Selangor passes two key reform bills

In March 2011, exactly three years after the government of Selangor state changed hands, two key pieces of reform legislations were passed. With that, the policy competition that had been expected since the last general elections between governments at different levels goes into high gear.

POLICY REFORMS CAN be a drawn-out and laborious process, but once in a blue moon you get a sudden windfall – and this makes it all worth the wait. In the March 2011 Selangor State Legislative Assembly sitting, two significant things took place.

First, the Freedom of Information (FOI) Enactment Bill (Selangor) 2010 was tabled for the third and final time, thereby creating Malaysia’s very first FOI Enactment (whether at state or national level).

Second, the state assembly also passed an amendment to the National Forestry Act 1985 to require public inquiry before any de-gazetting of forest reserves.

For policy-making junkies, these two pieces of legislation are no doubt stellar events. In truth, the processes by which they were finally produced are also equally fascinating. This is what this piece will explore.

Freedom of Information Enactment 2010

The idea of having a FOI Enactment is not new in Malaysia. More than five years ago, Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim (now the Selangor Menteri Besar) mooted the idea of pushing for such an Act at national level. I was one of about a dozen civil society individuals he invited to lunch back in 2007 at the Lake Club, Kuala Lumpur to discuss the possibility of such a campaign. He was also interested in the campaign for local elections (which I will write about in a later column).

Although it was not conceivable at the time, he did make a commitment to the NGOs then to make the FOI the first reform legislation to be passed, once given the mandate to form a government. Looking back, it does weigh in as a major achievement by the state government. But the process was not always a straightforward one.

First, an executive councillor was placed in charge of forming a taskforce. This was Elizabeth Wong. Members of her group included government and civil society representatives. The Coalition for Good Governance (CGG), a vocal coalition of NGOs based in the Klang Valley, was an active participant at its meetings and discussions. It also undertook the task of preparing the first draft legislation. Some members of the CGG who invested much time and effort included the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and the Malaysian Bar.

Next, the draft was revised several times including being vetted by the State Legal Advisor before it was officially signed at an executive council meeting. This final version, originally drafted in English, was then translated into Malay and ready to be tabled as the Executive’s proposal to the Legislative Assembly.

The Bill went before the body for the first time on July 14, 2010 and was then sent to an FOI Select Committee, which conducted extensive research, meetings and public inquiries. This was the first time that the Selangor State Assembly had formed a Select Committee to examine a bill, demonstrating a level of thoroughness not previously displayed.

The Select Committee, chaired by Shaari Sungib, originally consisted of six members: four Pakatan Rakyat assemblypersons and two Barisan Nasional assemblypersons. However, neither of the two from Barisan Nasional attended any of the meetings and public inquiries. This was a missed golden opportunity for them to demonstrate their willingness to put aside political differences and work towards solid policy and legislative reform. Nevertheless, it is understood that the sessions were lively and productive.

Over nine months, feedback and suggestions from civil servants, NGOs and members of the public were taken into account. The first draft was heavily criticised by several NGOs. This period thus proved to be a valuable opportunity for issues to be addressed and the discussions were healthy and crucial in ensuring that especially public servants were aware of the reasoning behind it. They would after all be its key implementers.

Some of the recommendations adopted from the Select Committee include: i) allowing local councils and government-owned entities to be covered under the Enactment; ii) changing the Appeals Board into the State Information Board; and iii) extending penalties to cover obstruction to access to information.

However, there are certain limitations to the Enactment. For instance, its jurisdiction extends only to state government bodies and not to federal bodies. Selangor (and all other states) houses numerous agencies that are essentially seconded from the federal government. Although Selangor pays their salaries, federal civil servants are not subject to enactments passed by the State Assembly. It is important for the public to realise this difference, since their expectations may be warped by a misunderstanding on this score.

Several challenges may surface. For example, Selangor will have to avoid having the Enactment being declared ultra vires by the federal government. The federal government has in fact stated that the FOI would be in contravention of the Official Secrets Act 1972. Second, training for civil servants and a process of public education will be essential to smoothen the execution process. For decades Malaysian society has been used to a culture of shrouded secrecy, and this Bill is now radically introducing a new culture of openness and transparency in public administration.

Finally, there may be chinks in the Enactment that will only be evident upon implementation. At these times, the Enactment – meant to be a dynamic and living legislation – will possibly be improved on based on recommendations from the State Assembly. What is most important is that the process has begun. Penang has also followed closely behind by tabling the first reading of its FOI version in November 2010.

Thousands of hectares of forest reserves were cleared without public knowledge from 2000 to 2007.

Amendment to the National Forestry Act 1985

The Selangor State Assembly also passed a historic amendment to the National Forestry Act 1985 (Section 11). Selangor is the first state to make public inquiry compulsory before a forest reserve can be de-gazetted. The public will now be able to give their opinions, suggestions and constructive criticism before forest reserves are de-gazetted. Elizabeth Wong, also the executive councillor in charge of the state’s Environment portfolio, tabled it at the same March 2011 sitting.

In her speech to the Assembly, she stated that thousands of hectares of forest reserves were cleared without public knowledge from 2000 to 2007. For example, the Kota Damansara Forest Reserve was degazetted several years ago during the Barisan Nasional state government to make way for luxurious residences. It was only when the Pakatan Rakyat government took over that this land transfer was cancelled.

She emphasised the importance of forest reserves in ensuring environmental stability through the supply of clean water, good quality air, mitigation of floods and soil erosion, in biodiversity sustainability, and as a source of herbs and natural medicines.

This display will hopefully encourage public participation in policy decision-making. Following this amendment, public dialogue sessions will be compulsory, advertisements of which will be placed on public signboards and newspapers. Notice will be given early enough to ensure that residents and NGOs att end these meetings and provide their opinions.

Under Section 74(2) of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, forestry is under state government jurisdiction, which means each state is empowered to formulate laws and policies pertaining to the forestry sector. In this instance, the Selangor government has worked closely with the Selangor State Forestry Department and it is the latter that will implement this policy in the future.

What reform means

During times of change, public expectations can skyrocket. This was the case in all Pakatan Rakyat states after March 2008. The more difficult task is to get down to the nuts and bolts of policy reform, managing expectations and pushing for the workings of the administration to be better oiled.

And although it is not every day that there is positive news to report, this month was a particularly proud one for the people of Selangor.

For example, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) will be showcasing Selangor’s FOI Enactment on its newsletter’s front page. This will be a real boost for Pakatan Rakyat globally.

As truly reformative measures within the Pakatan Rakyat states get going, it is hoped that a culture of accountability and good governance will permeate into all nooks and crannies. Sarawakians went to the polls in April, with optimistic results. Seeing how things are developing, true reform in Malaysian politics is a matter of time.

Tricia Yeoh is research officer to the Menteri Besar for Selangor.



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