Let’s get more transparent

ON Nov 27, the Supply Bill 2021 was passed at second reading by the Dewan Rakyat via a voice vote.

This came as a surprise to commentators and analysts who had predicted a fiery day, expecting the Opposition to seize the opportunity for a vote to challenge the legitimacy of the government.

Fifteen MPs are required to stand to force a tabulated count of each MP’s vote – what most Commonwealth parliaments call a “division” but what the Malaysian media terms a “bloc vote”.

But during the event, only 13 non-government MPs rose.

It transpired that the others did not do so at the behest of the leader of the Opposition.

This decision has proven controversial, with Opposition MPs facing public ire for failing to demand a test of the government’s majority.

Three main justifications have been put forward in apologetic tones: firstly, it was a tactical move in that it is better to confront the government only when victory is assured; secondly, to not disrespect the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who asked for a Budget “to ensure the well-being of the people and the recovery of the country’s economy”; and thirdly, sufficient amendments were announced by the Finance Minister to merit the Bill’s continuation and further scrutiny of each measure: after all, a defeat can still be inflicted at a later stage.

However, judging by the responses on social media, many Malaysians feel that the main motives were political rather than policy-based, and on Nov 30, another important vote to pass the allocation for the Prime Minister’s Department and Finance Ministry was passed, this time via a division of 105 MPs for and 95 against.

MPs from Parti Warisan Sabah were apparently deliberately absent in an expression of frustration over the Opposition leadership, triggering more recriminations.

On the upside, there has been a resurgence of commentary on the fundamental question of who MPs primarily represent: their voters, their constituents, their party collectively, or their party leader personally.

I have written before that the de facto practice of party leaders selecting candidates effectively undermines the intent of the Federal Constitution, in which MPs are supposed to primarily represent their constituents.

The platform of a party and crucially, its election manifesto, serves to communicate candidates’ policy intentions if elected.

It is not to be slavishly loyal to an individual party leader.

But back to the Budget.

From a policy perspective, the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) has welcomed the process of scrutiny and amendment in line with the democratic process.

It is vital that all the amendments proposed by the Finance Minister are fully transparent: how new spending will be funded, and the impact on debt and deficit.

Although Malaysia has improved its Budget transparency score, much still needs to improve.

For instance, it is not clear where a new allocation for eBelia (a programme to promote a cashless society and disburse eWallet credits to eligible youths) is coming from: presumably either the allocation from the Youth and Sports Ministry, or from the Covid-19 fund.

Elsewhere, there has been a welcome reduction (to the credit of civil society and many MPs) in the allocation to the propagandising Special Affairs Department (Jasa), now rebranded to a more innocuous Department of Community Communications, but whose acronym J-Kom resembles that of a boyband.

Still, law and procedure must still be followed: while any MP can propose reallocations (as did the MP for Tuaran, calling for the entire amount to be channelled to the Health Ministry), the Standing Orders allow only ministers to reallocate expenditures from one purpose to another, so when the vote is taken for the Communications and Multimedia Ministry’s budget, the total amount must be announced. At the same time, there continue to be avenues for further reform.

The Fiscal Responsibility Act that the previous government wanted to table in 2021 is one example, and it is hoped that the present government will rehabilitate this and consult external stakeholders to increase fiscal and budgetary transparency.

And last week, Ideas released a policy paper entitled “Improving Direct Negotiation Rules in Malaysia”, which analysed direct negotiation contracts disclosed in the Auditor-General’s reports from 2014 to 2018, and found that existing measures are not implemented well, with multiple violations of rules, qualification of contractors, and the negotiation process.

The paper recommends revision to current policies, the adoption of competitive negotiations and a clear separation between the power and responsibility of bureaucrats and politicians in procurement exercises.

In line with the National Anti-Corruption Plan, efforts like this will hopefully contribute towards a future where annual budgets as well as procurements will be more transparent, regardless of the machinations of individual politicians.

Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is the founding president of Ideas. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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