AFTER 30 years in the public policy arena, I have concluded that the burning problems afflicting global communities, including those in Malaysia, have really nothing to do with better policy making per se.

Making a better “mousetrap” (or handphone) works for companies but countries are infinitely more complex. If this were not the case, we could all just copy each other’s successes in cookie cutter fashion.

Political leaders today do not face problems of coming up with killer policy ideas, although they want these very badly.

They are viciously criticised for not meeting public expectations.

The first area where many are seen to fail is in the area of boundaries. Modern nation states have, for the most part, well-defined geographical boundaries. When these boundaries are disputed, such as in the South China Sea, there is usually trouble.

There are, however, equally hot conflicts around public policy boundaries. For example, around the world, and in this country, there have been and are today pushbacks against liberalism by conservatives.

And Malaysia shares with other countries an especially corrosive type of conservatism—a hard-line brand of religious and racial conservatism. These shape mindsets and thinking of adherents in practically war-like terms.

When public policy boundaries are not broadly or inclusively defined, citizens with equal political and legal rights accorded by law are treated as outsiders.

As outsiders, they naturally do not have great incentives to cooperate in nation building.

Many will leave and some will oppose, sometimes even taking their protests on to the streets, as shown recently in Hong Kong.

If governments want to keep the peace, they tend to become schizophrenic, drawing and redrawing boundaries as the politics of the day dictate.

The second area where there is public policy confusion is in the area of rules. Once boundaries are established, rules need to be drawn up primarily to favour those within the boundaries.

As one company’s tagline goes, membership has its privileges.

There are also those who believe that our societies will be more secure and prosperous if there were more rules.

What they fail to realise is that rules, as well as the lack of rules, mainly favour public policy elites and interests.

I have seen vitally important public policies such as in education or race relations that change every few years, are not consistently implemented or even not implemented at all.

This has led me to the cynical conclusion that the lack of consistent policy or policy implementation is the de facto public policy rather than what is officially announced. If this were not the case, these problems would be resolved, or officials sacked.

And yet there are political leaders raring to use their discretionary authority to make more rules, no matter how insignificant, when they should really be reducing them.

In the past year, I can think of no instance where the latter has happened here.

Constant changing of rules and inconsistent implementation hardly contribute to political, social and economic stability. They encourage communities and individuals to circumvent the rules or ignore them altogether.

Third, and this is the biggest and most widely recognised problem since time immemorial, is the area of interests.

Effective governments are those where power is checked and balanced by the political system.

Very often, however, and this is also the case in Malaysia, executive power is so great that it can override these systemic checks, whether they be legislative, judicial or administrative.

When this happens, the checks-and-balances instituted by law no longer matters.

Facts do not matter. Engagement does not matter. Only the privilege and ad hoc priorities of the executive matter.

Certainly, those who have committed wanton acts of corruption must be objectively investigated, fairly tried and penalised on conviction.

But so too must heinous instances of mass negligent deaths, enforced disappearances and even extra-judicial killings.

In absolutely no sense, can a country be considered well run if the most vulnerable and least powerful in society are unable to have legal redress.

As my career in public policy draws to a close this week, it is sobering to conclude that gold standard public policies are not the point.

Countries that are the most progressive and succeed have the broadest boundaries, the most effective (not numerous) rules and checked interests.

Those that do not are destined to be also-rans if not worse.

This article first appeared in the New Straits Times on July 3, 2019

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