Jun 23, 05 7:38pm
The government today came under fire for not including the civil society in the consultative process on plans to privatise water supply and healthcare in the country.
Panelists and individuals at the ‘Privatising Water and Health Services in Malaysia?' forum in Kuala Lumpur demanded increased inclusiveness in every level of the process.
Without mincing his words, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) deputy secretary-general Xavier Jayakumar, who was one of the panelists, took the government to task for not keeping the deliberation process transparent.
"We have written hundreds of letters (to the ministry) and knocked on their doors for so long, asking for a sit down discussion, but they haven't even offered us a meeting. What kind of consultation process is this if civil society is not included?
"How are we supposed to trust what the government says when decisions on matters of such high public interest are done without our knowledge?" he said.
Another panelist, Charles Santiago (left) - from Monitoring Sustainability of Globalisation - dismissed the consultation sessions as mere ‘briefings'.
He also rebutted the statement by fellow panelist - Ministry of Water, Energy and Communications' deputy secretary-general II Teo Yen Hua - that civil society members were invited to the discussion table at each step of the process.
"What kind of consultation session is it when all we do is receive sheets of briefing papers that were drawn up by government officials only? It is unfair to even call these sessions as consultations.
"What is needed is transparency, accountability and good governance without the interference of politicians serving their own agenda," he said.
‘Like father and son'
Federation of Malaysian Consumer Associations (Fomca) president N Marimuthu, who was also one of the panelists, had the audience in stitches when he compared the briefings to a father and son relationship.
"The actual situation is analogous to a father and son relationship where the son would just say ‘Dad, I am playing futsal tomorrow' without asking for permission or his father's opinion. This is what it is like when we are informed of a decision only after it has been taken without being asked for our opinions," he said.
Meanwhile, Fomca's vice-president K Koris accused Minister of Energy, Water and Communications Dr Lim Keng Yaik of making false claims that NGOs had been consulted and their views considered in making the recent decision to scrap the national water privatisation plans.
"Keng Yaik has made a blatant lie. His statement is very misleading when in fact, the only initiative for discussion was made not by the government but by (Parliamentary Opposition Leader) Lim Kit Siang," he during the question an answer session.
A member of the audience who only wished to be identified as Chang reminded the crowd of the role of the government to serve the people.
"Government representatives must give out information on these matters to the public, as obedient civil servants. Indeed, if the ministry officials in the panel are here to take our orders, it is that the people's concerns be acknowledged and that they remain informed of everything the government wants to do with respect to privatisation of anything," he said.
Assuring the audience that they will be kept abreast of the national healthcare financing proposals once more concrete decisions have been made, Ministry of Health parliamentary secretary Lee Kah Choon (photo) cited the importance of the subject as a reason for the lack of information.
"We have done a number of studies that still cannot be declassified as yet as it is such an important topic that requires thorough consideration on our part. It is not simply a matter of receiving recommendations by independent consultants and then coming up with a plan. A lot of time needs to be taken before we can disclose anything, but rest assured it will reach public knowledge when the time is right," he said.
Identity of consultant
On the topic of independent external consultants to the government, Rathi Ramanathan from the Coalition Opposing Privatisation of Health Services asked Lee if there was any chance that the identity of the consultant on the healthcare financing scheme proposal be disclosed, to which he replied:
"I am telling you the truth by saying that I do not know who the consultant is. Yes, I know many people may be cynical but it is true, I don't know who it is or whether it is a local or foreign entity. I don't see any reason why it (consultant's identity) can't be shared with the public though. I will relay your request to the Minister and see what happens from there."
He also asked for a little more faith in the government's ability to handle the matter.
"We are merely tackling a long pressing issue that has been mulled in the past 20 years. Trust us to thinking on our own without following blindly whatever our consultants recommend. The bottom line is that we want to find a way to finance healthcare that doesn't entail privatisation. If we are told that this is not an option, we will put out foot down and not take up the proposal. Have some confidence in us, we know what to do," he said.
The forum was organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.