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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Multi-tiered governments are unavoidable


For THE EDGE Malaysia, May 31-June 6 2015 (titled “Democracy is Necessarily Multi-tiered”


It is time we pay careful attention to the essential multi-tieredness of democracy. Democracy is in essence much more than simply the electing of a central government. It is about electing representatives at different levels in order to fulfill society’s different needs most optimally.

But what is the optimal distance between voter and representative?

The short answer is, it depends. It depends on what the issues are. On matters of defence, it seems reasonable to have resources centrally commanded and deployed. On matters such as waste collection, rubbish recycling, or tree pruning, the local government would be best placed to deliver and to be accountable. And in a large enough country, there is a need for a middle level to handle a host of other issues.

Let me take the case of Sweden. It is hard to find a more rationally run governmental structure than in this Scandinavian country. Being an advanced economy, it has accummulated a formidable repertoire of laws, rules and regulations for most contingencies.

It’s democracy is seriously three-levelled. I say ‘seriously’ because the heavy taxes collected from its 9.7 million citizens are collected from the bottom up. At the lowest level, the tax level is decided by the elected representatives and these are used by the Commune Government for local matters such as snow-ploughing and rubbish collection and sorting. Child care too is managed at that level.

And then there is the provincial level, which takes only a couple of percentage points in taxes as funding for transport and health care services. Higher earners pay state taxes for the use of the central government, who takes care of matters like defence. Many matters, such as schooling, are a shared responsibility.

What we have in Sweden, in short, is a three-tier democracy with taxes ear-marked for each tier. That way, accountability for specific public services is easily ascertained, and it becomes somewhat harder to hide incompetence and wrong-doing within a faceless and opaque bureaucracy.

Malaysia used to have a three-tier democracy as well, until local governments were stopped in 1965 and then forbidden in the 1970s. Since then, there have been the federal elections and the state elections. Whether that was to make the system more effective or simply to centralise power is is hotly debated. What is undeniable is that the government acted to abolish local elections against the recommendations of its own Royal Commission of Enquiry to Investigate inte the Workings of Local Authorities in West Malaysia.

The centralisation of governance in Malaysia has been going on since the Second Malaysia Plan (1971-1975), and the federal government has over the years managed a slow but steady capture of all the 13 states, excepting Kelantan. This continued to be the case until the 2008 elections, when five states were lost to Putrajaya. It quickly grabbed back one – Perak – and then another – Kedah –in the 2013 elections. But the three that remain lost to it are quite beyond its ability to regain in the foreseeable future.

Malaysia thus makes a good case study for how democratic struggles take place between the centre and lower levels. This inherent tension within a country, especially those with a democratic structurei, is generally ignored because we tend to think of democracy as a national-level matter.

And yet, most issues that affect us on a daily basis, like traffic lights working or rubbish being collected, and tap water being available or buses running, are best run at the local level, and those responsibilities for these utilities and services are most easily held accountable at the practicably lowest level.

This vertical struggle within any large country is evident throughout Southeast Asia today. Indonesia had to immediately decentralise after the fall of Suharto in order not to break apart into different countries instead. In Myanmar, the military is trying to loosen its grip on power for the sake of economic growth and to limit Chinese influence, and finds that its biggest challenge is the multi-ethnic nature of the country’s population. Some form of power-sharing between ethnic groups are necessary if the countrys’ reforms are to succeed.

And then we have Thailand, where the political power of Bangkok has since the early 2000s been successfully challenged by the country’s northwestern and northern provinces. To resolve the tension, the military stepped in last year to stop the disunion, if not to heal it. One wonders at this point if the country is in fact sliding into a Suharto-style dictatorship where a military leader puts on civilian clothes to remain dictator.

We thus see that Malaysia’s political divisions are not unique to the region. Either we depend on a Suharto-style dictatorial grip on power to provide development, or we proceed with our democratic system. If the latter, and we wish for efficiency in the use of resources, accountability and transparency on the part of government, and participation from citizens, then the answer must lie in accepting the multi-tieredness of democracy and in devolving power and the right of taxation accordingly.


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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