective funds efficiently, lawfully and with a clear sense of justice. What a government grateful to the citizenry has to do to stay in power would be to win respect for its ability to foster peace, progress and justice.

A change for the better is indeed coming as more and more Malaysians become wage earners and live in cities. Their traditional sense of loyalty and gratitude to a patronage-based – patronising, really – state weakens, and in its place must naturally come the opposite sentiment: the government should be grateful to them, not them to it.

As citizen understanding of politics becomes increasingly such that state and federal governments are managers of the country’s economy, then the electoral strategies of political parties will become radically different from what they have been. Buying votes will become a clear sign of bad governance and be tantamount to bad management of national finances. Parties will have to compete instead on management skills.

The question in the end is not one of more or less taxes, but whether these are fairly and efficiently collected and used.

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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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