Reforming the Rakyat

Late last month, the State Government of Selangor, Malaysia, released The Road to Reform: Pakatan Rakyat in Selangor, a collection of essays by prominent politicians, academics, and commentators aimed at assessing the Pakatan Rakyat government's performance since the coalition rose to power in March 2008.

It is difficult to communicate exactly how a dry, technical, innocuous-seeming compilation of critical commentary is every bit as revolutionary as the elections that saw Pakatan soar to power in five of Malaysia's twelve states, and dethrone the 2/3-majority stranglehold the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition had enjoyed in Parliament across all of Malaysia's forty-plus-year history. After all, words are only words. But the publication of this document reflects a broad attitudinal shift in the government's willingness to scrutinize itself, to respond to criticism and engage proactively with the body politic.

"Many authors praised the good developments of the state, but also criticised the state government quite freely," says the book's editor, Tricia Yeoh, Research Officer to the Selangor Menteri Besar and former director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies in Kuala Lumpur. "In that sense we did not want to make it into a propaganda book, which would be all too easy. Instead we were open, because we believed these were precisely the sort of thinking, critical-minded pieces and exercises in self-reflection that the Pakatan Rakyat aspires after."

Of course, all of that is easy to say. But the Selangor government has stood at the vanguard of the battle for an open information climate in Malaysia since their passage of a Freedom of Information law earlier this year. Meanwhile, titles like "Dismantling the One-Party State: Achievements, Omissions, and Failures" and Yeoh's own "The Realities of Governing Selangor: Realising Pakatan's Mandate" waste no time framing Pakatan's ability to implement policy changes in a frank and realistic light.

This proactive approach to information disclosure and open dialogue stands in stark contrast to the Barisan Nasional government's continued support for laws like the Internal Security Act, the Official Secrets Act, and the Printing Presses and Publications Act -- all of which render impossible the very kind of dialogue this book aims to facilitate.

Indeed, the conflict between the BN coalition and Pakatan is a common unifier across several of the essays. "The significance of the 2008 general election," Yeoh writes in the introduction, "lay in its opportunity to affirm federalism...which has been systematically eroded over the previous four decades."

Here in the US, at least since the late 1960s, we tend to take well-functioning federalism for granted. But in Malaysia, a serious problem for the opposition (Pakatan) governments is that the federal (BN) government will simply decide not to give them any money to operate--only, as I saw in the 2009 Bukit Gantang by-elections, to then have BN candidates campaign against incumbents with a platform of restoring services!

The publication of a single book doesn't guarantee lasting change, of course. But it does demonstrate -- and this is a great leap forward -- that the Pakatan government is willing to try.