Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What Malaysia can learn from Britain

We can all learn a thing or two from the recent British Parliamentary allowance scandal that has made public confidence in the House of Commons hit rock bottom. For those who may not know what it is all about, the British parliament is in dire straits over allegations of public funds abuse by several MPs - including Prime Minister Gordon Brown himself.

In Britain, elected representatives in the House of Commons receive a monthly salary of £4,000 (after tax). On top of that, MPs are also eligible to make several claims over miscellaneous expenses and enjoy various allowances.

One of the earliest revelations exposed in the media was that of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He claimed £650 for food, £83 for telephone bills, £1,403 for cleaning, £90 for home repairs, and £108 for his satellite TV.

Another senior minister, the Chancellor Alistair Darling, was reported to have claimed £2,000 for furniture, another £2,000 for new carpets, and £300 per month for food. He also claimed £1,200 to pay for his council tax and mortgages.

David Miliband, the foreign secretary, claimed for a £412 hand-crafted chair, a goose-down duvet and chenille throw from Marks & Spencer. He also bought a £450 John Lewis sofa, and claimed £9,000 to do his kitchen, plus £89 for other “household items”.

And the list goes on with the names of more than 200 MPs already exposed.

So what can we all learn from the shortcomings of our former colonial masters? Britain and Malaysia share a similar system of governance. Perhaps, the biggest moral-of-the-story we can all take, dissect and apply to our own backyard at the end of the day is the reaction of the British people and the Parliament to the crisis.

Looking at what the lack of public accountability has done to Britain, the Malaysian government should encourage transparency in every level - from ministries to local municipal councils. And if a government has second thoughts in enforcing public accountability among its staff, then the people should seriously consider who are they voting into office in the first place. Being transparent is not a choice, it is a must.

Therefore, making information such as personal allowances and other claims on expenses by ministers and MPs should be made available to the public. And any Abu, Ah Meng and Muthu should be able to have access to such information with ease. It is our right as taxpayers to know where all our money is going or has gone to.

The fact that British newspapers are responsible for exposing the dirty linen of MPs show that the mass media in Britain have no fear in reporting the truth. It is common knowledge that the local media in Malaysia have their news and articles filtered to avoid being too critical or cynical about the government or risk having their printing permits revoked. It is no wonder why so many people these days have turned to the so-called alternative media i.e. the Internet in search of news and independent opinions. Taking the crisis in Britain as an example, a free press could do the country a world of good by helping to promote public accountability. Press freedom is one of the prerequisites of a progressive nation and there is no debate about that.

The scandal has also forced British Parliament Speaker Michael Martin to step down for his 'failure to maintain public confidence in the Parliament'. It is the first time in 300 years that a Speaker in the Westminster parliament was forced to resign. Nonetheless, the response of British MPs to this was exemplary.

Despite growing dissatisfaction towards the Speaker, British MPs still behaved appropriately - there were no shouting, shoving or a contest of who has the richest vocabulary of insults in the Parliament. Government and Opposition MPs all followed procedures and protocols, obeyed every order of the Speaker and yes, there was no motion to remove the Speaker from his post - much of which is a testament to the maturity of the British Parliament. British MPs knew that as long as Martin is in the House, he has the authority.

This is indeed a far cry from what happened in Perak recently where the State Assembly Speaker V. Sivakumar was forcibly removed from his seat during an Assembly (images below).

The criterion of having elections every five years alone is not enough to fully describe what a democratic society should be. Public accountability, a mature Parliament and press freedom are the aspects of which Malaysians and their government should learn to give enough attention. Taking how their British counterparts handled themselves in the wake of embarrassing scandals, Malaysian politicians have a lot to learn and do.