I WOULD like to support the call made by the Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan at a recent function in Kuala Lumpur regarding the decentralisation of federal powers to the states.
In his speech at the book launch to honour Datuk Seri Hishamudin Yunus, the former Appeal Court judge, for his integrity in upholding the independence of the judiciary, His Royal Highness stated that by transferring more powers to the states and giving them more autonomy to run their own administration, this will complement the various measures which the Pakatan Harapan government is introducing to make Malaysia a better and stronger democracy.
In developed countries, regional and local governments have a lot of autonomy in the administration and delivery of public services to meet the daily needs of their population, as they believe that such services can be more efficiently managed at the lower levels of government.
State authorities are closer to the ground compared with the central ministries and departments, and therefore they can respond to community priorities better and faster than the ministers and bureaucrats in the capital.
The fundamental principle is that in a democracy, especially in a nation comprising a federation of states, the responsibility for managing the country should be shared between the centre and the states so that there are checks and balances on the powers of government. A central government that is too powerful can lead to unhealthy and unethical practices in political patronage with state politicians feeling they are obliged to be nice to those who control the purse strings at the centre to get more projects for their states or districts.
Some argue against decentralisation saying that for developing countries trying to catch up for lost time, it’s better for all administrative and financial powers of government to be concentrated at the centre to ease decision making. They also argue that for Malaysia, decentralisation may lead to some states going entirely on a separate journey based on race or religion. There is also the fear that by giving states more powers of autonomy and self-governing, some sultans may revert to feudal ways to interfere in state matters.
Such fears are unfounded because by virtue of the Federal Constitution, all states are bound by federal law on the basic principles of justice and by the constitutional definition of federal and state responsibilities. Thus, no state can have hudud law unless authorised by federal parliamentary legislation. Or no state can raise external loans without federal approval.
All powers of national peace and security, and the defence of the country against external aggression, as well as its foreign policy, are in the hands of the central government in any federal structure.
In every country, the federal government always has the most powers in taxation and the largest control over the country’s revenue.
While it is important to have a strong central government, it is also essential for it to be more democratic to facilitate greater autonomy in the administration of state and local governments.
For this, it should consider revising the formula for the statutory per capita and road maintenance grants to transfer a higher share of the national revenue to the state treasuries.
This will require legislative amendments, which should be done with conditions to ensure state transparency and accountability in exposing abuses such as recalcitrant mentris besar and chief ministers spending the extra revenue on glittering sports stadiums, royal palaces or overseas travel with free passage for wives and children.
State governments should also be forbidden to use the revenue to set up more state-owned enterprises or GLCs as there are statistics from the research done by a University of Malaya professor showing that state-owned GLCs are more political than those at the federal level, especially in the appointment of board chairmen and directors, and in the award of contracts.
State land, mineral, forestry, river and marine resources are also being depleted due to fraud and lack of integrity in the issuance of licences and permits to the privileged class.
A state which allows destructive exploitation of its natural resources at the expense of the future generation should be penalised by cutting off federal funding for its budget.
It should also be made a condition to states that they should produce a road map to show how they are going to reduce their GLCs, many of which are directly interfering in the commercial sector, competing with private businesses and displacing genuine entrepreneurs from the market place.
The public is concerned because at the end of the day, when they make losses, these are covered by fresh injections of capital from Mentri Besar Incorporated, or MB Inc, thus diverting state resources from productive purposes.
State revenue should be used directly for public good on services to enhance the quality of life in the rural and urban communities.
Beside the usual capital expenditures on roads, water supply, drainage, irrigation, flood mitigation, states should also spend more on the environment and on enforcing health regulations to ensure cleanliness in their cities and towns, especially in eating places.
Wet markets, hawker centres, public parks, parking lots, recreational and cultural centres, libraries, museums heritage sites, etc – these kinds of local services can be better planned and implemented at the state and district levels than at far away Putrajaya. State governments can do all this if they have more revenue.
The federal government can help the states become more active partners in the development of the country through decentralisation.
This will ensure stability in the development of the economy and continuity in improving the people’s welfare in that if there is political disfunctioning at the centre, the states and local authorities can still continue to operate because they have the autonomy over resources to carry on as usual whatever the power struggles in Putrajaya.
We should be like the UK or US – whatever happens in No. 10 Downing Street or the White House, the country carries on as usual because their regional and state governments are self-governing in all matters that affect daily life in cities, towns and rural areas.
Malaysia should review our federal-state relations to place more fiscal and administrative responsibility on state and local governments in governing the country. This responsibility will set in motion a process of accountability among the elected officials at the lower levels of government, thus bringing our democracy closer to the grassroots.
Its a process that will create more interest among the public in what their neighbourhood politicians are doing in office, thereby making democracy a living reality for the people who elect them in state and local elections.