Restore local council elections

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Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi must pay heed to the numerous complaints against local councils and restore local democracy to the country, says K George.


First and foremost, let us salute theSun for its ongoing crusade in exposing abuse of power, corruption, favouritism, nepotism and inefficiency so rampant in several local councils.  I will be failing in my duty if I do not pay tribute to the editorial staff, the journalists and the reporters of the daily for a job well done. theSun is distributed free but that is not the reason why its circulation has risen to a staggering figure of 265,000 per day.  It is a true reflection of the people’s appreciation of the paper’s commitment to its readers in reporting issues boldly without fear or favour. This is ethical journalism as it should be.

I wish to mention one of the men behind the disclosure of Datuk Zakaria Md Deros’ palatial mansion built without submitting plans or obtaining approval from the local council. Let us thank that man as well. It was Aliran member Dr Xavier Jayakumar who drew the attention of theSun to the anomalies in the construction of the mansion.  He is a resident of Klang, working as a dentist in Pandamaran.  Besides, he is also the Deputy Secretary General of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).  Well done and thank you, doctor.

Political expediency

Democracy means governance by the community through its elected representatives for the benefit of the community.  Malaysia has chosen democracy as the system of governance.  As in other democratic countries, we too have chosen three levels of goverence – Town Councils (local authorities), State Legislative Assemblies and Parliament.  The people’s representatives at all these levels should rightly be elected by the people.  In fact, several years before Merdeka, while the country was still ruled by the British colonialists, Malaya had local council elections.

Elections to local councils continued even after independence from 1957 until 1964.  The government headed by Tunku Abdul Rahman, however, abruptly suspended local council elections in the wake of the Indonesian Confrontation. Following that, a committee headed by Datuk Athi Nahappan was appointed to inquire into and recommend to the government whether or not to revive local council elections.  Athi Nahappan was then the deputy president of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), one of the three political parties in the Alliance which formed the government of independent Malaya.

Athi Nahappan’s committee in its report to the government  recommended the restoration of local council elections.  Although the Tunku was known to be a democrat – having spent more than 10 years in England, he must have been very familiar with the virtues of democratically elected local councils – his Alliance govrnment chose to ignore the recommendations of the Nahappan Commission (See ‘Act of betrayal’ by Dr Johan Saravanamuttu, Aliran Monthly Vol 20 No 4 for a comprehensive account).

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You may ask why the Tunku rejected the recommendation.  Let me refer you to the article 'Bring back local council elections' by a prominent parliamentarian and extremely knowledgeable lawyer, Karpal Singh, which was published in Aliran Monthly Vol 25 No 3. Karpal Singh hit the nail on the head when he put it bluntly that the government abolished local council elections on account of political expediency as most of the elected local councils were then controlled by the Opposition in towns throughout the country.

In Karpal’s opinion, which is shared by many,  "…it is the abolishing of the local council elections in 1964 which led to the sorry state of affairs” that we witness today.

Local  councils have become unaccountable, indifferent to people’s woes, inefficient in their management and intolerable in the way services are provided. Councillors become arrogant, abuse their powers, serve themselves, not the public, and become the source of corruption as has been exposed.

The appointment of Councillors ignores their background and their track record of performance and does not take into account even if they were found to be recalcitrant or totally discredited. Their positions in the BN parties override all the other considerations, and they can be reappointed – and, in some cases, together with their family members – again and again even if they flout the law and regulations, refuse to pay their assessments, put up buildings illegally and operate their businesses without licence.

A classic case in point was the reappoinment of Zakaria, together with  his son and daughter-in-law – all three being prominent members of the Umno leadership in Klang – in spite of his misdeeds. Luckily for us, HRH the Sultan of Selangor intervened to stop this farce. Though Zakaria resigned because of the mounting pressure, that did not stop the reappointment of his son and daughter-in-law as Councillors.    
    
Instead of being repentant for the mess created in the local councils in Selangor, Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo tried to justify the unjustifiable with his shocking statement, “Let us face it, building without proper planning permission is not just rampant in Selangor, but the whole of Malaysia”.  

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It is true, indeed. But the question is, “Is it right to perpetuate a wrong because it goes unchecked elsewhere? Do we want the rot to continue perpetually?”

Numerous complaints

It is truly regrettable that the BN government is not bothered about improving the delivery system or about being accountable to the people. That is also part of the reason – besides the fear of being thrashed if local elections are held –  why the BN government will not resort to local council elections.
    
This is very evident in the comments by Goh Ban Lee, a consultant interested in urban planning, housing and urban governance.  Let me  reproduce extracts of his comments on a debate in the Dewan Rakyat on local councils as reported in theSun of 3 October 2006:   

“Recently, Karpal Singh, Member of Parliament, representing Bukit Glugor constituency, asked the Minister of Housing and Local Government whether the government was brave enough to hold elections for the local authorities. (This was in reference to the 1,250 complaints received by the ministry against local councils.)  

“The Minister, Datuk Seri Ong Kah Ting, replied that Malaysia had its own distinct situation and that the system of appointing councillors was still appropriate and adequate.”

What else could the Minister have said? What ‘distinct situation’was he referring to?  In any case, the Minister was dutybound to defend the prevailing system.
 
Goh, commenting on the Minister’s reply, said that there would be no guarantee that the people would not have any complaints against elected local councils. But he made it clear that the establishment of local authorities is for the benefit of local residents and that they must have the right to elect their representatives.  Besides, the councillors depend on the people to be elected so they have to perform in the interest of the people.  Goh also observed that democratic countries usually hold elections for their local councils.

With regard to the complaints by the people which became a point for debate in Parliament, Goh said there could be another 50 complaints unreported for each of the 1,250 complaints. But it was obvious that the minister’s answer was not convincing. How can it be convincing when there is no logic?

A lot of our wealth is wasted and squandered because there is no effective check and balance system in place. Unethical and corrupt councillors who are politically rewarded continue to enjoy the confidence of the BN leadership even though the taxpayers are simply disgusted with their conduct, performance and lack of interest for the welfare of the people.

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Appeal to Abdullah

Mr. Prime Minister, even before you entered Putrajaya as the fifth premier of  Malaysia, you had in an inspiring manner undertaken to launch a relentless fight against corruption. You solemnly pledged to eradicate corruption, promote transparency and accountability, ensure open tenders and introduce democratic reforms as part of your mission in running this beloved country of ours.  Unlike your predecessors, you called upon the opposition, the NGOs and the rakyat to criticise the government so that you will know what is bothering the nation and the people.

This undertaking was admirable. It led the people to believe that you were very open and that you would make a difference. But, unfortunately and sadly, since then, there has been mounting criticism from various sources that all that you promised the people has not really taken off. There is this impression that nothing is moving.  

There have been numerous complaints against local authorities. Local authorities represent grassroots democracy. It is where people effectively contribte to strengthening democaracy and safeguarding the sinews of the nation which sustain our democratic way of life.

This is something that you must pay heed to and bring back local council elections. If you do this you will stand out as a statesman in the annals of our history. If you ignore this plea from so many sources for the return to local democracy, then you will not be any different from any other politician. That would indeed be a pity.

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