[Penang Monthly] Giving the people a say – it’s their money after all

Folks in Machang Bubok find themselves empowered with the novel – and perhaps even revolutionary – idea of deciding what to do with public funds.

Sometime in December last year, at a forum on the state and national budget organised by Lee Khai Loon, the state assemblyman for Machang Bubok, I threw out a challenge which Lee and I eventually picked up ourselves: At which point can the people intervene in the government budget cycle?

We are definitely not in a state of normalcy

There are many things to fix in our democracy. We are definitely not normal.

We cannot even achieve the most basic thing in modern democracy, i.e. choosing our government. Today we have a federal government that has only 48% popular support.

We do not get to elect our local government. How serious is that, you may ask; it’s just the city council.

Well, the city council of KL has an annual budget which averages about RM2bil, making it bigger than the budget of every state government in Malaysia save for four: Selangor, Terengganu, Sabah and Sarawak. The decision makers of the city council are not elected, hence they do not answer directly to the people.

In Penang, the MBPP has a budget of RM400mil, while the MPSP has a budget of RM200mil.

That’s our money. If, in a democracy the people are the boss, then we should have a say in how it is being spent.

Penang leads in participatory budgeting

To be fair, MPSP has since 2012 organised annual budget dialogues to which members of the civil society, residents’ associations, rukun tetangga, and village/ community development and welfare committees (JKKK) were invited to give their opinions on budgetary matters. There were also budget survey forms which were distributed all over the municipality for feedback on what the people want in the next budget.

In 2014, #BetterPenang, a nongovernmental movement working on how we can make our cities and towns better, worked with MPSP local councillor David Marshel to come up with an innovative way to gather public opinion on priorities when spending municipal monies.

The project, called Projek ARM (Apa Rakyat Mahu) is a one-question survey, quite unlike the official MPSP survey that had 80 questions and sub-questions. Mobilising volunteers from JKKKs and using a specially designed smartphone application, Projek ARM respondents were asked: “If you had RM250 next year, how much would you spend on the following items: 1) Cleanliness, 2) Infrastructure, 3) Drainage and flood control, 4) Parks and landscape, 5) Community activities, 6) Enforcement, and 7) Strays and disease control.

That way, the complicated and often tedious budgetary discourse was made simple. We received feedback from 1,500 respondents and managed to produce a very informative report from the data. It certainly helped local councillors to form a clearer picture of the people’s actual priorities when it comes to spending money on municipal services.

“Our Money, Our Say”

Now, let’s go back to the budget forum in December last year.

As mentioned, Lee and I decided to take up the challenge I posed at the forum: to let the people play an active part in deciding on government spending.

Thus, this year, both of us allocated RM50,000 each from our constituency fund – that’s a quarter of my total fund – to a participatory budgeting experiment, “Our Money, Our Say”. In short, through this project, we are allowing the people of Machang Bubok in Bukit Mertajam to vote on how the RM100,000 will be spent. This is not imaginary abstract social science or political science stuff – this is real money, real power.

How does it work?

This project is a one-year four-phase programme: 1) demographic survey, 2) focus group discussion, 3) voting, and 4) planning and implementation. The title of each phase should be self-explanatory.

Sim at a survey with JKKK Taman Selamat during the first phase of the programme.Projek Penyertaan Machang Bubuk. Sim at a survey with JKKK Taman Selamat during the first phase of the programme.
The implementing units are the 17 JKKKs in the constituency of Machang Bubok. Coordinating agencies include the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC), MPSP, the Central Seberang Perai District and Land Office, and both the MP and state assemblyman’s offices.

Phase One was launched in July 2015 and is now nearing completion. Members of the 17 JKKKs were given training in survey methods and even an introductory session on how to use the statistical analysis software, SPSS. In the process of doing participatory budgeting, we are also building the capacity of our grassroots leaders so that now they too take part in formulating government policy and not just deal with municipal complaints as they were previously accustomed to.

Immense challenges ahead

Although now merely at an experimental stage, it is still very much a large scale and ambitious project. We are talking about allowing the 30,000-odd voters of Machang Bubok to literally vote on how they want their tax money to be spent.

It goes without saying that such a project comes with many challenges. From training our JKKKs to conduct demographic surveys, and organise and facilitate focus group discussions to sending out the message so that enough people are aware of the project and will take part; from dealing with grouses about the copious work needed to accomplish the year-long project to angry residents telling us in our face: “Hey we voted for you, why should you now kick the ball back to us (to make decisions)?”.

It is definitely a new concept. Over the past three years, we have consulted experts and practitioners from both local and foreign academia – from countries such as Brazil, Germany, India, the Philippines and the US, and even the UN. But we have no choice; we have to learn as we go – all of us who are involved in this project. There is absolutely no precedence of any kind in Malaysia, other than the smaller scale participatory budgeting projects PWDC has done in Penang since 2012.

In a democracy, the people are the boss. As such, what power should be vested in them? Equality, justice, human rights – all these are very important. But what’s the use of being boss when one has no say about money?

It is no longer enough to just tweak the system and go about our business as usual. We need to change the equation. Imagine the effect on our democracy when the people begin to realise that they can and should decide how tax money is spent. Imagine the effect on governance. Imagine if, for a start, the local council in Bukit Mertajam, which spends about RM200mil a year, decides to adopt the idea even partially and allows the people to vote for just five per cent of its annual budget. That would be RM10mil in our hands.

Now imagine if the notorious figure RM2.6bil – a mere one per cent of the federal budget – was given to such participatory process. The people will effectively become the boss.