Pocket money with strings attached

Who is to prioritise projects – YB or implementing agency?

THE announcement made last week by the Chief Minister about more money for the state legislators must have gladdened the hearts of many a YB. Now they would have a free hand in spending the funds the way they like best – on their favourite projects.

Not quite.

This perceived unbridled freedom was promptly qualified by the Chief Minister’s political secretary: the expenditure is subject to compliance with certain bureaucratic procedures. The Resident’s and District Office has a monitoring role; the Public Works Department (JKR) and the Department of Irrigation and Drainage will be the implementing agencies.

That much we know so far; other details are unknown to the general public. For instance, how does a local council fit into the scheme of things?

At this stage, my comment is that the sum of RM5 million earmarked for each state legislator to spend on development projects in his or her constituency is not such a lot of money. Depending on what projects we are talking about, the amount is relative.

If a good road connection is urgently required for the transport of oil palm fresh fruit bunches to the nearest mill, or for the transport of the sick to the nearest clinic or hospital, or for transport of fresh water by trucks during the dry months, then that amount of funds for one year is certainly insufficient. It may be enough for the installation of plastic water tanks.

It is more than enough for the manufacture and purchase of T-shirts or for the sponsorship of sports events or for the minor projects, which do not require professional studies in respect of impact to the environment or the social life of the community concerned. But all these are not directly income-generating projects.

 

Off-budget allocation?

It is not clear, however, if this expenditure is over and above that normally allocated in the annual budgets (federal, state and local councils)?

If it is something additional, then I’d say wow!

 

Who says the state has no money?

This method of dispensing public funds is necessary in cases where money must be made available fast – to complete an unfinished project that brings economic benefits to the poor constituents. But these are basically stopgap measures because the other projects, approved in principle or still in the pipeline, cannot be implemented soon due to some reason or other. The constituents cannot wait.

 

Can we afford it?

Can the state afford such an additional expenditure every year – say for the next three years – without the imposition of more taxes? Apparently, money can be made available for some purposes, if there is political will.

 

Discrimination

This method of distributing funds for use by the ruling legislators leaves room for questioning by the discerning and apolitical public. They cannot help asking why the legislators of the opposition parties are being deprived of the privilege of distributing such state funds when they are also elected representatives of the people of each constituency. Do the supporters of the opposition parties in that constituency deserve to be penalised for being in the opposition per se?  The standard answer is that only the supporters of parties holding power in government are so entitled. Is it a good answer in the long run – what, if, and when government changes hands?

It’s inevitable that people will relate the additional funds for each constituency under the stewardship of the ruling coalition to partisan politics, pure and simple.

Be that as it may, those readers of this column who are apolitical would like to know if the Resident’s and District Office will also function as the financial controllers in each state constituency to which the RM5 million is to be channelled.

 

Pre-project planning, etc

What about the planning, the feasibility study, the site approval, the social, and environmental impact? Who does all these at the district/constituency level?  Are these not necessary? Can a project that involves the acquisition of privately-owned land be financed by this RM5 million fund?

Obviously, the devil is in the details. No doubt we will learn more about the funds as we follow the developments of how the RM5 million is being spent.

We would like to see that such funds will be usefully utilised mainly for the development projects that stimulate other worthwhile activities in the constituency as stopgap measures before bigger projects are implemented.

 

Role of local authorities

Won’t it be better to channel some of the money to the local councils? In some councils, there is some expertise – there are engineers and technical staff to help plan and monitor progress projects. After all, every inch of Sarawak is under local government jurisdiction and if the authorities are not used what are they for?

The manifest function of this financial allocation is to accelerate developments in each constituency in the name of RURAL transformation. Why not transformation of the whole state, rural and cities, where there are people and where the needs are.

I hope that we have sufficiently learnt the lesson; not to waste funds unnecessarily. In some cases, I have seen cases of public funds being used for uneconomic projects. In one village in Lundu, there were two temples built for a few families. I saw a community hall; this was built for a few families, but, the last time I drove past that hall, I saw goats in it, having their midday rest.

Wouldn’t it be better if the money for that hall had been used for a goat rearing scheme even for the handful of villagers? No, the representative in Council Negri wanted to give what he wanted to give, not what the people really needed.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]

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