Connexion: Time for Malaysia to set up citizens’ assemblies

By Joachim Ng

The controversy over proposed stricter conditions for Malaysia My Second Home permit holders illustrates how lack of public participation in the decision-making process of governance causes brain-time loss as the Government now has to review its proposal in the face of strong criticism. Its proposed new terms had included a requirement for monthly offshore income to be at least RM40,000 instead of the existing RM10,000. 

Being retirees, these foreigners live on passive income. To earn RM40,000 a month, they need to have overseas investment with an exchange value of RM10 million yielding a 5% annual dividend. The proposed new rules are obviously designed to draw in rich participants and keep out the lower-middle-income guys. Under the existing rules, an Aussie with a monthly dividend income of just $3,500 qualifies as his dollars translate into RM10,000.

There are nearly 60,000 MM2H retirees and if each person spends RM5,000 a month on food, healthcare, insurance premiums, local travel, housing instalment and car purchase, the total contribution to our national economy is RM3.6 billion a year. If 90% of them leave due to lack of affordability, Perak will lose a big source of future revenue with fewer old-timers from abroad to spread their money around. 

Anyone can see that the Government has got its priorities wrong: it should focus on expelling the several million illegal migrant workers who pose a serious health threat with COVID-19, rather than chase out foreign retirees who earn less than RM40,000 a month but are willing to spend their money to support local businesses. All we need to do is require them to submit a yearly expenditure statement to ensure they spend enough in Malaysia.

This is just one of numerous instances where federal and state governments make bad decisions and then have to spend time pondering how to reverse course. Who does the government consult before introducing new measures or revising existing practices? 

Democratic governments do not have to consult anybody who is not a member of the winning party or coalition. Governments do not even have to consult Parliament. If a new law or new measure is brought to the House, MPs either support or reject it and the decision is made by vote. Whichever side holds the majority wins the vote, and usually it is the ruling party or ruling coalition.

Voters at general elections are deemed to have willingly signed a stack of blank cheques for the victorious party to make decisions without reference to the public. You don’t count any more once your vote has been counted. If you tune in to international chat, you will be aware that much concern is being expressed that democracies aren’t much different from autocracies, in that the public has no role in governance on any subject at any level.

Opinion is shaping up that the prevailing form of government throughout the world today is something called “elitism” with two branches — democracy and autocracy. They are different mainly in that democracies elect their leaders while autocracies select their leaders. But if you elect leaders who are focused on getting position and acquiring possession, it doesn’t make them better than autocratic leaders. 

In the party system of democracy — and this is the predominant form of world democracy — politicians have no choice but to think of position and possession because their party wants them to hold position, and possessions are important to enrich the party so it can have massive funds to give supporters and beat the rivals at election time. It’s all a game of winning power and staying in power.

Some will remember that in January 2019, a senior leader proposed that government contracts be given to divisions and branches of the winning party. He argued that such money was needed to serve the community. But throughout these COVID-19 pandemic months, do-gooders handing out food packs to starving families are mostly NGO volunteers using their own funds. Politicians rarely spend money on charity with no returns.

Pew Research Centre did a survey in 34 countries and found that an average of 64% of people did not believe that elected officials care what ordinary folks think. A high 69% of Britons and 59% of Americans were dissatisfied with the way democracy is working. Furthermore, the majority of people in rich democratic nations felt that regardless of which party wins an election, nothing really changes. 

To foster more public participation in governance, citizens’ assemblies have since 2019 become a feature of democratic life in at least eight democratic nations. By random selection, each assembly brings a representative cross section of voters together to provide opinions and feedback so that governmental decisions are better formulated to bring good results. These citizens’ assemblies have worked well to bridge the partisan divide.

One easy way to organise a citizens’ assembly in Malaysia is to use the existing business framework. If such an assembly had been set up comprising all sectors of the economy represented by their trade associations, the topic of raising the bar for MM2H permit holders could have been presented for discussion. Many might have argued that an appropriate new bar would be RM15,000 and not higher, to reflect the ringgit’s weakened position.

Another improvement towards a more participative type of democracy would be to fill 44 of the 70 Dewan Negara seats with non-politicians and non-political appointees. Thoughtful academics, public advocates, creative technocrats, philanthropic entrepreneurs, topnotch scientists, reformist women, Orang Asli, and distinguished journalists should be considered. The remaining 26 seats are reserved for State Assembly nominees.

Independent-minded senators who have no biases towards any political party can act as a necessary check-and-balance on decisions made by the executive branch of government. The Dewan Rakyat should also be reformed to make it a true hall of the rakyat and not a hall for partying. A good starting point is to drop the term “Opposition” as it has always been interpreted to mean “disloyalty” of a sort. 

Just because you oppose a bad law, you become known as the opposition? If any MP doesn’t oppose a bad law or if he opposes a good law, the question must be asked whether he is in opposition to the rakyat.

Opposition MPs should from henceforth be known simply as non-government MPs. The only difference should be that government MPs get a chance to be cabinet ministers while non-government MPs don’t. There should be no difference in financial allocation as it is taxpayers’ money. Here, Perak is leading the nation: all 59 state assemblymen now get equal allocation of RM200,000 for their constituencies.

These reforms will slowly reduce the gladiatorial style of Malaysian politics where the champion gets to rule and the loser bites the dust even if he is a servant leader.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo.



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