If now is not the time for Anwar Ibrahim to bring back this essential local election level of democracy to Malaysian society, when exactly can civil society expect its promised restitution?
While the various ministries are deciding their priorities, we hear the new ;ocal government development minister, Nga Kor Ming, say that restoring local council elections will not be the immediate focus of his ministry.
Who decides that this should be the case and on what basis? If now is not the time for the leader of reformasi, Anwar Ibrahim, to bring back this essential local election level of democracy to Malaysian society, one that has been suspended since 1965, when exactly can civil society expect its promised restitution?
This is not the first time we have seen the reneging of this basic democratic demand in the election manifesto by Pakatan Harapan (PH). After GE14 in 2018, then new housing and local government minister Zuraida Kamaruddin gave the same excuse, that the new government had to give priority to other important matters because the country could not afford to run local elections.
Appointments to local councils are a colonial practice
This justification for putting off the holding of local council elections is laughable when we bear in mind that even before we became independent, we had our very first democratic election – the Kuala Lumpur municipal elections of 1952. It was the first step we took on the way to self-government. At independence, we continued our commitment to local government elections because appointments to political office were seen as a colonial practice. This is remarkable considering how economically poor we were at independence compared to our economy today.
At independence, our GNP per capita was US$800. Our GDP per capita is now more than US$10,000 and we are supposed to be almost a high-income society, but we are told we can’t afford local government elections.
Then PH prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad gave the even more gobsmacking excuse that local government elections would be detrimental to race relations. His reasoning was that since most of the ethnic Chinese reside in urban areas while most of the Malays are in rural areas, the holding of local council elections would see urbanites governed by one race, with another race managing the rural areas.
In fact, during the early years of independence, Barisan Nasional (BN) was reluctant to have local council elections because many local council elections in the towns and cities tended to be won by the opposition. During the 60s, many towns and cities were run by the Socialist Front. This was the real reason for not wanting local elections, not because of the so-called racial divide. But then, Mahathir has never been noted for any commitment to justice, democracy, and human rights.
Furthermore, non-partisan local government is neither unique nor inconceivable. Local government in Malaya before 1960 was conducted without parties. Many cities around the world, including, for example, some of the largest in the US such as Los Angeles and Chicago, have non-partisan elections for their city councillors. There is no reason why race and religion should dominate over a healthy focus on the welfare and demands of ratepayers. Even in developing countries like Bangladesh and South Africa, the devolved local government system is widely recognised as one of the key institutional forms for a public service delivery system that ensures democratic governance at the grassroots level.
I have often stressed the fact that elected local government can, at a stroke, depoliticise education in Malaysia simply by building schools based on the need of the local communities rather than being treated like a political football in general elections by the education ministry. Few Malaysians have noticed, for example, that the all-important role of local education authorities in the Education Act 1961 is no longer mentioned in the new Education Act 1996. Local education authorities are familiar with their local community and can thus accurately match funds and facilities to the sectors most in need, which can counter the politicisation of education.
More convenient to appoint party cronies
It was clear that the Alliance and later BN opted for the convenience of appointing their own political party cronies as councillors rather than risk the uncertainties of democratic elections. Since 2008, the PH government has been following suit in the states they control, namely Selangor and Penang. This temptation for any ruling coalition is certainly strong, for the local tiers of government have been seen as the launch pad for political party appointees as well as their NGO allies all these years.
During the 10 years of PH rule in the states of Selangor and Penang, polls could have been held unofficially with the support of civil society and without requiring the Election Commission. But political party appointments provide the convenience of perpetuating patterns of patronage. The periodic outbursts of discontent by those party leaders and NGO activists who were overlooked are symptoms of this unhealthy party appointment system.
Local government elections long overdue
In the democratic tradition, taxation cannot be justified without representation. Ratepayers must be represented on the governing body which determines how that money is to be spent. This is a fundamental precept of parliamentary governance which is critically applicable at local-level government. It is to satisfy the requirement in a democratic society for greater pluralism, participation, and responsiveness.
The Royal Commission of Enquiry into the Workings of Local Authorities in West Malaysia led by senator Athi Nahappan in 1968 recommended the return of elected local government. Their recommendation was not carried out by the BN government, and it proved to be the start of a disgraceful habit by the BN to ignore RCI recommendations.
If we hold fast to the time-honoured concept of “no taxation without representation”, nominated local government undermines the legitimacy of local authorities to collect assessment rates which are the most important source of income of the local authorities. That is why the royal commission report concluded that the merits of elected local government with all its inherent weaknesses outweigh those of the nominated ones.
Local councils must be accountable and responsive to residents
Malaysians are no longer prepared to put up with negligence or irresponsibility. Residents whose voices objecting to crass so-called “development” projects, water disruptions and periodic floods have been ignored, are demanding that their voices be heard at the local council. In this sense, we can see why local authorities are considered the primary units of government. Many services including education, housing, health, and transportation require local knowledge and can be better coordinated and more efficiently implemented through the local authority.
Finally, we find that in the modern state, many social groups such as women and manual workers are grossly under-represented. Local government can provide them with the channels to air their concerns and to participate in decision making. Bottom-up local level participation is vital to ensure voters can influence decisions. Imagine how empowering it will be when we can determine who our local leaders are and vote them out if they prove to be unheedful of our demands, negligent or corrupt.
Bersih must lead the campaign to bring back local elections
Since PH has reneged on this promise to bring back elected local government, it is incumbent on Bersih to take up this challenge of fighting for our right to have this third tier of democracy. I am sure Malaysian civil society is totally behind Bersih on this move.
One would expect that as our society becomes more mature in the “new” Malaysia helmed by a reformasi champion, democratic principles of accountability at the local community level would be considered the highest of priorities and the new normal. After all, we are merely bringing back the democratic rights we had from 1957 to 1965.