If the Local Government Act stands in the way of local government elections, then it must go. It is not because we are lawless but because we value democracy, writes Tan Pek Leng.
The fate of local elections in Malaysia is a sad reflection of the state of democracy in the country. Never having had the chance to be firmly rooted, it was rudely trampled upon when it attempted to grow, leaving it mangled, hidup segan mati tak mahu.
A testimony of our failed state is how our democratic rights are reversed rather than advanced. The third vote, our constitutional birth right as a nation, was forcibly taken away – no, not in the interest of the citizenry, but as a political expediency by the ruling coalition to cripple the legitimate Opposition. More than half a century after Independence, we are battling to get back to square one – to get back this third vote.
Much of the recent discourse on how to restore local elections revolves around what the law allows and what it doesn’t. “Does Section 15 of the Local Government Act 1976 (LGA) override the Local Government Election Act 1960 (LGEA) and thus prohibit all local elections?” “Does Section 1 of the LGA exempt the State Governments from the restrictions imposed by Section 15 of the same act and thus allow them to invoke the LGEA to restore local elections?”
This legal conundrum appears to have got the Pakatan Rakyat State Governments tangled in knots for a while. The Perak and Selangor state governments attempted to cut the Gordian Knot by asking the Elections Commission (EC) to conduct local elections in their respective states, only to be told by the EC that this would be against the law.
The question is: why are we allowing ourselves to be dictated by a piece of legislation of such questionable legitimacy?
A look at the process that culminated in the promulgation of the LGA will lay bare the many anti-democratic acts that abetted it.
Thirteen years of local elections
It is the height of irony that the Umno-MCA coalition (the precursor to the Umno-MCA-MIC Alliance and subsequently the Barisan Nasional) first laid claim to fame in the 1952 Kuala Lumpur municipal elections, when it won nine of the 11 seats. The Alliance continued to perform well for the next few years because the opposition parties had yet to consolidate themselves. The tide began to turn by the end of 1956, however, when the Alliance suffered unexpected defeats in local elections in Penang and Melaka. The Penang debacle, in which the Alliance failed to win a single of the eight seats contested, was attributed primarily to the harsh action taken to crush the Chung Ling High School students’ protest against the conversion of their school into a national-type school.
The downward slide continued and by the December 1957 local polls, the Socialist Front (SF) – a coalition of the Labour Party of Malaya (LPM) and the Party Rakyat Malaya (PRM) – had gained enough seats to take over the Penang City Council. In this series of local elections, the Alliance garnered 18 seats, less than half of the 37 contested. A year later, the trend was reversed, with the Alliance doing better than they themselves expected, clinching victory in four of the five contested seats in Penang. But how credible were these wins? The names of so many previously registered voters were missing from the electoral rolls in George Town, Butterworth and Bukit Mertajam that the EC contemplated postponing the elections for these councils. To be fair, though, the raising of assessment rates by the SF-controlled Penang City Council and the splitting of opposition votes by the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) contributed to the Alliance success.
The Alliance achieved a similar apparent triumph in the Kuala Lumpur local elections of 1958, winning three out of four wards. However, the total opposition votes in the four wards were greater than the Alliance votes. Once again, dissipation of votes among the opposition parties had handed the victory to the ruling coalition. Overall, the Alliance took 43 of the 57 contested seats as well as 19 unopposed ones in the 1958 series of local elections.
On the face of it, this ostensible Alliance dominance continued through to the 1960s – with them winning 430 seats to the Opposition’s 148 in the 1961 local elections and 449 seats to the Opposition’s 184 in 1963. Examining the popular vote garnered, though, tells an entirely different story. In 1961, the Alliance obtained 218,428 of the votes cast compared to 227,104 for the Opposition; in 1963, it was 251,970 votes for the Alliance versus 263,000 votes for the Opposition. In both cases, the Alliance had won less than half the popular vote but more than double the number of seats. Gerrymandering was already well entrenched within a few years of Independence.
Having the upper hand in the numbers game did not satisfy the Alliance; it irked them that the choice urban councils were out of their grasp. First, the Penang City Council in 1958; then, the Melaka Municipal Council in 1961; followed by the Seremban, Kluang and Bentong Municipal Councils in 1963 came under the control of the SF. The PPP had also taken a firm grip on Ipoh by 1961. Under the pretext of the volatile political climate engendered by the Confrontation with Indonesia, the Alliance Government suspended local elections on 1 March 1965. The Speaker refused to allow a motion by the SF Members of Parliament calling for a debate on the issue.
But this supposedly precarious political situation had not prevented the government from holding state and parliamentary elections in 1964. The Alliance realised that the Opposition was better able to win control of local councils than state or parliamentary constituencies and was certainly not keen to allow them free play on these platforms.
War of attrition
The foul means adopted by the Alliance to stem the challenge of the Opposition was not limited to electoral sleight of hand. Detention without trial put many experienced cadres of the SF (then the strongest opposition party) out of action, threw the party organisation into disarray and weakened its capacity to play a meaningful part in the electoral process. The first mass arrest of political opponents took place only a little more than a year after Merdeka, on 1 October 1958, with the detention of 109 persons.
The situation did not improve after the end of the Emergency in 1960 as the Internal Security Act (ISA) was introduced to allow the government to continue the practice of detention without trial. SF leaders and members were frequent victims of the ISA throughout the 1960s, in big operations or small. Among the instances of mass arrests that targeted large numbers of SF, in particular LPM, members were those executed:
• between November 1960 and February 1961, with a total of 60 persons arrested, including SF leaders and local councillors;
• in December 1962, when more than 50 persons were arrested throughout Malaya as a prelude to the formation of Malaysia and the Operation Cold Store, which decimated the Left in Singapore with the arrest of more than 120 political leaders and trade unionists;
• in March and June 1964, at the height of the Confrontation with Indonesia, when Malay leaders from the SF and Pas were the main targets, but many LPM state and branch level leaders were also nabbed;
• in the early months of 1966 when about 50 LPM and PRM cadres were arrested (SF had split up in December 1965);
• on 25 October 1966, when about 100 members of LPM and PRM were arrested following demonstrations organised by the two parties against US President Lyndon Johnson during his visit to Malaysia. Between 1966 and 1968, an estimated 250 protests and demonstrations were held in various parts of the country, each to be met with repression and arrests;
• on 9-14 November 1968, when some 140 LPM, PRM and trade union cadres were detained following the confessions of former LPM National Chairman Koh Kay Cham and Assistant Secretary-General Loh Yuen Wah upon their release from ISA detention. As in 1967, not a month passed in 1968 without the detention of dissidents.
• in the aftermath of the May 13 riots of 1969, when the government once again found the excuse to decimate the LPM and PRM further through arrests of their leaders and members.
The arrests were systematically and strategically deployed to deprive the SF of its leaders and more experienced cadres at the national, state and branch levels. This was combined with the banning of certain divisions and branches of the Front. The continuous lopping off of the leadership echelons left the organisational structure of the LPM, in particular, in shambles and a combination of bans on political grounds and deregi-strations on administrative technicalities reduced the number of LPM branches from 224 in 1967 to 24 by 1972. The party was finally deregistered by order of the Registrar of Societies on 6 September 1972.
Eleven years of suspension
Suspending local elections may have prevented the Opposition from making further inroads into the local councils, but it did not return the “lost” councils to the Alliance. How more efficiently can they wrest back these councils than by Executive decree? Whether it was legitimate did not enter into the discussion. The case of Penang was instructive.
D S Ramanathan, former Chairman of LPM and the first Mayor of Penang, peeved with the party by 1963, accused the SF-controlled City Council of corruption and malpractices. The Alliance government could not move against the council yet as it was still firmly in the grip of the SF. The opportunity arose in January 1966 when the SF lost control of the council after another of its former stalwarts and Penang Mayor, Ooi Thiam Siew, quit the party and the PRM councillor chose to align with him.
It was a godsend for Chief Minister, Wong Pow Nee, who immediately constituted a commission to inquire into the allegations brought forth by Ramanathan, although he had professed that he could offer no evidence for them. On 1 July 1966, three days before the commission was to commence its probe, Wong Pow Nee announced that the State Government would take over the functions of the City Council. The commission completed its inquiry in November 1967 and found that “although there were irregularities and inefficiencies in the council’s administration, there was no hard evidence of outright bribery”.
When calls were made for the City Council to be reconvened as the reasons for its temporary suspension no longer existed, the State Government announced that they had no intention to relinquish control of the Council until fresh elections were held. And how was that to happen when local elections had been suspended indefinitely?
Another trick deployed by the Alliance is one we are now very familiar with – enticing defections. It worked its magic in Melaka. On 24 March 1965, three SF members of the Melaka Municipal Council declared they were turning Independents; six days later, one of them was installed as the Deputy President. This was a very significant appointment as the President, Hasnul Hadi of the SF, was then in detention. But the defections were not sufficient to deprive the SF of their control over the council. The final coup took place in September 1966 with the takeover of the council by the Melaka State Government.
The respective State Governments similarly imposed their illegitimate hold over the Seremban, Johore Bharu and Bentong Municipal Councils – the takeover of the Melaka and Bentong Councils occurring after the official termination of Confrontation in August 1966.
Further, the end of the Confrontation did not mean the end of the suspension of local elections although the conflict was the sole reason cited for putting them on hold. The clamour in Parliament and State Assemblies for the reinstitution of local elections fell on deaf ears.
The Athi Nahappan Commission
The Federal Government had other plans in mind. In June 1965, three months after the suspension of local elections, they appointed the Athi Nahappan Commission to look into the functioning and administration of the local councils, purportedly with a view to improving and streamlining them. To the chagrin of the Alliance Government, the Commission’s report, completed in December 1968, strongly supported local elections. Instead of implementing the recommendations of the Commission, the Federal Government appointed a Cabinet Committee to study the implications of the Athi Nahappan Report. The Committee was also a disappointment to the Government because it endorsed most of the recommendations of the Commission, including the one on local elections.
The Alliance Government went for a third strike: instructing the Development Administration Unit (DAU) of the Prime Minister’s Department to undertake a further study. The pliant DAU, in 1971, advocated setting aside the recommendations of the Athi Nahappan Commission. With this spurious justification, the LGA was drafted and passed into law in 1976.
By that time, most of the opposition parties had been co-opted into the Barisan Nasional (BN), formed in 1973, and there was no effective voice left to raise objections against the passage of the Act.
34 years of ban
Throughout the three decades and more since the LGA denied us our fundamental right to the third vote, the issue has not died away. Unfortunately, with the BN’s overwhelming dominance in the Parliament, the demands for the restoration of local elections have been treated as mere irritants, undeserving of attention.
It was only with the tsunami of 8 March 2008 turning the tide that the issue has received a new lease of life. Hence, the momentum must not slack.
Why must we keep the issue alive? Because the chronicle of the abolition of the third vote is reflective of the larger narrative of the steady subversion of democratic institutions in the country. The underhand tactics deployed by the ruling coalition to dismantle popularly elected local governments are similarly used to undermine democracy at the state and national levels:
• The consistent use of the ISA to emasculate the Opposition;
• The tampering of electoral rolls, be it to make registered voters vanish or phantom voters appear;
• Gerrymandering to ensure that they get more seats than they deserve based on the number of votes garnered;
• The use of their strength of numbers to bulldoze through legislative and constitutional amendments which are to their advantage, no matter how undemocratic;
• The resort to Executive decree when the popular will cannot be bent to their favour.
Not to continue campaigning against the illegitimate deprivation of the third vote is therefore risking similar subversion of the first and second.
… still counting
The campaign is only just picking up momentum, the project is very much a work in progress. There is no telling how much longer it will take to restore local elections. But one thing is for sure, if we do not keep the pressure on, we will have many more years to count before the ban is lifted – or worse yet, have all hopes snuffed out.
Another thing is for sure: the LGA has no business obstructing us from reclaiming full democracy. If this law stands in the way, this law must go. It is not because we are lawless but because we value democracy.
Tan Pek Leng is an Aliran member
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