By Ding Jo-Ann
WHAT has the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) Selangor government achieved after two and a half years in power? If one relied on traditional media reports or Umno’s “Save Selangor” roadshow, the answer may well be, “Not very much”.
But the reality is much more nuanced, as demonstrated in the book The Road to Reform: Pakatan Rakyat in Selangor, a compilation of articles by academics, activists and politicians on Selangor’s performance.
Selangor’s achievements and struggles since taking power in March 2008 are summarised fairly comprehensively in The Road to Reform, published by Strategic Information and Research Development Centre (SIRD). Edited by Selangor Menteri Besar’s research officer Tricia Yeoh, it provides a broad overview of how Malaysia’s “richest and most developed state” has fared under a non-Barisan Nasional (BN) government for the first time in over 50 years.
Generally, authors were encouraged by the new government’s efforts at governing in a more open and democratic manner thus far. One oft-cited example was the setting up of the Select Committee on Competency, Accountability and Transparency (Selcat).
Other measures also received approval. Amongst them: The drafting of a Freedom of Information Act, declassifying documents under the Official Secrets Act and the exposure of Biro Tata Negara‘s controversial courses.
Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers past president Yong Poh Kon wrote of the state government’s greater willingness to engage stakeholders in discussions.
Centre for Orang Asli Concerns coordinator Colin Nicholas gave a glowing review of the Selangor government’s concrete steps and greater openness in addressing Orang Asli concerns in the state. “The PR-led Selangor government had from the beginning clearly stated its good intentions for the Orang Asli in the state — and it has followed through by walking the talk,” wrote Nicholas.
For political scientist Wong Chin Huat, the real significance of the 8 March 2008 election results was the opportunity to reaffirm federalism, which has been eroded since Malaysia’s formation. As Wong has stated before in his column Uncommon Sense, federalism allows for regional variation and competition. Selangor’s institutional reforms thus puts pressure not just on BN federal and state governments, but also on other PR states.
“It especially pressures Penang,” said Wong, “which is equally urbanised, developed and claiming to be reformist, and Kelantan, which has failed to even form a task force on FOI or local elections after 20 years in power.”
Academician Dr Mavis Puthucheary also noted that having chief ministers from different parties in the PR states has allowed for greater flexibility in government decision-making. This has allowed each state to develop policies that the local leaders believe are in the state’s best interests.
“As the richest state in Malaysia, the Selangor government is in a unique position to show that the only way to counter the challenges of globalisation — rise of job insecurity, financial volatility and corruption — is by good governance,” says Puthucheary. “In this way, states like Selangor may be able to influence decision-making at the national level.”
But not all is rosy in Selangor. Bar Council Human Rights Committee chairperson Andrew Khoo summarised civil society’s assessment of Selangor’s performance as “still waiting”. Although signs have been encouraging, tangible results still need to be seen.
Several contributors commented on PR’s leaders’ lack of experience in governing and the need to transition from being the opposition to acting as the government. Institute of South East Asian Studies Fellow Ooi Kee Beng commented that opposition politics has for a long-time been a self-sacrificing undertaking. This has created a “street-fighting culture” among non-BN politicians and parties.
Former Bar Council president Yeo Yang Poh, while commending the Selangor government’s efforts, also said “its political will has not been matched by its speed or efficacy.” Some of the reasons for this are internal, such as in-fighting and a lack of decisiveness. Others are external, such as a lack of cooperation from the BN federal government. Law professor Dr Abdul Aziz Bari recalled how Agriculture Minister Datuk Seri Noh Omar forbade ministry officials from attending meetings or courses sponsored by PR state governments.
Environmental activist Gurmit Singh questioned whether the Selangor government can sustain the political will needed to ensure sustainable development in the state.
But most worryingly, several authors wrote of the risk that PR will emulate BN-style patronage politics and practices now that they have tasted power.
Wong criticised PR for denying BN opposition lawmakers their constituency development funds. PR justifies by saying BN lawmakers would be receiving double allocation — one from the state and one from their party. Also, it is widely known that BN denies opposition members of Parliament funds at the federal level. But Wong asks: “How can Pakatan Rakyat claim to revolutionise politics if it does what Barisan Nasional did when in power?” From asking for government jobs to denying opposition lawmakers funds, Wong warns that PR is looking increasingly like the BN.
The book, however, does not address several key concerns about PR and Selangor. One recurring thread is how DAP and PAS work together when they appear to have conflicting aims on several Islamic issues.
In 2009, PAS state chief Datuk Dr Hassan Ali had a public spat with fellow executive council member Ronnie Liu over the sale of beer in Selangor. Although the issue was resolved through a compromise, doubts remain over whether PAS and DAP can truly cooperate, or whether one party’s asprations will eventually overshadow the other. Jostling within Parti Keadilan Rakyat, especially between Khalid and vice-president Mohamed Azmin Ali, which could prove harmful to the state’s administration, was also not sufficiently addressed.
PR’s reputation also took a beating over illegal sand-mining in the state as well as the issuance of “support letters” for friends and family members to obtain government contracts. Doubts have been cast on PR’s “clean” image due to these events although they may have been too recent for inclusion in this book.
Malaysians and Selangor residents took a risk on 8 March 2008 by putting relatively inexperienced representatives in government. It appears that in many aspects, this risk has been justified in Selangor by the government’s willingness to try a different way of governance — one that is more open, democratic and consultative.
But the PR government should not rest on its laurels nor should it have room for complacency with such an expectant electorate.
As Khoo said in his article, “Boldness and courage of the electorate in voting for change should not be rewarded by timidity, by the focusing on the excuses as to why it was not possible to deliver… Two years is time enough to have got off the blocks. Now it must pick up speed and run and finish well.”
The Road to Reform: Pakatan Rakyat in Selangor will be launched at 7.30pm on Monday, 27 September 2010 at Hotel Singgahsana, Persiaran Barat, off Jalan Sultan, Petaling Jaya (next to Taman Jaya LRT Station). All are welcome.
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