PENANG INSTITUTE’S PERSONNEL were given some pieces of good advice on February 18, 2020 concerning the relationship between the letter of the law and policy-thinking, policy-making and policy implementation. Penang State’s Legal Advisor Datuk Norazmi Mohd Narawi gave a lecture at the Institute as part of its “Agents of Change” seminar series.
His morning closed-door presentation was entitled “The True Nature of Government Policy”. Earlier talks in the “Agents of Change” series were given by Penang chief minister Chow Kon Yeow and Chong Eng, presently the state exco for Women & Family Development, Gender Inclusiveness & Non-Islamic Religious Affairs (see Penang Monthly September 2017 and January 2018, respectively). Chow Kon Yeow raised key issues such as local governance, flood mitigation, the Penang Transport Master Plan and State-Federal cooperation; and Chong Eng about the need to change mindsets in the struggle to increase female representation in various levels of government and in society at large.
Norazmi, in his turn, introduced the Institute’s staff to the multiple layers which make up the power structure of the Federation of Malaysia, and what their sources of income are, in general.
A general organisation chart of state governments in the Federation of Malaysia.
He pointed out that laws are not there to make things difficult for policy-makers. They are there to facilitate policy and to help any new policy cohere legally with earlier policies. What is sorely needed, he pointed out, is for people not to work in silos and instead seek mutual respect and better understanding about how they think and what they seek to accomplish for all the people. “For all the people”, though an undecided term, should nevertheless be the qualifying trait in government policies, he told the 30 or so researchers and administrative personnel present. He quoted to good effect the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong’s speech made on September 12, 1957 to the first Parliament to sit after Merdeka:
“We urge you always to remember that you are the representatives of the people without exception, and that what you do here shall be done for the benefit of all the people.”
Norazmi also reminded his audience that understanding a law paragraph is never a straightforward matter. One can choose to be as literal as possible, on the one hand, or on the other hand, one can interpret a legal text by trying to read between the lines and by studying the preamble, in order to get a clever picture of why the piece of legislation exists in the first place. He said: “If you ask me, the best way to understand a law is through 90% analysis and 10% literal reading of the relevant paragraphs.”
He also wanted to point out to researchers that nowadays, with social media sustaining an endlessly confrontational atmosphere, it is more vital than ever before for policy-makers and those who help them make policy to manage public perception. A policy always generates reactions, and many of them will be negative ones: “Bad publicity has a tendency to gather a life of its own, so one must be aware of that and be alert to this prospect.”
In his experience, Norazmi shared, it is wise to always note what the opposition is saying: “I remember, during an earlier posting as a young lawyer in Parliament, as soon as Karpal Singh, the late stalwart of the DAP, spoke, we would quickly jot down everything he said. That is how good laws are made. One should not ignore the criticisms raised against a law proposal. They must be taken seriously.”
His point about law-making that holds most relevance to think-tankers was perhaps his concluding counsel to keep three things separate: the principles found in the preamble to that law; the law paragraph itself; and the detailed actions and conditions that may or may not be part of the process of application.
Analogically, in policy-making as in law-making, one should keep separate in one’s mind the loftier underlying reasons for a policy, the policy itself as it is immediately understood, and the details that may or may not come into play in the process of implementation.
Ooi Kee Beng is Executive Director of the Penang Institute and Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. His latest book, Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia was published in 2018.