Josh Trindade

The recent political developments in Timor-Leste have made evident the unavoidable reshuffle coming up in the country’s government. In a dinner with Government members on 28 January 2015, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao announced to his cabinet members the upcoming restructuring the Government. Few days after this announcement, as many as 25 cabinet members ranging from ministers, vice ministers and state secretaries received an official letter from the Prime Minister requesting them to submit their resignation letters. Some already did so and some still did not, expressing their unhappiness about the decision.

There are various reasons why a cabinet reshuffling should take place. For a small half-island nation, 55 cabinet members for a population of 1.2 million seem too many. The oversized Government for the newest country in Asia not only costly, but it faces challenges from coordination between ministries, vice ministries, state secretaries and directors within the government. Comparing to neighboring Indonesia, with 255 million people, the current Jokowi Government members are just 34, with 18 members coming from professional backgrounds and 16 from coalition parties. It means that, government member and population ratio in Timor-Leste is (1 : 21,818) while in Indonesia is (1 : 7,500,000). If we compare Timor-Leste to a smaller country like Fiji, with 881,000 total populations, the new cabinet member consists of only 14 Cabinet Ministers and five deputies.

An oversized Government is not only costly, but also cumbersome, requiring substantial efforts in management and coordination. Furthermore, it can cause overlapping responsibilities between ministries, especially when the Government did not have a clear line on what ministry is doing what job. This is the case with the current Government. For example, the Secretary of State for Vocational Training Policy and Employment is currently working on a community tourism program, which should be under the responsibility of the Ministry of Tourism. The same Secretary of State is also undertaking a rural road project which should be under the wing of Ministry of Public Works. In the last two and a half years Government performance has not been that great. Therefore, it is a good idea that Prime Minister Gusmao decided to reshuffle his cabinet.

The debate and discussion in Dili is currently focused on who should be in our out, or which party and what coalition should be in place to form the new Government. Therefore, I will focus my attention on what should be new in terms of government programs when the new Government takes office. There is a lot of work that needs to be done immediately once the new government takes office. Security is arguably the most important issue that needs to be addressed by the new government. Peace and stability in this fragile nation are a top priority, because without them, no development program can move forward. Major security issues that require immediate solution include Mouk Moruk and his rebellious members, youth related martial arts problems, and in general terms strengthening the work of F-FDTL, PNTL and justice sector.

Hunger and poverty are common causes of social unrest and are a direct threat to peace and stability, even more than rebellious individuals and groups. An important job for the new Government is to ensure universal access to food. To tackle this problem in the last few years Government has subsidized rice imported from neighboring South East Asian countries, but the distribution of this rice is still facing many challenges. In addition, many reports pointed out that Timor-Leste is one of the countries where the population still suffers greatly from hunger and malnutrition. In the long run, the new government needs to come up with a food policy to ensure food sustainability in the country and to stop rice importation from outside.

In addition, the new Government needs to address infrastructure, especially the country’s connectivity and public transport, to ensure the population has access to services. A good public transportation system will solve many social and economic problems and it will narrow down the gap between rural and urban areas. Economic activities will increase and the tourism industry can kick off, bringing employment and solving the hunger and poverty issue in some areas. The transportation system should not only be focused on roads, but it has to be seen more generally to include international and domestic air and sea ports, as well as look into innovative transportation solutions that are ecological and of high capacity. If the new Government is wise, they should consider a Solar Power Cable Car as an alternative transport system, given the mountainous terrain of Timor-Leste and abundance of solar energy in the country. The cable car transportation system will have several advantages because it is low cost for maintenance and minimal environmental impact.

Improving the quality of health and education in the country is another priority area, that needs to be maintained by the new government. Many good policies are already in place, but the quality of services is still poor. For example, the functionality of the health emergency services needs to be improved in rural areas, as some clinics often run out of medicine and distribution of pharmaceuticals is often late. In the area of education, many school infrastructures and facilities are lacking, resulting in students sitting on the floor during classes. The curriculum need to be improved, the teachers need more training, etc.

Some experts, especially those from the civil society have also warned the Government that payment to the veterans can dry out Timor-Leste’s petroleum fund. The Government has also been warned that the Timor-Leste oil revenue will stop when the oil dries around 2025-2030. An important agenda for the new Government is to improve the existing policy in order to make payments to the veterans in a more sustainable way.

Twelve years after independence Timor-Leste remains one of the poorest countries in Asia. One of the challenges the country is desperately trying to address is youth unemployment. Currently the Government is the biggest employer in the country. It is wise for the new Government to put in their agenda to tackle this problem.

By now Timor-Leste should already have a non-oil based economic policy because as mentioned earlier, sooner or later Timor-Leste’s oil will run out. To avoid debt and bankruptcy in the near future, a well-designed non-oil based economic policy needs to be developed immediately by the new Government. The country has potential in developing its tourism industry which is still a dormant at the moment. In the last few years Government spending has been spoiled by the revenue from the petroleum fund which in turn not only made the Government less accountable to its citizens, but also other economic opportunities has been overlooked or forgotten. As an example, the Government should have established a coffee roasting factory in the country to assist Timorese coffee farmers. A coffee roasting factory will not only have value added to the coffee itself, but it will also create employment opportunities for the general population.

Local Governments in Timor-Leste are the root of the central Government in Dili and local leaders such as Suco (village) Chiefs and Municipal Administrators can be seen as the bridge between the people and the Central Government. The Central Government will be strengthened if local Governments are capacitated. There are weaknesses found in choosing an individual in charge of running local Governments. For village chief election for example, a chief will be directly elected by people in the village. The disadvantage in this process is that, an individual is elected as manager of a village or a municipality not because his/her merit, but probably because the person is a well-known or supported by a political party. In addition, the election gives a lot of power in the hands of the manager (the village chief or the municipal administrator) and the council members have only unimportant symbolic power. Take example from the USA, where the local election is only to elect council members and they then hire a manager based on merit. If the manager cannot perform his/her job well, he/she can get fired by the council immediately. This system not only works well but also it ensures checks and balances. As a new country, Timor-Leste should adopt best practices in terms of local governance from a well-established system like the United States.

The new Government of Timor-Leste should also continue to work on settling the maritime boundary issue with Australia. On 14th of January, the National Parliament approved a law (law no 2/2015) to establish a Maritime Council to work in this matter. This Council needs to be begin functioning immediately, because this is one of Timor-Leste’s most important national interests.

It is expected that the new Government should bring in new ideas and strategies in implementing the national development programs in order to improve the quality of life of the Timorese and to earn their trust. If not, there will be no difference between the old and the new Government. The programs can be the old ones but the implementation of these programs should utilize new strategies, concepts and technologies in order to secure better results.

Some ideas for the new Government to focus on are as follows.

There need to be a clear line for division of labor between ministers, vice ministers, secretaries of state and directors within the new Government in order to avoid government members overlapping in function. This can be done through a decree law as a guideline. We must also not forget about the division of labor between the central Government and the local (municipal) governments. Not having a clear definition of which Government institution is doing what kind of work, will create confusion among them, as experienced by the previous government.

To improve the quality of life of the Timorese, the Government needs to establish a national standard, a code that guarantees the quality of development in the country. Timor-Leste’s development process is guided by the Strategic Development Plan (2011-2030), but a detailed implementation guide and quality assurance codes need to be developed. As an example, Timor-Leste needs to have code for roads, public buildings, schools, hospitals, water and sanitation, housing, etc. Without an agreed upon code, it will be difficult to guarantee the quality of infrastructure and quality of life will be difficult to measure because everyone will use different standards.

As a new country, Timor-Leste has the opportunity to use new technology in its development, bypassing the traditional way of doing things. As an example, the country should start investing on how to use the green energy such as solar power which abundance. The new Government should invest more in renewable energy sources to protect environment, rather than rely heavily on fossil oil.

It is hoped that, Timor-Leste’s new Government will do things differently from the previous Government. The Government will not be new, if the way they do things just the same as before.

All statements and views in this article represent solely the opinion of the author, and is in no way representative of any official opinion or position of the author’s employer.