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Elected local government should
be considered again by Malaysia

By P G Lim*

20 February 2006: In Malaysia, the deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s department, Datuk M. Kayveas, caused a furore recently when he called local authorities "secret societies" because of the lack of transparency and accountability, highlighted by public concern over mismanagement, wastage of public funds on overseas junkets under the pretext of study tours, approvals for deforestation of land causing untold damage to the environment, lack of enforcement, bribery and corruption in local townships.

The Malaysian public simply does not know how the authority is administered and the quality of services which are either not forthcoming or are ill-performed. The local authorities are a law unto themselves.

Reference was made in the Dewan Rakyat (Malaysia’s lower house of parliament) at its October session to the former Prime Minister's acknowledgment that corruption was widespread at all levels of government. Bribery and corruption have become a way of life since local elections were abolished in 1970. Since then, councillors of the local authorities are appointed by the mentri besar or the chief minister. Names are submitted by political parties for consideration and present day councillors cannot therefore be regarded as truly independent.

The short sighted move to abolish local elections in 1970 means that councillors will not be responsible to their electorate but only to the people who appoint them. The reason for this move was prompted by the eruption of racial riots in the aftermath of the 1969 elections, giving rise to the perception that party politics if allowed to continue as the basis of local government would be against the national interest as the government was anxious to prevent the spread of further outbreaks of violence elsewhere.

This perception has held sway ever since; the ensuing results of appointing councillors leads us to wonder if this is not the time to restore local council elections since the reason for their abolition is now a matter of history.

Few people remember that a Royal Commission of Inquiry had been set up in June 1965 "to inquire into the workings of all local authorities, to review the existing local government laws and to report and recommend as to the need for structural changes of local authorities by evaluating the need or otherwise of the existing authorities in their present form."

This did not touch on the system of elective representation itself. The chairman of the Royal Commission was Senator Datuk Athi Nahappan. The Royal Commission officially submitted its report through the Minister for Local Government and Housing in January 1969, before the occurrence of the racial riots in May 1969.

The commission in its report concluded that, in general, the various categories of local authorities "do serve a useful purpose, being the agencies providing some of the essential services to the people and that they have an important role to play in the governmental process of the country as a whole."

It was accepted that local council elections should remain. However, the commission indicated that due to certain inherent weaknesses in the existing local government set-up, some basic reforms must be carried out in the overall pattern of the local government system if the local authorities are to be expected to play their role more effectively and efficiently in the future.

This was a committee of officials from relevant ministries, whose terms of reference were limited to studying the report and to consider the financial, administrative, staffing and other implications of the recommendations made therein; the effect of their implementation on federal and state governments if considered for adoption; and their observations and recommendations on the question of implementation.

Here again it was accepted that the present system of elected representation should remain. Because of the May 1969 riots, the committee could start their work only in July 1969.

This committee submitted its report in January 1971. It recognised that under their terms of reference, they had to accept the "concept expounded in the report and as well as the concept of having local government covering every inch of the country" and kept to their brief of making proposals and recommendations on the implications of implementation.

The committee itself recommended in Chapter 12 of its report that "every state capital in West Malaysia should be administered by a local authority; and that it should have elected representation, which principle should also be extended to all local authorities outside the state capitals". Be it noted that this was the view of the majority of the committee.

On elected representation the committee had this to say "We studied in considerable depth the views of the commission on the question of party politics being allowed to continue despite its good and bad aspects.

"On the one hand one cannot deny that party politics at the present stage of the country's political maturity can be a divisive force and if permitted at local government level may hamper or create partiality in the provision of social services in local authority areas. On the other hand, we cannot run away from the fact that party politics at local government level will have to be accepted as a way of life sooner or later and it is best faced sooner than later if the process of developing social and democratic advancement is to be encouraged at grass-root level. We agree with the commission's recommendation that party politics should be allowed to continue despite its good and bad aspects and those who wish to stress their faith in non-conformism should have the right to stand as ‘independent" as in the past'."

Nevertheless, two of the seven members of the committee, namely the representative of the Bahagian Kemajuan Pentadbiran (Development Administration Unit, DAU) and the representative of the Town and Country Planning Department dissented from the majority view. DAU in its dissenting memorandum was inclined to disagree that all local government units should function on the basis of party politics "at the present time".

It is interesting to note that this did not rule out elected representation altogether. It went on to say that the recommended local government system based on partisan democracy appeared to provide for an "over-democratised over-government".

The following excerpt from the memorandum shows the real reasoning behind its rejection of elected representation. The DAU (then) was haunted by events of May 1969.

It said: Malaysia is still subjected to external threat as well as a relentless attempt to subvert the normal functioning of the governmental system by undesirable elements. A partisan, democratic system of local government, recommended by the Royal Commission, appears to provide for the establishment of a convenient channel for effective subversion and/or infiltration by the said elements with the real possibility of resulting in internal political instability and socio-economic non-development.

In view of what happened on 13 May 1969 the government has to consider whether it is in the national interest to reintroduce democracy at a level of government below those of the state and federal at the present time. These views can now be challenged in view of the fact that the reasons behind them are now irrelevant.

Secondly, they do not preclude a fresh or another review at the Royal Commission's proposals on the question of restoring elected representation at the local level.

In this connection I would like to inject a further note. In 2001, a Cabinet Committee on Urban Poverty was established. In April, the Ministry of Housing and local Government was given the responsibility to eradicate urban poverty.

It was reported in that the minister was enthusiastic about the new responsibility. However, to achieve this objective, the ministry has to depend on the local authorities, to which such an objective is not a priority.

It is well-known that the ministry's initiatives for clean drains, clean toilets, recycling and clean cities go unheeded and even MPs have been portrayed as lending a hand at clearing up in areas where their constituents live. With the reintroduction of local elections, this will be the responsibility of local councillors who will have to answer to their electorate for their actions, inactions and other shortcomings.

P G Lim is a prominent lawyer and former Malaysian diplomat. Her article was first published in theSun which, with a circulation of 150,000, is regarded as Malaysia’s only free newspaper. (www.sun2surf.com)


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In 2004: Winner: Edi Rama (Tirana); Runner-up: Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Mexico City}; In third place - Walter Veltroni (Rome)
In 2005: Winner – Dora Bakoyannis (Athens); Runner-up - Hazel McCallion (Mississauga); In third place - Alvaro Arzú (Guatemala City)
In 2006: Winner – John So (Melbourne); Runner up – Job Cohen (Amsterdam); In third place - Stephen Reed (Harrisburg)
In 2008: Winner – Helen Zille (Cape Town); Runner up - Elmar Ledergerber (Zurich); In third place - Leopoldo López (Chacao)