Part 1: Popit a Key Component for Malaysia's Governance Initiatives

17 Dec 2014 by Khairil Yusof

In Malaysia, political parties, politicians and businesses are highly connected, with political parties being involved in businesses, and politicians holding positions in multiple goverment linked companies (GLC). With only one government coalition in power since independence, many politicians elected and unelected continue to hold important positions which affect institutions and the way democracies function. 1 A single well designed public database with open API is needed for Malaysia to build better transparency and governance applications.

Sinar Project previously tried to solve this with our own custom implementations, but lack of time and resources meant that we fell into trap of rewriting common components for different projects multiple times. Popit was recommended to us by Dave Whiteland of MySociety in 2013. Since then, we have focused our efforts on populating this Popit instance and building applications around it.

Representatives

Basic CV information of most parliamentary representatives are not easily available. An effort to do surveys in 2013 as part of MyMP project and crowdsourcing information lead to only partial information of 60 out of 222 MPs. 2 As a result of this, we have learned that to build up CVs of past employment and posts held by our representatives to know them better, we have to piece together this information from various sources. This reinforces the need to work on a single comprehensive database.

Popit Entry: Datuk Ahmad Husni Hadzlah

Building career history from multiple sources. The history of the following representative comes from general elections candidate database, website of government statutory body and news archive.

represenative career

We have been able to kick start this excercise thanks to generous donation of the database of political candidates of past 3 elections including political parties by Malaysiakini.com an online news portal. The technical process and code for this will be covered in follow up post.

A fun fact from the import process is that, the Election Commission accepts or publishes different names for the same candidates in different elections. This provides a hint that electoral rolls may not be that clean. 3 For us it means we have to rely a lot on popit merge API call to track down and merge people.

Some lessons learned during this excercise:

  • In countries like Malaysia where democracratic institutions are weak, populating information on representatives often involves putting together bits and pieces of information from lots of different sources.
  • A user friendly, multi-user UI is needed for crowdsourcing.
  • Updates for each field need to be attributed properly for information integrity. A workaround currently being used is general source field. Source per field is still needed when other applictions use the database and only reference parts of the information. More on this later.
  • Posts are needed in web UI.
  • Honorary titles for names are used officially a lot in Malaysia, and this would need to be implemented in Popit UI.

Accountability and Beneficial Ownership

In Malaysia it is rare for anyone to be held accountable for any public issue. Public projects and results of policies often take up to several years before mismanagement or corruption issues are raised and highlighted. It then becomes difficult to trace back who was responsible, especially if positions have been shuffled around or the companies and departments have been closed down. The Auditor General audit reports and press reports rarely note down who was the head of the responsible departments or companies.

Publicly accessible and reliable information on posts held by people, especially start and end dates backed by verified sources in Malaysia's popit database is key to building applications and visulizations around them.

In a recent case, 3 deputy ministers on the board of a government public corporation FELCRA accepted honorariums along with current and past 11 other directors. We will have the ability to match this information to learn more about the political history and which constituency these ministers are from, as we build our database and hold them accountable. 4

This is a long term effort and requires resources, and Sinar Project is now working with coalition of several local NGOs consisting of Transparency International Malaysia, Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, Citizens Network for Better Malaysia and Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism to share research information and support their work with our Popit database and supporting applications.

GIAT Coalition

Political Financing and Clean Elections

Posts for representatives also has an Area field, which is important for analysis to track down political funding. If the Area field 5 is mapped to another Poplus component such as MapIT or Represent Boundaries it will not only provide basic lookup functionality for finding representatives, but it will allow other NGOs and researchers to see how public funds were spent in the constituencies of various represenatives.

Continuing work

Thanks to Poplus mini-grant, we have been able to work on this initial import excercise, as well as develop initial supporting applications. As a result of this work, we have been funded to continue development and build supporting applications for other NGOs to use Popit in Malaysia with a small full time team for the next 6 months thanks to the Southeast Asia Technology and Transparency Initiative (SEATTI) 6.

Look forward for our next post, where we will cover technical issues, import code using Popit-Python and new generic representatives and issue tracking sites using our newly populated Popit database.

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