August 17th, 2012 by Hafiz Noor Shams
Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM) and the National Human Rights Society (HAKAM) have proposed to introduce something called the Social Inclusion Act. The general idea behind the proposal is noble but if this act somehow finds itself in a queue for debate in the Parliament (which I think is unlikely given how private member bills are typically ignored in favor of government-sponsored bills), the act does give too much power to a commission that it seeks to establish.
I am against the act, at least in its current form.
The proposed commission has too much power because its functions have been defined so broadly and the act grants the commission the ability to implement its own recommendation.
Furthermore, the commission can also compel the government, federal or state, to implement its welfare program if the commission believes such program is warranted. In other words, it can dictate government policy, which I think is unreasonable. It transfers debate on such social policy which can be controversial from the public sphere to within the commission’s four walls. The commission can also exclude members of the public from participating in any discussion held by the commission. So, not only it transfer the venue of debate from the public sphere to the private space funded with public money and public authority (yes, it can compel anybody to appear before the commission, which I find odd and coercive, but this is a small issue), there is transparency worry.
In clearer terms, I find the non-transparency as unreasonable as the commission can compel the government to implement its suggestions whatever the commission sees fit, notwithstanding what other laws state that may curb the commission’s powers. There is too much authoritarianism in that. I do hope, if the proposed Social Inclusion Act is taken up in the Parliament and eventually passed, there are such laws that limit the powers of the commission.
Now, what are the functions that I find too wide?
The commission has the power to develop social inclusion policies and also, the power to implement it. The exact boundary of such policies is unclear but it can be so extensive that it may require a whole ministry or two to do it. Social inclusion, based on what are listed as the functions of the commission, includes but not limited to reduction of real poverty, reduction of income inequality, provision of social safety net and prescription of intervention model. I wrote the functions of the commission are not limited as to those stated in the act because social inclusion can mean a lot of thing and it is ill-defined.
It is ill-defined because it is based on the definition of marginalization, which in turn is defined as the exclusion of a person or a community’s economic, social and political rights that prevents the person or the group from realizing their full potential and from participating fully in society.
Those rights are controversial, if you understand the existence of negative and positive rights. Given the individuals behind Anak Bangsa Malaysia, I think I will quickly disagree with a number of ideas that they may consider as rights. I subscribe to negative individual rights and more often than not, I am oppose to positive rights, which compel others to intervene another person’s life to help achieve the latter’s potential. In doing so, it is a violation of the former’s individual rights, which demand the former to not be coerced into doing something.
Define these rights as positive rights, then the size and role of government will quickly expand at the expense of individual liberty.
I think the act can be improved by making it more transparent and more inclusive in its decision making (which is ironic because this is a so-called Social Inclusion Act but its discussion and decision can be exclusive) by allowing the commission to recommend first, and then have the Parliament debates and then on approve or reject the recommendation. If the Parliament approves it, only then the commission should be allowed to implement directly or compel the necessary existing ministry to implement the recommendations. Or better, let the commission be the implementer of whatever relevant laws the Parliament proposes and passes. Take away the recommendation power of the commission.
I think having the lever at the parliamentary level is important at guaranteeing a more inclusive act. It also puts a bump on effort to expand the role of government. The membership of the proposed council can be biased and unrepresentative of the wider society. Having the Parliament has the decision maker partly solves the problem of bias and representation.
Here are some example of excessiveness of power the proposed commission has. Consider this: the power to introduce a social safety net is entirely in the hands of the commission. Such introduce is a major policy, require major expenditure and in the US, the expansion of public insurance, or the Obamacare, was a major public debate. It will be outrageous to give the commission such power. That decision should be decided by both the Cabinet and the Parliament and the wider Malaysian public, not the Commission exclusively.
Consider this also, the stated function of the commission is to reduce income inequality. This potentially include tweaking with the taxation system. To provide the commission with such power is too much.
So, I reject the act. I see the current proposal as a way to ram through certain way of thinking about social issues without check and balance. It is a request for free pass to expand the role of government, without accountability.