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THE RURAL CHALLENGES
Future of Decentralization in Southeast Asia
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Decentralization: Poverty reduction empowerment and participation (unedited version). (2005). New York: United Nations.
Peters, B. G. (1993). The public service, the changing state, and governance. Canada: Canadian Centre for Management Development.
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Reform; auto re-improvement; people movement; governance; citizen empowerment
“Decentralization” is one of the popular buzzwords used in recommendations for reform packages. The UN paper on Decentralization: Poverty reduction empowerment and participation (2005) suggested that not only does decentralization play a role in power plays between the center and the periphery; it also can reduce poverty via economic growth and redistribution. Decentralization allows communities to make decisions that shape their future, by empowering them in the allocation of resources while equipping them to become accountable and execute decisions on their own behalf. Furthermore, decentralization should make government more efficient, which could mean better responsiveness and service for its own citizens. It has been suggested, for instance, that Cambodia transfer responsibility for planning, management, and the allocation of resources from its central government agencies to local government control to reduce poverty. There is evidence for applying such a decentralization framework to the Commune/Sangkat Councils. Meanwhile, a popular village funds policy in Thailand can be considered as one form of decentralized effort in encouraging rural people to manage their own public projects.
Theoretically, the centralized state faces a dilemma: the livelihood of local people, especially in rural areas, depends on a central budget rather than local capacity, which is also known as “Hamilton’s Paradox”. Normally, a political party will only offer a universal public policy, which hardly resolves the complexity of social and economic problems, such as with education, healthcare, and income disparities. Thus, people at the local level who cannot achieve a proper public service will ask a local “baron” (most of whom are local politicians) to compete on their behalf for central budget allocation. This reality ultimately corrodes citizenship, especially for the poor, and causes corruption to flourish.
Those regions possessing either a strong political ideology or a unifying religious belief will try to self-assemble its community in order to establish its own self-sufficient economy and local public service. If, in case of unjust treatment by central authorities caused by differing ethnicity or religious beliefs, a radical separatist ideology may emerge, even developing into an insurgency or even a separatist movement, such as has happened in Southern Thailand and the Southern Philippines.
Contemporary governance and decentralization have been evolving from these original concepts. For example, after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, with a restricted solution proposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Thai intellectuals modified “governance” from a sense of public sector reform into “Thammarat” (just state) and “Thammapiban” (governing justly), which mainly focused on the battle against corruption and for clean and fair politics. However, decentralization in Thailand has silently been pushed from behind the scenes by an unintended amalgamated demand from various political players, such as top business elites who need to ease burdensome general regulations, by public policy seeking to engage on public service or concessionaire system, by NGOs and technocrat who want to exercise their knowledge about political reform to resolve problems of inequality, and by the local communities themselves (with strong ideological commitment) who want to be involved in their own self-governance.
While many other Southeast Asian countries formed their centralized character after becoming independent from western’s colonization, some had problems during the process such as Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. Fred W. Riggs suggests that in developing countries, although no longer traditional feudal states, the reforming has not been fully success. They remain stuck in the middle between the traditional and the modern society, in what has been labeled the “Prismatic” society. A prismatic society such as Thailand, although having clearly written laws, still applies a “double standard” on their own people. Thus modern “governance” reform in the “prismatic” society will generate a hybrid and different kind of such reform from original “governance”.
Public officers will then try to create patronage with local barons in order to access and exchange their people and resource allocation (in both a central and local interest manner). Most informal lobbying is staged to encourage such patronage relationships, and takes place on a “special” high level in cross-cutting sectors academic courses, which copy from an original training program for both senior military officers and civilian courses, such as “Wor Por Oor”, from the National Defense College of Thailand. The decentralization in this kind of prismatic society will thus never really be allowed to happen. It will let the decentralization be announced, but will never seriously become engaged. Once there is a serious decentralization effort, they will resist such an attempt by claiming to preserve the national sovereignty, and attack such decentralization effort as either a separatist movement or a dangerous foreign idea.
According to the above notions, we may have three future scenarios with special reference to the decentralization in Southeast Asia, including 1) an emergence of Southeast Asian Keiretsu-style governance, 2) a blossom of insurgency and separatist movements, and 3) a dynamic balance between the local and central “governance”.
The force of techno-globalization will stimulate the pace of social transformation from the prismatic society into a modern society. Decentralization will inevitably be adopted. There will be some resistance from the old establishment, but most existing bureaucratic mechanisms will switch sides and join forces with either the business elites or technocrats and NGOs. Thus the final outcome will depend on who will be the major political power in the society of the future. Some in the business elite will aim for a model such as Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) which has been the city-state’s ruling political party since 1959. Nevertheless, in more diverse societies like Thailand and the Philippines, this kind of socio-political model has a low probability of success. What is more likely is a more practical model, similar to Japan’s Keiretsu style of governance (an alliance between business moguls and technocrats), that could lead these countries to compete in the global economy.
However, if the state cannot handle the conflict between centralized need and local autonomous demand properly, violence will expand and blossom into insurgency and separatist movements. The paper Decentralization and poverty in developing countries: Exploring the impact suggests that unstable countries such as those with civil wars or ethnic conflicts will face worse outcomes than stable countries. Continued internal conflict will affect people’s daily lives and finally adversely affect the quality of life and poverty levels, as they have in the deep southern provinces of Thailand, southern islands of the Philippines, and Ajeh in Indonesia.
A preferred and ideal scenario would be an efficient central government together with various forms of local governments. There will definitely be a bargaining of power and resource distribution between the central and local government through negotiation and dialogue, thus a dynamic balance will evolve between the two. This kind of governance will finally empower citizenship and create more efficiency, which means a better chance of reducing poverty and improving the quality of life of its citizens.