Democracy at work: Empowering people

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In a unique experiment, ordinary people were provided with a means to express their preference and their feedback was taken seriously, reports Henry Loh.

On 9 September, 2012, I had the wonderful and unique opportunity to witness “rakyat-centred” participatory democracy in action. The residents of the local council-owned low-cost Ampangan apartments in Ampang Jajar, Butterworth were given an opportunity to inform the local authority, Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai (MPSP) via a voting process, their most pressing needs and concerns.

The Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB) pilot project to establish the needs of the residents in Ampang Jajar was initiated by the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC) in collaboration with the MPSP. The project is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. The PWDC has many programs and projects running simultaneously in various parts of Penang both on the island and in the mainland. The focus here is on the empowering voting exercise that took place amongst the residents of Ampang Jajar.

Exciting exercise

The single block of apartments in question has a total of 1050 residents. The ground floor has a community hall and a prayer room. An open space akin to a ‘lobby area’ is also available to all the residents. At around 1.30pm when we arrived and walked to the common area, much merriment and an air of festivity hung over the place. Several fun activities and games were organised and coordinated by a group of volunteer youths.

Behind the fun and merry-making to entertain the children and youths, an exciting exercise of democratic power was in progress. That Sunday was the last day of a three-day voting period for the residents to determine which of their needs/wants would be prioritised. Before providing more details of what happened that day let us backtrack a little and visit in greater detail the democratic and empowering process that had taken place.

This election by the residents to determine which needs should be given top priority was the brainchild of Wong Hoy Cheong, a consultant at PWDC in charge of this pilot project. The process which culminated in the voting actually started in April this year when Hoy Cheong and his GRB team members carried out a survey amongst the residents to establish the demographic and social pattern of the residents. Following this, in the months of June and July, several focus groups were formed to initiate the process of consultation with the various stakeholders there.

Through the discussions and deliberations of the focus groups – seven core needs were established. In no particular order of importance, the needs are summarised as follows:

  • Recreation park (taman rekreasi)
  • General cleanliness (kebersihan)
  • Trading sites (tapak perniagaan)
  • Activity centre (tapak aktiviti)
  • Traffic lights at the entrance (simpang keluar-masuk)
  • Building maintenance (kawalan bangunan)
  • Security facilities (kawalan persekitaran)

Hence the stage was set as to which of the above core needs would be given priority considering the limited available funds and resources.

Brilliant idea

Hoy Cheong came up with the brilliant idea of getting the residents to voice their preferences via a voting process using “play money” of RM500 allocated to each and every resident above 10 years of age. The residents were divided into five groups – children aged 10 to 18 years, youths (19-30), adults (31-55), senior citizens (above 55) and differently abled persons.

To include children over 10 was an enlightened and bold move as it duly recognises the rights of children providing them a say as to what they feel are their needs in their living area. Very often adults decide what is best for children and they are duly sidelined. This early lesson in the importance of democratic practices and the power of their votes will leave a lasting and positive impression on the children. When we spoke to a little girl and asked if she had voted, she informed us that she was only nine years old and hence was not eligible; however she was fully aware of what was going on. When asked, she had, without hesitation, replied that her play money would have gone to the recreation park.

Each eligible resident was given five coupons of play money each representing “RM100”. Notices were then given to all residents that three days of voting would be set aside for them to cast their votes/play money into any of the seven boxes – each box representing a particular core need. The idea of allowing for three separate days of voting was to try and cater to the different times that residents may be free considering that they were involved in a multitude of occupations. After each day of voting, the results were tabulated and displayed in a common area so that residents could see which of the seven preferences was leading in terms of the play money it had attracted.

An interesting consequence of this was that residents then started lobbying among those who had yet to cast their “money’ to support their preference. Hence we were told that many children and teenagers lobbied amongst their peers and adults to support their call for a recreation park to be set up. Similarly residents who felt that erecting a set of traffic lights at the road junction of the apartment building should be given top priority would have lobbied amongst their fellow residents who had yet to vote.

Bottom-up approach

Through this voting process one could witness democracy at work and the empowering effect it had on the residents. As GRB project director Aloyah Bakar said in her speech, this process of determining needs was the “bottom–up” approach and not the usual “top-down” style employed previously. The people were provided with a means to express their preference and their feedback was taken seriously. It highlighted the fact that with limited resources, one cannot have everything and choices have to be made. It helped to promote healthy competition amongst the residents to lobby for their specific needs and preferences. This was indeed clear recognition of people’s power and should be lauded and encouraged.

Meanwhile, MPSP President Maimunah Mohd Sharif urged all the residents to take ownership of the facilities and services provided by the Council. For example, if the CCTV facility is vandalised, the residents would be deprived of a security feature in their residential area. The President also reiterated the importance of residents paying their rental on a timely basis so that MPSP may reciprocate with needful services.

The final polling results placed the recreation park as the top priority garnering RM58,700 followed by the need for building maintenance (RM55,700), and a set of traffic lights at the junction (RM52,900). The MPSP has given an assurance that they would seriously consider these top three needs. In total slightly more than 67 percent of the 886 eligible voters had turned up to vote. It was indeed a good and encouraging start.

If there is a proper follow-through and some of these needs are fulfilled, it would provide tremendous encouragement and confidence to the residents. Indeed if this project is successful, it could be replicated throughout Penang or even the country.

Conversely, if none of the preferences are met, then the residents will be thoroughly disappointed and the entire democratic exercise will be called to question. The authorities and powers-that-be now have the onerous obligation of ensuring effective follow through on the results of the voting exercise, while the GRB team needs to continue engaging with the community in the context of gender-responsive budgeting and local democracy in Penang.

Henry Loh is an Aliran executive committee member

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