Towards clean governance in asean


GOVERNANCE IS as clean as its dirtiest link

Penang Institute hosts the inaugural Conference of the Asean Coalition for Clean Governance

The Penang Institute was recently repositioned to stimulate and deepen popular discussions about key issues of governance as well as to play a prominent role in regional development.

Its first major international conference brought together some of Asean’s leading proponents of clean governance including Abhisit Vejjajiva, Ambiga Sreenevasan, Anwar Nasution, Paul Low and Risa Hontiveros.

The realisation of the inaugural Asean Coalition for Clean Governance four years after Lim Guan Eng became Chief Minister of Penang is a milestone in the struggle to demonstrate that local government, national government and regional government are strongly interconnected. Reforms have to come at all levels and in a somewhat integrated manner.

The best principles needed to govern well at the lower level are essentially the same as those needed at higher levels. More significantly, if clean governance is not practiced at one level, good administration at other levels is made all the more difficult.

Like charity, change begins at home. But the process can be so much more effective if it begins in many homes at the same time. Change for the better is most possible across Asean when it links key personalities and movements from across the region.

The universality of CLEAN GOVERNANCE

Getting the conference off the ground

The genesis of the idea really came back in April 2012, when the Chief Minister (Lim Guan Eng) visited Bangkok and met Abhisit Vejjajiva (leader of the Thai opposition) in the Thai Parliament. The Chief Minister, who has always championed the issue of clean governance, immediately seized upon the opportunity to suggest the idea of a regional conference on this issue. Happily for us, Abhisit had no hesitation in agreeing immediately!

Such a conference at a regional level is extremely relevant, given the current economic and political instability in the West and Middle East. All trends point to a resurgence of Asia, and as South-East Asia bridges the two Asian giants, we better be prepared to take advantage of this shifting global order, to face challenges and realise prospective benefits.

This geo-political shift isn’t merely about getting rich, but about more equitable development. And for this to occur, clean governance, clean public institutions and democratic freedoms are essential ingredients.

This is where our public institutions are critical. If our executive, legislative, judicial, financial and electoral systems are not robust, durable and, even more importantly, clean, then we will not be able to safeguard the fundamental rights and wellbeing of our people.

So, the moment Abhisit was confirmed as our keynote speaker, we began to put together an international conference featuring speakers from seven countries. And we didn’t just choose anybody – it was vital to ensure that the quality of discussion at the conference would be of high relevance and standard. In the end, I think we succeeded very well in that aspect.

From left to right: Zairil Khir Johari, Penang Deputy Chief Minister I Datuk Dr Mansor Othman, Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, Political Affairs Secretary to the President of the Philippines Ronaldo Llamas, Akbayan Citizens' Action Party chairperson Risa Hontiveros, PM editor Dr Ooi Kee Beng, Senator Prof Dr Ariffin Omar and Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera Liew Chin Tong.

Is democracy compatible with Asian values?

The “Asian values” thesis is a fallacy and at best, a justification for authoritarian regimes. We should remember that although democracy is a Western term, it is not a Western concept. Look at Chinese emperors from thousands of years ago; although they ruled with a “heavenly” mandate, it was understood that this was derived from the will of the people and dependent on good and righteous governance. Even Confucianism advocates remonstrating against an erring monarch. Thus, democracy is not a Western or Eastern tradition, it is in fact a universal human value.

Asian cultural heritage in this sense is not an obstacle, but in fact, a platform to foster and encourage the values of freedom and democracy, therefore the challenge is to ensure the embodiment of these values into our public institutions. This is something that only we can do ourselves.

There are of course those who argue against the need for values such as freedom and democracy as a basis for clean governance, those who believe that “Asian values” make democracy and human rights incompatible. They instead argue that economic needs are more important than human rights and political freedom, and that development can be achieved without freedom.

This is of course the hypothesis of the “absolute benign dictator”. Such a leader would indeed be powerful and strong enough to engender efficient and effective functioning of public institutions. However, the system will work as intended only insofar as the dictator is inclined to be benign and benevolent. Unfortunately, no one has told us what will happen when the dictator is eventually replaced or when he or she decides one day that being benign is not that fun, after all!


We invited key leaders from various Asean nations to talk about their experiences of clean governance (or lack of) in their own countries as each country has its own unique set of political and socioeconomic challenges to face. For instance, in the case of Indonesia it’s about fixing institutions after a change of regime, whereas for China it’s not so much about regime change but responding to the widening inequality divide and changing the aspirations of its people.

We were really blessed by the fact that we managed to get some of the top people who have been involved in institutional reform in their respective countries, such as Anwar Nasution in Indonesia and Risa Hontiveros in the Philippines. And then of course we had the pleasure of having Abhisit Vejjajiva from Thailand, which was a major breakthrough. Malaysia was also well-represented, with Datuk Paul Low from Transparency International Malaysia and Datuk Ambiga, our foremost champion for clean elections.

Improving clean governance in Malaysia

To really weed out corruption, we need much better protection for whistleblowers as the current Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) actually discourages this. In addition, institutions such as the Election Commission and the Malaysian Anti- Corruption Commission (MACC) are clouded by various scandals and questions abound about their independence and integrity. To top it off, the MACC doesn’t even have powers of prosecution, which resides in the Attorney-General’s Chambers, which is a unit under the Prime Minister’s Department. What happens in the hypothetical situation that the Prime Minister himself is investigated for corruption? Will the Prime Minister allow his own Attorney-General to prosecute him?

IS CLEAN GOVERNANCE essential for the advancement of democracy?

A constitutional guideline

“If one were to study our Federal Constitution, it really has all the elements that you need to run an effective democracy. Our fundamental freedoms are enshrined in the Federal Constitution. We have the freedom of speech, freedom of association. The right to life is enshrined; the right to a free trial is enshrined.

You have the doctrines of the separation of powers, where you have the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, each having their own independent functions spelled out.

You have the whole system of checks and balances in our Merdeka Constitution. It provides for elections, and the way in which it should be administered. It provides specifically that we must have an Election Commission which enjoys public confidence. That’s provided for in the Federal Constitution. It even has guidelines about how constituencies’ delimitation has to take place.

So really, this Merdeka Constitution was a well-crafted, well thought out document that should last for all time. Of course we’ve had several amendments but the basic structure for democracy was there.”

Finding democracy

“We know that the Federal Constitution in this country is the supreme document. And yet today, 54 years later we are still grasping to find the democracy that we want. We are still struggling with fundamental freedoms which are spelled out in the Federal Constitution but which unfortunately have been curtailed or limited by other legislation.

Before 2008 the government enjoyed twothird majority in Parliament, which meant they could do anything—they could amend the Constitution. And the arrogance that set in as a result of that is also another reason why we’re here.

So what happened was that those in power then, who indulged in corruption and abusive power, needed laws and systems to protect themselves.

After 2008 when the government lost their two-third majority in Parliament we saw the Opposition become a truly viable one. And it is because of that that more and more information about abuses and corruption started coming out into the open.”

Playing by the "rule by law"

“We have oppressive laws, sometimes we can even argue that we have ‘rule by law’ as opposed to ‘rule of law’—‘rule by law’ meaning that the government is above the law and they dictate by legislation. So we also have many instances of abuse of power. We have, unfortunately, rampant corruption.

It only goes to show that the Constitution and the laws are only as good as the people who administer them.

If people who are administering the law don’t uphold its spirit or the spirit of the ‘rule of law’, if the law is oppressive or unfair then it is not an upholding of the 'rule of law'. That is actually 'rule by law', where you control your people by passing oppressive laws.”

A more liberal Malaysia?

“We had the Internal Security Act (ISA) which, to the credit of the government, they repealed very recently because there was so much opposition against it. But they’ve replaced it with another piece of legislation that just does not go far enough to provide the safeguards that we desire of such legislation.

Under the Printing Press & Publications Act, previously under the old regime, newspapers had to be licensed, and they actually had to apply for a licence on a yearly basis. Now the Prime Minister comes up and says we’re going to amend the Printing Press & Publications Act so everybody was delighted. But the amendment is this: you would still have to apply for a licence, (the authorities) would give you a licence but (they) can revoke it at any time.

They want to look liberal but they just don’t finish the job. They just want to look as if they are opening up but they just don’t have the confidence to go further than that.

And do you know what they mean by free and fair access to the media during elections? They are going to allow all parties to put forward their elections manifesto in a pre-recorded programme. That’s the government’s definition of free and fair access to the media.”

A question of fraud

“The Election Commission does not see it as its responsibility to ensure a clean electoral roll. But we have shown (the presence of) many, many discrepancies. And they accused us of using the word ‘fraud’ against the Election Commission, they say this is not fraud, these are administrative errors. So I said the fraud lies in the fact that when they know there are errors and they don’t bother looking for them, or when they know the errors and they don’t try to clean it up. That’s where the fraud lies.”

Not knowing the people

“Malaysia is a great nation, we’re a blessed nation and I will say this, Malaysians are a great people. I know it, you know it, but unfortunately sometimes the government doesn’t know it.”

“This is why I say they don’t know Malaysians. They don’t know what a discerning group of people we are. They think they can lull us into a false sense of security. This is (what) the half measures I (mentioned are) about. And I don’t know what they are afraid of because in this day and age the Divine has put in our hands and in the hands of people all around the world, the most powerful weapon—more powerful than nuclear warheads—that of access to information.”

A clean conscience

“For goodness sake, we had 900 canisters of tear gas shot at us. We were not the ones who were violent.

So the government immediately appointed a body to look into that and the chairman of that body, that independent panel, is someone who had just a couple of weeks before his appointment made a statement saying that Bersih is infiltrated by communists, and the communists are the ones who caused the entire thing to happen. And he now chairs the panel looking into the issue surrounding what we allege, police brutality against participants.”

Conflicting interests

“Now in all these cases of ministers’ families getting huge contracts and this case of the election chairman having been a member of the ruling party, all of these are not seen as conflicts of interests. In fact they say, ‘No, nothing wrong there.’

For me conflict of interest is something that is not obvious to everybody. It’s obvious to me and I’m sure it’s obvious to all of you. Unfortunately something happens after you get into power, it doesn’t become obvious anymore. And that to me is one of the key issues in transparency and accountability. It is about understanding what is meant by a conflict of interest.

The mainstream media in this country is not free and fair, to put it very bluntly. And it’s not the reporters’ fault, not the journalists’. It’s the editors’. It’s the policy. If you made the NST, The Star and the rest truly free and fair, the journalists would be the first to celebrate. And they are now trying to fight through the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and I think we should support them for that."

The Bersih agenda

“What is it that we ask for? We want clean and fair elections. We have eight demands that we want implemented before the next General Election, a major one of which is cleaning up the electoral roll.

We have instances of phantom voters, the same name or a different name using the same identity card number, there are so many instances of these sort of discrepancies and the members of the public, including people from Bersih and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been doing their own research looking at the electoral roll and trying to decipher where the problems lie.

We’ve been on election mode since 2008 and we are all very worn out. Now we have till April next year, Bersih actually wants the elections to be delayed. Because we say, you can clean up the electoral roll in a year. And we have offered our help—civil society will help you. Needless to say, no response to that from them so far.

One of the (other) demands for Bersih was free and fair access to the media. Does that sound very difficult? It’s very simple. So the government said, ‘Right, we will do it during the election period.’ But we say if you are really genuine about free and fair elections and free access to the media, then do it now. But no such luck.”

An in-depth interview with Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan will be in the August issue of Penang Monthly.


The speakers discuss the various Asean experiences and challenges in building and rebuilding democratic institutions during a state of transition.

Indonesia in transition

With the fall of President Suharto in 1998, Indonesia found itself in a state of transition. “We reformed everything, from social to economic to political systems,” said Prof Anwar Nasution. There were four key aspects of Indonesia’s reforms. First and foremost was replacing Suharto’s dictatorship with a democracy, which led to the end of the military’s involvement in Indonesian politics.

The second aspect was replacing its decadesold centralised government system; more power is now given to its sub-provinces. Third was relaxing the government’s stranglehold on the economy. The final aspect was to improve the governance of Indonesia’s corporate sector, including state-owned enterprises.

The 1997 financial crisis hit Indonesia harder than any other South-East Asian nation. “That was the most expensive banking crisis in the history of humanity,” Nasution said. The price the country had to pay in order to repair its entire banking system was very high indeed – more than 50% of its annual GDP.

With the fall of the Suharto regime, the Indonesian Audit Board (BPK) had to learn how to do its job all over again. “During the Suharto years, auditing was not very attractive. How can you say No to a dictator?” Nasution’s first task with the BPK was to begin the eradication of corruption in the country. The result was a series of high-profile arrests, including North Sumatra Governor Syamsul Arifin, as well as the former mayor of Medan, Abdillah, and his deputy.

“We’ve made progress,” he acknowledged, “but it’s far from perfect. It takes a while.”

Twisting the system

“I’m happy to be here in a moment of great optimism for the Philippines’ future,” said a smiling Risa Hontiveros.

And no wonder: it was only a few weeks ago that the country removed the chief justice of its Supreme Court, Renato Corona, whose midnight appointment by then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was considered unconstitutional. It was later found that Corona had assets that he could not possibly have amassed on his meagre government employee’s salary, and a successful impeachment ensued.

Corona’s controversial appointment is just one example of how Arroyo took advantage of flaws in the country’s Constitution and twisted the system to suit her needs. “She established a cheating mechanism by co-opting the military and the Commission on Elections to swindle for her and give her a one million vote advantage over her more popular opponent.” Government bodies designed to protect the public were instead filled by Arroyo’s people, who would then protect the president from any accountability. The erosion in the Philippines’ public institutions went on for nine years before Arroyo's eventual fall.

But Hontiveros noted that it is imperative that the people themselves claim ownership over their own nation. “When the people feel that they do not have a stake in nationbuilding, we make possible a culture of abuse and impunity. We have successfully triggered political transitions, but such transitions must be accompanied by social revolutions that would change our collective ethos. Political revolutions are not enough.”

China’s shifting bottleneck problem

“China is transitioning in terms of economic growth,” said Dr Sherry Tao Kong. “Over the past 30 years we had an average of around 10% growth per annum, which is pretty mindboggling in many ways.”

From 1978 onwards, China’s secondary and tertiary industries’ share of the GDP grew from 70% to close to 90% today. This massive growth led to higher living standards, as well as an explosion in China’s industrialisation.

Rapid urbanisation ensued. What was once a 20% urban population in the whole of China has now ballooned to over 50%. “Human capital has become a huge phenomenon. There are six million graduates every year.”

But this has also led to a growing inequality within China. “Over time, you have a divide between the rural and the urban, the coastal areas and the hinterlands. All these inequality issues have been there for a long time.” Compounding this issue is the fact that the Chinese are ageing very quickly. “Based on UN estimates, by 2050 China will be as old as Europe, but only endowed with a fraction of the average income of Europeans.” Kong drew parallels between China and Indonesia: “Both republics were established in the late 1940s, both were liberated by their respective, very charismatic leaders, and their regimes ended up in economic and political disaster, and then both countries actually experienced decades-long rapid growth.” The difference, of course, is that the Suharto regime was spectacularly replaced by a democracy. China’s one-party government remains in power today.

Kong added that China is still trying to figure out how bad the situation really is, and what it can do about it. One thing is for sure: the country is facing a completely different set of challenges and conditions from what it is used to. Can its decades-old political institutions evolve with the times? Only time will tell.

“China needs to think about what I call the ‘shifting bottleneck problem’,” Kong said. “It will be a gross mistake to think that what enabled development at a different stage will continue to work today.”

“It’s not peacetime yet.”

Moderator Datuk Din Merican, an associate fellow at the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research, said it was an exciting time for Indonesia and the Philippines. “They embraced change and they are making progress. (In Malaysia) the regime is resisting change. And I think they are not going to last long if they continue this way.”

The speakers were asked to give advice for a newly elected government in dealing with institutions like the police, military and judiciary. Hontiveros said that a successful revolution was only the first step, and building relationships with the military and police was vital. “It’s not peacetime yet. Engaging the military and police institutions is difficult but necessary if we want to build a mature political system.”

Later, Kong said that, in China’s case at least, democratic elections weren’t as important as ensuring accountability. “What’s more important in my mind is to have an independent and effective judicial and legal system.”

In his closing remarks, Merican said that Malaysia needed an active citizenry. “I’m 70 now, and I’m feeling very frustrated. We need a system that’s transparent and clear, and we must fight for what is right.”

Will clean governance ENABLE DEVELOPMENT?

The political paradox

“Singapore does very well in terms of economic governance. But we also have our Internal Security Act and a Printing & Publishing Act. We do not have a Freedom of Information Act, and we have libel laws which our leaders sometimes use against political opponents.”

“But to be fair to the government, it has been quite self-restrained. Not because it loves the people of Singapore, but for its own survival. Its sheer calculatedness where it knows that those laws can at best buy you resignation and sullen obedience but it can never buy you longterm success or long-term sustainable results.”

Mercenary means

“Rather than rely on those instruments of repression, the Singapore government prefers to use incentives.”

“Singapore is a state that pays a lot of attention to getting incentives right, making use of market and price signals to achieve its desired outcomes.”

“There’s congestion charging to discourage people from driving too much, how we allocate vehicle ownership rights using an auction system—we’ve been practising competitive tendering for the past 40 years.”

“It’s really a government that makes very disciplined use of economics and price incentives to shape, constrain behaviour and shape the actions of the economic actors and agents.”

Supporting the system

“At the same time it has made a very concerted effort in building trusted, credible, durable institutions that support the functioning and development of markets. There is a very strong public sentiment against any hint of corrupt behaviour.”

Failure to adapt

“If you compare Singapore with other developing economies, we have inequality levels that are similar to those in Mexico. It’s really unbelievable that we should have such high levels of inequality considering how much fiscal resources the state has access to. There have been very few policy innovations or adaptations in the area of social spending.”

Immigration and inequality

“We’ve had an increase in the residential population by 20% over a period of 10 years. That’s unheard of even in the most virile society and it’s due to the very liberal immigration and foreign worker policy. And the effect is that they hold down wages at the bottom and they drive up wages at the top so we have this increasing gap in our income distribution.”

“We have more volatile and erratic economic growth, rising income inequality accompanied by low wage stagnation, and we’ve got a rapidly ageing population. We’ve got a very rapid pace of restructuring, in the context of relatively limited social safety nets, public housing – which was a very important instrument of redistribution that has actually become a lot less supportable – and finally, we have a far more contested and greater demand for political representation.”

High poverty in Laos despite rapid economic growth

“Poverty has decreased from 46% during the 1990s to 27% by the late 2000s. Real economic growth remained high at eight per cent in the past year. Eighty per cent of the workforce is involved in the agricultural sector whereas only 43% of GDP is accounted for by the agricultural sector. High growth is mainly triggered by the hydropower and mining industries. Therefore, Laos enjoys large foreign direct investments (FDIs) in the hydropower, forestry, mining, and increasingly in plantation industries. Meanwhile, one-third of the population is still living below the poverty line. Thus, the impact of economic growth on reducing the poverty level in Laos is relatively modest.”

The FDI trade-off

“In attracting FDI and official development assistance (ODA), Laos plans to offer rent-seeking activities so that the non-political middle class of the new business people can benefit from this relationship. Because of the reigning non-transparent political system and the related contract negotiation, there is little incentive for the potentially political middle class to act as the voice of change.”

The challenges to clean governance

“There are essentially five main challenges: ignorant witnesses in civil service, low public sector wages, a weak bureaucracy, a lack of transparency and a lack of access to information for the determination of culpability.”

Governance, Malaysia and its Asean neighbours

“Singapore is in the list of top five countries where corruption is perceived to be lowest, along with New Zealand, Denmark, Finland and Sweden. Malaysians always try to defend themselves, claiming that Singapore is different as they are a city-state. However, Malaysia has the same laws as Singapore. The only difference is that Singapore manages to implement these laws much better than Malaysia. They have a strong political will and thus they are able to uphold the rule of law.”

On the MACC

“To give credit to the Malaysian Anti- Corruption Commission, Malaysia’s evidence act is much stricter than its counterpart European and American acts. The anticorruption agency in Indonesia is granted immense powers, including the power to prosecute and to wiretap which enables them to conduct covert operations. Thus, they are able to obtain much more solid evidence.”

Understanding corruption

“Malaysians are fortunate and slightly complacent. The test will come when there are high unemployment rates and failures in economic policies. It is important to understand the different facets of corruption, which includes petty corruption and grand corruption. Petty corruption includes cases such as bribing the police with RM50. Transparent International is worried about this type of corruption but is not that concerned about it because this problem can be overcome by enforcement and delivery system of which the Special Taskforce to Facilitate Business (Pemudah) is doing a visibly good job.”

On the relationship between big businesses and the state

“The only way to solve this problem of collaboration is to cut off the relationship between politicians and businessmen. A politician and a businessman collaborating is the same as two drunkards going to a pub and getting a drink. It is impossible that the two drunkards will return home sober. In the case of Malaysia, there is the concept of Malaysia Incorporated. This concept is good because it shows that the government wants businesses and businesses want to be the engines of growth. However, if the level of collaboration between two parties goes beyond a certain threshold, it will become an unholy alliance.”

“Another effect of corruption is that it undermines or destroys institutional capacity. A corrupt government wants to ensure that there are no checks and balances.”

ZERO TOLERANCE needed to fight corruption

Throughout your political career you’ve spoken out consistently against corruption, and stressed the importance of clean governance during your term as Prime Minister. What are you most proud of?

I think it would be the standards and precedence we tried to set in terms of accountability. Whenever there was an allegation of corruption or irregularities we always took it seriously and cooperated with all the independent agencies… at the same time some of the ministers who subsequently were found to not have any part in these irregularities resigned to make sure that the investigations could go ahead1.

We approached the private sector who for the first time decided to join this national campaign, which they are actually continuing under this current government. For the first time we had a broad coalition in Thailand among the private and public sectors for this very issue.

For many instances of corruption there are three sides involved, the politicians, the bureaucrats and also the private sector. If we complain about the people who receive bribes, there are also those who pay them. It’s something that needs a joint effort to tackle. Many members of the private sector had become more and more fed up with the idea that when they do business with the state it’s not straightforward competition. That’s going to hold back competitiveness for the country and the private sector.

There’s going to be a shift of attitudes from a situation where people felt that corruption was somehow necessary to oil the machinery of government. These days with more open markets, more intense competition, that’s not the way things should work.

Despite the flooding and the various instances of civil unrest, there is still a large amount of foreign direct investments (FDIs) pouring into Thailand, how would you explain this?

One of the reasons is that the Thai economy has primarily been driven by the private sector. Secondly, despite the political turmoil, lack of continuity or lack of stability of a particular government, at least we have the broad consensus and policy continuity and a similar approach in that we have commitments to the market, to the private sector and also to being an open economy.

We have never really resorted to any kind of protectionism, and in political debates this is one area that has not really been questioned.

During your term as Prime Minister how were you able to tolerate such prolonged unrest?

This would be unthinkable in many countries, including Malaysia.

Tolerance is needed, what with conflict on the streets, with conflict among people. If leaders and governments don’t have tolerance, you can only make the situation worse. Despite the patience and tolerance, you still see the effects; the scars of the conflict are still there with us. Without tolerance it would have been a lot worse.

How do you deal with the undercurrent of populism that to an extent characterises Thai politics?*

If I knew the answer I wouldn’t be the opposition leader! We recognise that once populist policies get implemented people to a certain extent become spoiled, they expect these to continue. What we tried to do during my administration was to slowly adapt some of these programme; for instance we began handouts for the elderly but then we moved towards setting up a pension fund where people would also have to make contributions, slowly building up the idea that there is no free lunch.

Politicians and political parties have to be courageous enough to tell the truth to the public about the dangers of populism, and about why populist policies can’t be sustained. But if not, they’ll (citizens) have to learn the hard way, something we all wish to avoid. If the people continue to experiment with such populist policies they will have to deal with the consequences.

What role would you say the Thai military plays in good governance?

The military will have to show its commitment in supporting democracy. Democracy and clean governance may not be synonymous but they can support each other and feed on each other. Agencies which in the past may have enjoyed privileges and may not have been subject to scrutiny or been held accountable for their own duties, now have to recognise that some changes are necessary in the way things are done.

Do you think that the military’s role needs to be reset?

I think the word reset would be too drastic; in an institution like that there is inevitably continuity, they shouldn’t be subject to too rapid changes. But they need to evolve, adapt and face up to new realities.

How adaptable do you think the military has been?

My own experience has been that they are willing to consider and to implement change. One area clearly for me was the policy towards the Deep South. We said that the approach to solving the problem would be to shift the emphasis towards development and justice rather than viewing (the region) as just a traditional security problem. That meant that the army’s role was more of a developmental one to build trust with local people. They had to be much, much more aware that their own actions, even with good intentions, would have to be under scrutiny and they would also be held accountable.

They cooperated, and we were able to lift the state of emergency in one district. We were hoping to do more but then the change…

Earlier you mentioned a lack of continuity with governments, so how is it possible to have sustainable good governance in Thailand?

You don’t want the standards of governance to depend on the government of the day. Ultimately you need supporting mechanisms and institutions to ensure clean governance. What Thailand has been trying to do is to have independent agencies that work on this issue, so that they are not subject to the political changes, the comings and goings of governments.

The ultimate condition for success in the fight against corruption is that you have to bring the public, the whole country on board. If the public or the private sector, if people in general, tolerate corruption you’re never going to win the fight. That’s one area where there shouldn’t be tolerance.

ASEAN IS as strong as its weakest link

While former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s keynote address – “What enables clean governance in democracies?” – profiled salient examples from his own administration, the underlying theme was about getting Asean members on the same track towards good governance and for a brighter economic future.

The future he talked about isn’t far off either and in only three more years, the Asean Economic Community (AEC) is to become a reality. With the EU and its single currency being stretched to breaking point, we have to ask: how can the AEC avoid the pitfalls of regionalism and what role will clean governance play within Asean?

On the Asean Economic Community (AEC)

“It is an ambitious integration programme which will result in (Asean) having a single production base and a single market for all 10 South-East Asian economies. People realise that the Asia Pacific region and the South-East Asian region are one of the fastest growing regions in the world.

Economically we are expected here in this region to provide a dynamic and powerful force that will generate global economic growth. But as we see from other (attempts at) regional integration… integration is not easy.

So despite the high growth that we are experiencing, the expectations that we will be successful, none of this can be taken for granted. Rather, we need to make sure that we have an environment, a culture that will support us throughout this integration programme so that we can fully realise this great potential for peace and prosperity in the region.”

Asean’s perceived lack of ambition

“When I was chairman of Asean, European journalists used to ask me why we were lacking in ambition and not aiming for a common currency; I think now they have the answer.

Asean’s approach has always been a gradual and pragmatic one… for the first 30-40 years, it wasn’t about economics but about achieving peace, making sure we could coexist. Now we’re shifting the focus to economic integration but we recognise the limitations, one of which is the existence of the development gap (between member nations).

What happened in Europe was that the integration was very fast, and then new members were brought in, then they found it was quite difficult to reconcile the gap that existed between the new members and the existing members. We’re coming from different angles and there will be different challenges and different stages in the integration programme.

The most difficult challenge (to my mind) is that even this is not enough. At the moment we’re just letting leaders, governments at their twice-a-year summit decide upon future programmes. If we truly want to create an (Asean) community, if we truly want to create common values, we have to make our people feel that they belong, that they are Asean citizens. We are still a long, long way from that, not just even a sense of belonging but a sense of awareness of the existence of Asean as a regional grouping.”

Asean and human rights

“Thailand began the idea of having leaders at the summit meet civil society organisations from the 10 countries. We ran into trouble with some of our friends in the region because their governments were not prepared to have that kind of forum. But… in subsequent years we (continue) to make sure that this gets on the agenda.

We need to make sure that the social and political changes that are necessary for cooperation and integration must also take place in parallel. We’ve talked about setting up a human rights commission at the Asean level at first in terms of promotion, but soon it will have to be about protection. Asean’s progress in recent years is very much linked to what happens in countries like Myanmar.”

Corruption within Asean

“It’s going to be a long difficult fight (against corruption) and I’m so pleased that here at this Conference we have so many Asean representatives. What we need to recognise is that it’s not enough to put our houses, our countries in order. In the end, our community will only be as strong as our weakest link. Therefore we need to be aware that this will become a regional challenge as people, money, labour, capital investment and trade flow more freely across our borders.”

Extracts from the keynote address and Q&A session by Abhisit Vejjajiva MP, leader of the Thai opposition, at the inaugural Conference of the Asean Coalition for Clean Governance.

THE PENANG WAY to clean governance

We are now living in extraordinary times. The effects of the global economic crisis are already obvious. Asean economies will not be spared and are expected to face weakening exports and a slowdown in foreign direct investment (FDI). As a result, economic management has become an increasingly challenging effort. In such times, some say we require extraordinary ideas and extraordinary efforts. However, we should not forget a return to the basic principle of not just doing the right thing but also doing it right.

The need for clean public institutions

Good and clean governance will result in positive socioeconomic development. Conversely, ineffective public institutions and weak governance will facilitate corruption, misguided allocation of resources, arbitrary justice and excessive government intervention. This will in turn reduce economic competitiveness, deter private sector investment and prejudice the distribution of wealth.

Freedom is empowerment

A truly developed society is one where its people are empowered with the freedom to fulfil their aspirations and capabilities.

The great economist for the poor and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen questions the fundamental assumption of development economics; according to Sen, poverty is not merely material but should also be seen as the “deprivation of basic capabilities”, which he defines as human freedoms.

Development is a process of expanding the instrumental freedoms of individuals,which he encapsulates in five elemental forms:
1. Political freedoms,
2. Economic facilities,
3. Social opportunities,
4. Transparency guarantees,
5. Protective security.

We must understand that Sen’s hypothesis is centred on the idea that freedom is empowerment. By providing the instruments of freedom to an individual, we enhance his ability to fulfil his own potential and capabilities.

Institutionalising freedom through clean governance

If we make development our objective and we recognise that freedom is both the means and the ends to development, then it follows that we must build public institutions that embrace truth, accountability and transparency. Freedom can only be guaranteed and protected by clean, efficient, accountable and transparent public institutions.

Public institutions must conform to a universal framework of good governance as described by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This framework contains five principles:
1. Legitimacy and Voice,
2. Direction,
3. Performance,
4. Accountability,
5. Fairness.

These principles must act as our guide if we wish to achieve development without compromising on freedom and democracy.

CAT governance: the Penang experience

Penang’s commitment towards clean governance is exemplified by CAT – competency, accountability and transparency – administration.

Based on CAT principles, we became the first state in Malaysia to introduce open competitive tenders for all public procurements and supplies. To the outside world, this is normal practice. However, it was ground-shattering in our country.

By implementing open competitive tenders, we effectively eliminated opportunities for corruption. Everything is done online through our e-Procurement system. Where previously the road to a government contract required political connections, it now only requires an internet connection. In addition, we disclose fully the contents of government contracts signed with the private sector.

We have also passed the Freedom of Information Enactment which allows disclosure of government contracts for public scrutiny. What’s more, we have also taken steps to engage the public on the state government’s proposed projects and plans.

We have also become the first state in Malaysia to have the entire state executive council (exco), including the Chief Minister, make a full public declaration of assets. And more recently, we have sought to empower more decentralised decision-making by passing the Local Government Elections Enactment as part of our commitment towards participatory governance.

Our efforts are bearing fruit. In the last four years, we have turned the state’s finances around with surplus budgets for every single year since we took over. We have successfully reduced state government debt by 95%, from RM630mil when we took over to just RM30mil today.

For all our efforts, we have not only garnered accolades from the Auditor-General’s annual reports, but we have also become the only state government in Malaysia to be praised by Transparency International.

However, praise alone does not mean anything if it is not translated into real achievements. For the first time in Penang’s history, we managed to become the Number One investment location of the country in 2010. Over the last two years, Penang attracted nearly 30% of the FDI attracted into Malaysia. For a state with only six per cent of the country’s population, we are certainly punching way above our weight.

George Town was the most liveable city in Malaysia in 2011. And to prove that it was no fluke, we followed up by repeating this feat this year. Last but not least, CAT governance is not only about clean governance but also about providing democratic space. For example, we established the first Speaker’s Corner in Malaysia. We allow people to speak their minds, even when it is often used to speak out against us.

More importantly, we also believe that it is incumbent upon the state to provide More importantly, we also believe that it is incumbent upon the state to provide

In addition, we also go to great lengths to ensure that the downtrodden are taken care of by giving cash aid to senior citizens, single mothers, the disabled, schoolchildren and newborn babies, subsidising dialysis treatments and even providing free bus services in the inner city and across the Penang Bridge. This is all part of our commitment to ensure that our people enjoy freedom from want.

The Penang Declaration of Clean Governance: Laying future foundations

The Penang Declaration (see page 22) symbolises our commitment to the principles of clean, accountable and transparent governance, and the universal values of truth, freedom and democracy. It also recognises the need for clean governance and the rule of law for the attainment of socioeconomic development and progress, as well as the necessity of building public institutions.

The document will also call for an important element of the anti-corruption process, which is the need for whistleblower protection. In addition, our coalition will also bear no tolerance for corruption and abuse of power by insisting that powers of prosecution in corruption cases must be independentlywielded.

Finally, the Penang Declaration is a pledge to embrace cultural and social transformation in governance and integrity to engender inclusive, equitable and participatory social, political, economic and sustainable development for the people of Asean.

Adapted from the opening speech by Penang Chief Minister, Lim Guan Eng at the inaugural Conference of the Asean Coalition for Clean Governance organised by the Penang Institute on June 25, 2012.


ACKNOWLEDGING the principles of good and clean governance, and the values of truth, freedom and transparency;

RECOGNIZING the need for good and clean governance to attain economic development and social progress;

EMBRACING the diversity of culture, ethnicity and religion;

We, the participants of the inaugural Asean Coalition for Clean Governance, are hereby committed to:

1. Reaffirm the principles of good governance as described by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which are:
a. Legitimacy and Voice,
b. Direction,
c. Performance,
d. Accountability,
e. Fairness;

2. Confirm that good and clean governance requires the support of robust and durable institutions that enable, solidify and consolidate democracy;

3. Promote efficient, accountable and transparent public institutions by pledging to:
a. Encourage the implementation of public declaration of assets, open competitive tenders and the disclosure of government contracts,
b. Recognize the need for whistleblower protection in order to safeguard the universal rights of the people,
c. Impose zero tolerance for all manners of corruption and abuse of power by ensuring independent powers of prosecution in corruption cases;

4. Embrace cultural and social transformation in governance and integrity to engender inclusive, equitable and participatory social, political, economic and sustainable development of the ASEAN peoples;

5. Uphold the rule of law without fear or favour.

We, the undersigned, on the 25th day of June, 2012, believe that the ideals of truth, freedom and transparency should be universally embraced, and that the ASEAN peoples deserve the right to enjoy the essential values of a good, clean and efficient government that dignifies, engages, safeguards and delivers the aspirations of the people.

On assuming office, Abhisit announced his nine strict rules governing the behaviour of cabinet ministers. High profile ministers who resigned under a cloud of suspicion included the Public Health Minister and Human Security Minister.

* This question was from a member of the audience, and it being such a salient issue, is extracted for inclusion in this section.

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