A 2018 public policy wishlist

Ong Kian Ming

AS 2017 draws to a close, some people will reflect on the highlights (and lowlights) of the year. Others will start making resolutions for 2018.

In this last column for Penang Institute in KL for 2017, I have outlined 8 public policy points as my wish list for 2018. I’m not sure how many of them will be fulfilled but I’ll definitely do my part to push the agenda forward on these issues.

  1. Stop misquoting and misusing data

Politicians on both sides of the political divide often (mis)use data to make a political point. I’ve lost count of the number of times a backbencher or a Minister has used the fact that Malaysia has a much lower debt to GDP ratio (around 52%) compared to Singapore (over 100%) to prove that Malaysia’s debt position is nothing to worry about.

These same politicians don’t say that the Singapore government has to issue debt in order for the Central Provident Fund (CPF which is Singapore’s version of our EPF) to subscribe to these bonds. The Singapore government has been running budget surpluses for the past 30 years (with two small exceptions) while the last time the Malaysian government had a budget surplus was just prior to the 1997-1998 Asian economic crisis.

Similarly, I think it’s misleading to show the rise in the country’s overall debt level and divide this total debt by the population in order to show much each person in Malaysia ‘owes’. What is important is not the total debt level but the government’s ability to service its debt obligations both actual and hidden i.e. contingent liabilities.

Even if politicians won’t stop misquoting and misusing facts, I hope that more analysts and academics can play their part in enlightening the larger public on these issues.

  1. Better and more comprehensive data collection

So many talks that I’ve attended have ended with the recommendation “We need to collect more data” or “We need better data on this”. There’s a way to make this happen which is to amend the 1965 Statistics Act to give more power to the Chief Statistician to collect more data including compelling other government agencies to share their data with the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM).

  1. Make data sexy again

Many people are turned off by data because they find it hard to understand. What policymakers and politicians need to do is to find ways to make data accessible to the general public by showing them why it matters to their lives. Infographics are increasingly being used for this purpose. If I had the time and resources, I would learn from Edward Tufte, a noted statistician and data visualiser.

  1. More evidenced-based public policy making

There is often a big disconnect between the policy actions announced and the policy objectives. For example, the reason for the withdrawal of sugar subsidies is to supposedly decrease sugar consumption which is linked to obesity and diabetes.

But is there any basis for thinking that a hike in the sugar prices will automatically result in decrease sugar consumption? Judging by the sweetness of the tea served in many government functions I’ve attended, the answer is a definite no. I wish that our policy makers will rely on more evidence before deciding on policy actions. For example, how elastic is the demand for sugar and how much of a price increase is necessary before sugar consumption is reduced significantly? Are there any other policy changes which can be implemented to achieve the same objective?

  1. More experimentation in public policy making

This point is related to the previous one. Instead of relying on one blanket policy for all, it may be more effective for policy makers to try various public policy ‘experiments’ to test out various strategies to see which one works best.

Such ‘nudge’ policies, popularised by the Behavioural Insights Team in the UK government, underpinned by behavioural economics, are increasingly popular around the world. We definitely can do with more of such ‘nudge’ experimentation rather than relying on methods which have failed to deliver on results in the past.

  1. Properly discuss and understand the issues and the law

Whenever an event that captures the public attention occurs, there is often an overreaction to the event with the public clamouring for the government to act and the government being forced to give a short-term response or explanation.

It would be far more effective and useful for there to be a proper discussion on the public policy issue at hand, including the legal framework which governs the issue, and to find long-term solutions to the problem. For example, many people asked for the government to take action against the race organisers of a marathon in Klang where a runner was seriously injured when she was knocked down by a car.

The Minister responded by saying that the race was illegal and that action would be taken against the race organiser. A better response would have been to carry out a comprehensive stakeholder engagement so that all of the involved parties – race owners, race organizers, representatives from running clubs, the Malaysian Athletics Federation and the state federations as well as the Office of the Sports Commissioner – can come up with proper guidelines to make running events safer and more reliable for participants. The legal framework should also be changed including amending the Sports Development Act. Sadly, such an engagement has not taken place yet.

  1. Better research and public engagement on public policy

Public policy debate has increased and improved in Malaysia after 2008 partly because people can compare and contrast between government and opposition policies. But think-thanks have also played a role by organising more talks, forums, workshops and publishing more policy papers.

The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) have been at the forefront of public policy advocacy and it is in this public policy space which Penang Institute (PI) has also contributed to. I hope that more academics would follow in the footsteps of KS Jomo, Terence Gomez and Lee Hwok Aun in publishing academic research with larger public policy relevance. These academics also engage with the wider public to share their viewpoints and push their public policy recommendations.

I am also hoping that there will be more public policy related podcasts which touch on issues which are relevant to Malaysia and to Malaysians. Currently, only BFM – the radio station – occupies this space. I would be elated if we could have podcasts of the quality of Weeds and the Ezra Klein Show by Vox Media which delve into the intricate details of public policy and the No Jargon Podcast which features academics and their viewpoints on various public policy issues.

  1. Get your hands and feet dirty… literally!

Politicians usually ‘preside’ over events where the surrounding conditions are ‘manufactured’. Ministers are chauffeured driven to the MRT station where the trains are ‘reserved’ for VIPs during the official launch.

They don’t have to deal with the reality of waiting for shuttle buses or waiting for trains which have been delayed because of technical problems. It is all fine and good to attend the launch of the ‘Kolam Biru’ to mark a milestone in the River of Life project where the lights shine brightly at night. You would have a different view during the day when the rubbish which floats on the river becomes more apparent as well as the odour which accompanies the rubbish.

It would be far more effective for the powers that be to get their hands and feet dirty by experiencing what the public goes through when it comes to government services or going down to the ground to see the reality behind expensive government projects.

Nowadays, social media can provide a more accurate reflection of reality (just read those who tag @ktm_berhad or @myrapidkl on twitter). Or better yet, get your hands and feet dirty literally by going into the River of Life, as an example.

That’s it! Eight Public Policy wish list items for 2018. Hopefully, I can write a review piece at the end of 2018 to see how many of these items came into fruition during the new year. – December 31, 2017.

* Dr Ong Kian Ming is the Member of Parliament for Serdang, Selangor and is also the General Manager of Penang Institute in Kuala Lumpur. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Duke University, an MPhil in Economics from the University of Cambridge and a BSc in Economics from the London School of Economics.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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