Local council elections for Malaysia?

POT-HOLED roads, clogged drains, illegal rubbish dumps, haphazard development, lack of green spaces, parking like noobs, uncontrolled house extensions, rats, mosquitoes, monkeys — and on and on the problems go, in your neighbourhood.

What your area will look like, where economic development should take place, be it next week or in 10 years, is — to some extent –determined by your local council.

But the complaints about the ‘quality’ services of agencies with governance over streets, drainage and garbage is fodder at coffeeshops and teh tarik stalls, among other congenial meetups.

It does seem as if a fire has been lit for local elections to be held in Malaysia, after the 14th General Election. It is as if the door to some fundamental reform has been opened and local council elections is part of reforming the administrative institutions.

To Malaysians who have only known the agencies doing the day-to-day administrative work, like sweeping the roads, and garbage collection, among other services, it’s like finally having some real say in what happens in your town.

Some may claim that the tenders for such services are subcontracted to foreign workers. But it’s not just who is going to the dirty jobs. It’s about owning the democratisation process, after the GE14 showdown.

Making change happen is going take time and political literacy.  The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance has it that new emphasis is being placed on the broader concept of governance the world over — involving citizens and the many organisations of civil society like businesses and unions, professional associations, churches, charitable groups, and community-based organisations in the pursuit of the public good, not just on the official processes of government.

But for most Malaysians, from Generation Alpha (starting 2010) to millennials (1982-2004) and  Generation X (1961-1981) — today’s agencies are the only local governance known in their day-to-day lives.

The current system works for Gen X, as one Mdm Lim points out that the appointed agency and its staff will do the job. “It’s after all  their job, but  they should implement and follow the rules already laid down”.

However, millennial P.S. Lim says: “Let’s do it! Let’s vote.”

For newly-minted Lembah Pantai Member of Parliament Fahmi Fadzil, the millennials are an Internet-savvy bunch. “Culturally, the Internet changes the pattern of consumption of information and it’s more open. The information changes the way we see the role of authorities. We want to have greater agency, enfranchisement, the third vote. We want greater accountability, transparency, and more responsibility.”

giphyBut he feels there is currently a poor grasp of the democratisation process, something which has to be inculcated from schools onwards.

“It has to be a package; we need to change the way we see our relationships as citizens, the roles as councillors, state assemblymen and MPs.”

Malaysians did have local council elections until these were suspended in 1965 during the country’s confrontation with Indonesia, when the ruling government felt a need to have more control of local councils for security reasons. It was abolished under the Local Government Act 1976.

Appointments have since been based on the political party ruling the state, except in Kuala Lumpur, which has only parliamentary seats as a Federal Territory, and the Federal Government appoints office bearers to the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL).

Councillors, mayors and council presidents are appointed under Section 10, of the Local Government Act, 1976.

Section 10(2) of the Act states that “councillors of the local authority shall be appointed from amongst persons the majority of whom shall be ordinarily resident in the local authority area.”

They must, “in the opinion of the state authority, have wide experience in local government affairs or have achieved distinction in any profession, commerce or industry, or are otherwise capable of representing the interests of their communities in the local authority area.” The Act does not require a councillor to represent a political party.

Local Government law expert and former two-term Petaling Jaya councillor  Derek Fernandez is gung-ho about local council elections being held in the peninsula as soon as possible.

“It can be done in 100 days. Local council elections is the basis of democratic governance. You cannot have democracy without representation. And, you are assessed in housing, etc, you pay taxes, so it is only correct that you have the right to appoint, vote for, your representative for your area.

“It gives the power back to the people. And, the local councillor can assist the MPs.”

Fernandez says the elected councillors provide some measure of protection of public rights on local government matters.

He adds that the local election process could weed out any illegal or corrupt actions. “When a person is elected, they are subject to public accountability.”

Fahmi is on the same page, and backs not only a mayoral election but also an election for the advisory board of the Kuala Lumpur City Hall.

The embers under the third vote issue started to glow when the then opposition-led Penang state government took the Barisan Nasional Federal Government to court. In 2014, the Federal Court declared the Penang state government had no jurisdiction to hold local government elections.

After GE14, the calls grew louder for the “third vote” to be implemented. It helped that Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin said in late May that local council elections can be held within three years.

While other politicians, including the new Federal Territories minister is cagey about the time frame, Fahmi does agree that such changes will take time.

“The relevant laws must be amended. But it needs due process. For example, in order to pass a piece of legislation, you will need a committee to debate it. First reading, second reading, which is the committee stage… we bring in the stakeholders, and go into the minutiae of the law. To amend any legislation, there must be room for this process to take place.

“It will take time, but it will happen.”

As for the elephant in the room, the talk of local council elections setting off racial polarisation gets a mental shrug as Fernandez points out that there are 142 local councils in the peninsula, and only 5 are of non-Malay majority.

Says Fahmi: “For one, we must take a knee and recognise that to move forward, we must break away from the race rubric. We need to reconsider the lens through which we see Malaysian life.”

Local issues matter to every Malaysian. After GE14, the trend of governance is more needs-based rather than race-based.

“People will slowly need to wrap their heads around the change (in government). We want to bring around a new culture of politics, which is consonant with a new Malaysia, and resonant with this new Malaysia.”

Local council elections make people answerable to the ballot box. It starts small, with you and I, but man, will it shake things up.

** This op-ed appeared in the NST. https://www.nst.com.my/opinion/columnists/2018/07/394178/power-people



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