Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Back at the coalface - reflections from Malaysia


For those interested in the reasons from my absence from blogging, I've been away in Malaysia. A working holiday of sorts. Though I've not been able to keep up with blogging I've kept up with events on Twitter and can see that I have missed little. I picked up on yet another tedious and inaccurate debate about the customs union, a Boris Johnson speech (eviscerated within minutes of delivery) and a further ideological entrenchment on the Tory right. Nothing out of the ordinary.

In recent weeks and months it has been hard to maintain the momentum for blogging as the situation remains the same with nothing changing our immediate circumstances. There have been attempts to steer the debate but until Tory delusions are shattered once and for all there will be no new substance to speak of. It seemed as good a time as any to seize the opportunity of a lifetime and get the hell out of Dodge. 

That said, I cannot say that I was off duty. When you have a Brexit education and see virtually everything through the prism of governance, a new place opens up whole new conversations about regulation and standards. They say you can tell a lot about a man from his shoes - and if that is true then you can tell a lot about a country from the state of its drains and its pavements. It gives you an insight into the nature of the regulatory regime and the legal culture. 

Kuala Lumpur is a young city. Most of its development has happened in the last forty years and it has seen rapid growth since the nineties. It's a place where planning and standards as we know them do not exist. Moreover, those that do are applied retroactively as the city attempts good governance after the fact. The city was not built on a foundation of good governance and it shows.

A while back we were exploring the reasons for the Somerset floods where some suggested a contributory factor was run-off from fields causing sediment to choke many of the rhynes and drains. KL experiences the urban equivalent more acutely with topsoil from building developments choking the drains and gutters, combined with years of neglect. This becomes especially evident after a major rainstorm where standing pools of water stay on the roads - leading to floods and road traffic accidents.

It is also evident that there is no concept of common property as private developments encroach on to city property. Concrete vehicle ramps carve up public drainage channels. Pavements are considered parking spaces and civic enforcement is entirely absent. Similarly the governance of taxis is only marginally better than if no system existed at all. 

Once you get a read on the landscape you are then not surprised by what you find in recent news media. With building standards an optional extra we see that residential blocks are built with every corner cut leading to construction accidents and fatal crane and bridge collapses. It would also appear that Grenfell like events are far from uncommon. Fire safety and building standards are an afterthought

What can be said is that Malaysian authorities are at least attempting to grasp many of the issues but the sheer scale of the task of installing good governance is beyond their immediate ability. Too much is happening outside of their authority and is not helped by widespread corruption. We see illegal land clearances, bulldozing rainforest to make way for urban Developments (routinely unsuitable and unfit for purpose) or palm oil plantations, leading to main drainage channels being frequently overwhelmed and causing fatal mudslides.

As you travel out of the city it gradually becomes more derelict where the poor quality of the roads leads to lethal public transport accidents. Buses are frequently overcrowded and overloaded and it only takes one pothole to sent a bus careering into a ditch. 

One might have expected the scenery to improve as one travelled further out but instead it becomes clear that everything takes second place to palm oil plantations - a lucrative but destructive export. Dotted among them are massive ghost towns and unfinished and abandoned towerblocks. 

KL is reputedly a global city but actually it's a sprawling conurbation with low population density. The picture postcard of KL is only really a few blocks with a central business district barely the size of Leeds. Its impressive skyscrapers serve as a distraction from the decay on the street level. Notably the city caters mainly for tourists with nearly every stall selling virtually identical counterfeit goods punctuated by unregulated street vendors

As you can imagine I was the worst possible company for a trip like this, pointing out every flaw while seemingly unmoved by the awesome spectacle the skyline and the sheer excitement of being immersed in an alien culture. Instead of marvelling at the Petronas Towers in the early evening light I was poking at a drain clogged by palm leaves to see how deep the obstruction was. I can now see why my dad was a good environmental health officer and why my mother has been driven to the brink of insanity.

But this is the very essence of politics. This is the "invisible government" which is absolutely essential to the functioning of a first world country and paramount to everything built above it. This is the domain of technical governance over which the EU has extensive influence, clashing with may of our own systems to their detriment

As much as there was an EU dimension to the Grenfell disaster, there are countless other examples where the basics are neglected. As EUreferendum notes, to represent them as "failures" does not do justice to the phenomenon. "What we have seen over term is a slow, insidious degradation of multifarious, often informal systems of government, the nature of which most people are entirely unaware. And because so few people even know of them, or understand why they were there, or what they were there for, they have been allowed to decay to the point where the system no longer works any more".

Now to say that they don't work, when contrasted with Kuala Lumpur may sound like something of a an exaggeration but the Somerset floods (an EU regulated domain) and Grenfell are symptoms of this decline and and if these events happen, freak though they may be for the UK, if they happen at all then the system is not working. 

The contrast being that these systems of governance in Kuala Lumpur are in their infancy with a slow but notable momentum to correct them. The UK, however is starting to regress as a consequence of a warped political culture which has only inherited good governance - built over the generations and built into the physical fabric of society.

Having abnegated responsibility for technical governance to the technocrats who regulate without specialist local knowledge or institutional knowledge of the distinct character of regulation in member states we have taken to automatic adoption of regulatory systems for trade and political goals rather than serving their function in the common good.

Reading around the edges, authorities in Kuala Lumpur are making slow and determined progress on a number of critical issues. Not least food safety and disease control. What is needed first and foremost are massive public education campaigns as to why blocking drains and antisocial parking (among other things) cannot be tolerated, combined with draconian enforcement of the basics. Particularly where building controls are concerned. 

I get the impression this is coming since the population will not tolerate these avoidable disasters forever. On present trajectory, however, it may be that the UK has to get used to the idea that freak accidents like Grenfell will become routine.

If there is one thing clear about Brexit then it is that our political and media culture is not equipped to handle change. It is more or less able to blunder from one crisis to the next taking adequate corrective action when necessary but has acquired an institutional lethargy combined with a lethal disengagement from the tedious minutia it prefers to offshore to Brussels. If you want a justification for Brexit then that is it. Brexit (in part) puts the responsibility and accountability for technical governance where it should be. That they are incapable of handling such responsibility is a consequence of EU membership and we will have to re-learn the art of governance. 

It has been a refreshing contrast to see a country with real world political problems. The lack of these material concerns in the UK is perhaps an indicator of why our own politics is so banal and lacking in substance. That is not to say that we do not have real problems. Our drains and gutters may function within tolerance but many of our problems lie within the structure of government and its relationship with the media. 

That is what is opening up societal divisions leading to a resurgent tribalism where governing in the common good comes second to doling out the rewards of power to their respective voter bases. This is essentially the political dysfunction that underpins Malaysia's decay which is showing signs of worsening. That more than anything explains the state of the drains. 

We are told that Brexit is an expensive distraction from the normal business of government, but when the normal business of government is meddling in trivia - indulging in politics but neglecting policy, it is high time we had a far reaching national conversation about the basics and who is responsible for what. 

I doubt this will be the last time I make reference to my experiences in Malaysia. There is a lot to be said about the UK finding a new role in the world and the recent Oxfam scandal while I was away, encompassing many other NGOs, will bring about a number of questions for the UK about its foreign and aid policy - and this may be the opportunity to open up the debate about how we invest overseas.

If Malaysia is anything to go by then the whole region is in need of development aid and technical assistance to make the leap from being third world derelict places to having modern, habitable, healthy global cities. The UK as an exporter of governance systems, engineering and technology can help their development along while opening up countless opportunities for trade. Even amidst our own dysfunction, Britain still has intellectual assets to export and with civics in our DNA, we still have a lot to teach the world. The far east has proven it can build but has shown little talent for maintaining. 

Some Brexiters see this enterprise as an opportunity to deregulate and reform ourselves in the image of Singapore. There are policies we can certainly emulate but Kuala Lumpur shows us that our wealth and longevity is built on maintaining high standards. There is nothing to be gained by entering a regulatory race to the bottom. 

Our high standards were always our best exports and the reason why British engineering was (and still is) in the major leagues. I am not at all convinced we want to go the way of Singapore, and I won't be convinced until I've had a look at the drains in a Singaporean suburb and seen how well the taxis are regulated. Unregulated markets seem good in theory but not so nice when you experience them on a street level. If you want a cheap knock-off Ted Baker handbag they've got it sussed - but good living and good government takes a whole lot more. 

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