My Role as an MP – Part 4: National Issues
When I was first elected to office in 2013 as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Serdang representing the Democratic Action Party (DAP), I promised my voters that I would focus on four “E”s at the national level namely “Elections, Economics, Education and the Environment”. I choose to focus on these issues because I thought I had enough expertise and was also passionate about several topics linked to them. Prior to joining politics, I had published several election related articles including on electoral malapportionment and the unfairness of the Malaysian electoral system and electoral manipulation in different countries was one of the areas discussed in my PhD thesis. I was also trained in Economics at the Undergraduate and Masters level and together with my experience as a management consultant, I thought I could bring a unique perspective in parliamentary debates on the Malaysian economy. Together with Tony Pua, I had blogged and written on a number of education related issues including exposing the then VC of the University of Malaya for ‘boasting’ about UM being ranked 89th in the world when the ranking was due to an error of misclassifying the Chinese and Indian students in Malaysian universities as being international students. While I did not have any specific expertise on environmental issues, there were some areas such as renewable energy, municipal waste management, and river rehabilitation that I was interested in and wanted to explore further.
When I was first started issuing press statements on these issues as an MP, the primary objective was to focus on the shortcomings and scandals involving Ministers and decisions being made by individual Ministries or their agencies.
My revelations that several Ministers1, Deputy Ministers and even MPs had obtained degrees from degree mills captured some headlines2and resulted in my reputation as the “fake degree buster” among the opposition MPs.
My interactions with the Election Commission (EC) started even before I became an MP through the Malaysian Electoral Roll Analysis Project (MERAP)3 where I revealed many problems with the electoral roll including voters over the age of 100 and voters registered with the same old IC number, just to name a few. When I became an MP, I continued to highlight many of the unfair practices carried out by the Election Commission culminating in the unprecedented 2018 electoral delimitation exercise which was passed just prior to the 14th General Elections.4 We are still feeling the consequences of that delimitation exercise with my parliamentary constituency of P102 Bangi almost reaching 200,000 voters and would likely exceed 300,000 voters before the next General Election if Undi 18 and automatic voter registration were carried out concurrently.
I put my experience as a former management consultant to some use by asking for the consultancy fee paid to McKinsey and Co for the Malaysian Education Blueprint in 2013. The parliament reply I received stated that the cost came up to RM20 million, an amount which I thought was unnecessary as the then government was already spending millions of ringgit on the PEMANDU unit under Idris Jala, which also had an education transformation portfolio under the National Key Results Area or NKEA.5
Writing these short statements often resulted in reports and articles by the online media with catchy headlines that drew the public’s attention to these issues. But the academic in me also wanted to explain more complicated issues to the public including those that had to do with Economics and Finance. It was this desire which led to my collaboration with Teh Chi-Chang, the then executive director of the Research for Social Advancement (REFSA), a think tank, on a series of articles to debunk the ‘myth’ which was the Economic Transformation Program (ETP).6 Almost 10 years later, I stand by the articles I co-wrote with Chi-Chang. My research for the PEMANDU series would go on to inform me on how to read between the lines when it comes to understanding government statistics and economic indicators, even when PH was in power.
One of my more memorable revelations as an MP was explaining how the Najib government tried to ‘hide’ the amount of development expenditure in the budget by using a 100% MOF entity known as Pembinaan PFI. It took me a few months of research before I could understand how Pembinaan PFI was being used by the government to borrow money in a manner that was not transparently reflected in the budget, and it took a few years (and one or two reports by the Auditor General) before it was properly understood and reported by the media.7
After the Pembinaan PFI revelation, I undertook the task of looking into the finances of some of the larger 100% MOF owned entities. While not all of my research ended up as press statements for public consumption, I tried to use my research to explain why poor public finances were one of the reasons public transportation in Malaysia is more expensive than in Singapore.8I had students come to me later to say that they used my research on Prasarana as part of their process to better understand public transportation challenges in Malaysia.
I also channelled my interest in public finances and education policy into an in-depth study of the National Higher Education Loan Corporation or better known as PTPTN, published under the Penang Institute.9 Not everyone, including within my own party, agreed with some of the recommendations I proposed but I still stand by those findings. The issues I raised are more relevant now than ever given that PTPTN is one of the largest contingent liabilities (together with Dana Infra) currently held by the federal government.
Many of the press statements I issued touched on national issues and did not allow me to focus on these issues from the ground up by examining them through the lens of individuals or smaller groups. To address this gap, I undertook projects that would allow me to see things from different perspectives. For example, I wanted to see and understand for myself the challenges which the homeless community in KL were facing on a daily basis and also the effectiveness of the efforts to feed them and to help them. This involved going down to places like parts of Chow Kit and Kota Raya to talk to several people who were made homeless for various reasons. My colleagues and I also interview different NGOs that were feeding and doing outreach to the homeless in KL. I would probably adopt a more systematic approach if I were to do this study again but the resulting report, again published under the Penang Institute, was something quite different from the press statements that I was used to issuing as an opposition MP.10 There were no quick fixes or easy answers to “solve” the problem of homelessness in our cities. Longer term coordinated efforts were required.
One of the most enjoyable assignments I undertook as part of my ground up research was visiting the Ulu Muda Forest reserve in northern Kedah. I wanted to understand why the preservation of the water catchment area here was instrumental to providing a clean and consistent water supply to the state of Penang via the Muda River. Not only did I understand the issue better after visiting Ulu Muda and the nearby areas, but I also experienced the unique flora and fauna in one of the most enchanting places in Malaysia.11
The methods by which I try to national issues have evolved over time. When I was Deputy Minister at MITI, my focus was more on trying to influence the policy direction at the Ministry and proper execution of publicly announced policies. I did issue press statements but that was mostly to explain to the public certain nuances regarding specific MITI policies such as Industry 4.0.
Now that I am back in the opposition, I still issue press statements on my own, but there are more collaborative efforts too, whether it is joint press statements with some of my colleagues in the party and in PH or joint briefing notes published under REFSA. For example, my colleagues and I published a DAP policy position paper in July 2021 on “Living with COVID19”12 that was featured prominently in the Edge Weekly, the first time a policy paper was published by an opposition party was given such coverage.13 Together with my colleagues at REFSA, I have published several articles on how to manage the COVID19 crisis better from a public policy perspective.14
The experience of having been in government has allowed me to have access to industry contacts as well as former colleagues in the civil service including from my previous ministry and agencies. This means that unlike before GE14, I am in a better position to help the industry address and solve some of their issues with the government without having to resort to issuing press statements. It is a fine balancing act that I am still trying to get used to. Where necessary, I will continue to issue public statements. But more often than not, I find it more fruitful to try to find longer term solutions to the problems brought up by individuals and industry, away from the public limelight.
I will continue to work with Ministers from the opposite aisle such as Khairy Jamaluddin and others who are open to win-win initiatives that can benefit the public. But where there are obvious policy flaws made by the government, my colleagues and I will also voice out our opinions without fear or favor.
In the next year or so before the next general elections, I hope to provide constructive inputs in the following areas (and where the opportunity arises, to execute some initiatives too):
1) Housing policies for workers, especially foreign workers in the Klang Valley
2) Help to revive the hospitality, MICE, and F&B sectors, especially in my parliamentary constituency
3) Play a role to restart sporting events including events at the newly renovated running track in Bandar Baru Bangi
4) Collect viewpoints and provide different inputs to the proposed Residential Tenancy Act (RTA), an important piece of legislation to protect the interest of landlords as well as tenants
5) Advocate for more transparency in the auto insurance claims sector
Do you know the issues which your MP is advocating for?
1 https://ongkianming.com/2013/06/27/media-statement-minister-of-human-resources-richard-riot-should-clarify-the-details-of-his degrees/
2 https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2013/06/26/sack-ministers-with-dubious-degrees-dap-mp-tells-pm/487505 3 https://ongkianming.com/2012/10/11/media-statement-merap-final-report-and-recommendations/
7 https://www.theedgemarkets.com/article/cover-story-secret-government-debt-has-ballooned-rm50-billion 8 https://ongkianming.com/2016/08/09/press-statement-five-reasons-why-public-transportation-in-malaysia-is-more-expensive compared-to-singapore/