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Commentaries, The Edge

Opportunities for governance upgrade in post-pandemic phase

By OOI KEE BENG for The Edge Malaysia, April 4-10, 2022

A health pandemic hits society as a whole and therefore the lessons to be learnt from Covid-19 are many; more specifically, it tells us things about how society is organised or unorganised, whether it is managed with resilience in mind — in recognition of the unexpected and the unpredictable — and to what extent our system of governance is just an ad hoc structure in reality, and to what extent it is an efficient, reliable and professional organisation.

Some countries were already in a governance crisis before Covid, and I would place Malaysia among them. In some ways, Malaysian politics survives on maintaining an unending sense of crisis, in one way or another.

Setting a majority community against minorities necessarily perpetuates a sense of crisis and conflict that is useful to many political careers.

Whichever the case, the Covid crisis did come at exactly the same time that the country was already in a new self-generated political crisis. In fact, the country’s being threatened by the virus gave the new government that took power in February 2020 much breathing space. The elected Pakatan Harapan government from 2018, shocked both by its sudden demise and by the pandemic, was unable to strategise its way back into power despite the highly dubious manner in which it was toppled in early 2020.

Over the subsequent months, the excessive politicking that went on in Malaysia — and that would continue throughout the next two years while humankind experienced one of its worst disasters in modern times — turned the political class in the country into a pariah breed.

That public disgust with the old system ran, and still runs, deep. The Malaysian public believes that the way their country is organised is self-damaging, lackadaisical and irretrievably held captive by political games.

As record floods hit the country at the end of 2021, the sorry lack of state capacity and competence became fully undeniable, and even more painful. Even those who represent the status quo now talk about “new narratives”.

Technocrats before bureaucrats

From there, I would conclude that most Malaysians post-pandemic would agree that policymaking in Malaysia has to change, and in fundamental ways.

First of all, the narrative-­creating dominance of the political class needs curbing.

The federal administration requires more technocratic input at all stages for narrow political considerations to be minimised. With years of growing bureaucratisation and centralisation in government, a symbiosis between the highly bureaucratic civil service and increasingly overrated political class has come to define Malaysian life.

In all likelihood, the sidelining of technocrats in Malaysia’s political regime started with the privatisation drive of the Mahathir years and the resultant de-technocratisation of the civil service.

How is one to reverse this process now? The protracted pandemic, I would venture, provides the occasion for that to happen. The public mood is for less politics and more nation-building. A quick solution to this is for a nation-building leader to appear who dares to transform and reform the regime. That, however, is naïve. No such thing will happen, not in a long while.

What we have left to work with, then, is for the federal government to start a conscious process to reinject technocratic processes into governance. Not only is the public mood supportive of this, but digitalisation possibilities to transform the whole concept of governance are also now available. In fact, adoption of the latter is inevitable.

The process in itself is theoretically simple — invest in digital infrastructure, digital software and digital literacy. Train and employ technocrats, enhance technocratic procedures in governance again, and balance them against the position of bureaucrats and politicians.

Transforming public discourse

To understand the situation from another angle, one could also consider the fact that the subduing of academics and journalists since the 1970s allowed for politicising and polarising discourse to dominate Malaysian minds. Malaysian society as a whole is still paying the cost of this decades-long control over social thought, broken today only because of the internet.

Policymaking based on research and reliable data is not really possible unless you have technocrats strongly embedded and influential in the civil service again, who can appreciate the technicalities needed for proper and long-term policy thinking and policymaking, and the revolutionary technologies at hand.

Instead of developing “the nation”, we should first and foremost be developing “the state”. Since we are talking about the federation of Malaysia, building the state boils down in reality to the developing of federalism, something sadly ignored over the last few decades in favour of central control.

There are very fundamental reasons for Malaysia’s birth as a federation. Making full use of that structure and maximising efficacy within that federal structure should be a major policy consideration going forward. Having social harmony, economic prosperity and political stability in the country depends on the country finding a balance between central control and subnational efficacy.

An interesting new political trend moving in sync with federal devolution is the holding of an increasing number of state elections separate from the federal elections. What this will mean is that state concerns and state-level politics, along with state voters’ more immediate and local sentiments, will be receiving more space in political discourse and will not be as badly overshadowed as before by federal politics and federal-centric excuses.

Furthermore, real change tends to be generational, and UNDI18 signals an acceleration of that dynamic in the coming decade.

Lastly, what the pandemic should also have taught us is that Malaysia’s self-image needs to be more globally oriented than before. The health and well-being of the country cannot be left to external powers, be they governments or giant corporations. Having a larger say in world affairs — be it through Asean, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) or other world bodies — is a security issue as well as an economic one.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. This article is based on a speech given at IDEAS’ 12th Anniversary Outlook Conference: Policymaking in the Post-Pandemic World, held on March 9.

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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