Act Of Betrayal

The Snuffing Out of Local Democracy in Malaysia

by Prof Johan Saravanamuttu

Melody or Malady?

elections The Malaysian Local Democracy Initiative (Malodi) launched by the "People Are The Boss" group in Penang in February 2000 is a project that deserves our attention. The group has called for a return to local democracy or "self-governance" at the local level. The Ratepayers Association of Penang has also come out strongly to call for representation of NGOs in the local councils.

Both these initiatives have fallen on deaf ears and the subsequent appointment of a civil servant as President of the Penang Municipal Council (not City Council, mind you) surely indicates the Penang state government's lack of intention to respond to these initiatives. Meanwhile, Malodi has initiated an alternative or "shadow" Penang Municipal Council in several meetings in February and March this year.

A USM survey carried out last year in the Bayan Baru parliamentary constituency found some 72 per cent of the 913 respondents wanting a re-introduction of locally elected councils.

The time is ripe for Malaysians to demand a return to a fundamental practice and basic provision of any democratic system elected councillors to serve citizens at the local level. How did the demise of local democracy occur in Malaysia? Let's take a brief look at history.

A More Vibrant Past

Most Malaysians today are probably unaware that vibrant local level democracy existed in the 1950s and 1960s. We had 373 local authorities that had well over 3,000 elected representatives out of a total of some 4,223 local councillors. This number excluded those of the Kuala Lumpur municipality, which came under a separate jurisdiction because it was the federal capital.

The three most prominent municipalities were George Town, Ipoh and Malacca. Elsewhere, there were 37 town councils, 37 town boards, 289 local councils and 7 district councils. Penang and Malacca were the two states which had local councils state-wide and only Penang had fully elective councils throughout its territory on both the island and the mainland.

George Town had a particularly eminent history in terms of democracy at the local level. The first elections in Malaya were held there in 1951 to elect nine councilors. George Town was a "city council" (the only one) by virtue of the fact that it was granted city status by the British in January 1957. With the passage of the Local Government Act, 1960, a new Constitution was granted to the City Council of George Town from 1 April 1961. George Town was fully autonomous financially and was the richest local authority, with annual revenue almost double that of the State of Penang. Its Reserve Fund at the end of 1965 stood at some 6,037,535 Malaysian dollars.

In 1966, under a (Transfer of Functions) Order, the functions of the City Council were transferred to the Chief Minister to enable a Commission of Inquiry "to inquire on [sic] the acts of maladmini-stration and malpractices and breaches of law committed by the City Council of George Town".

After the commission completed its work and filed its report, the Chief Minister of Penang continued to administer George Town. In fact, the government at this time was already intent on carrying out a much larger study of the operation of local authorities, and in June 1965 set up a "Royal Commission of Inquiry on Local Authorities" headed by Senator Athi Nahappan.

The Nahappan Commission held numerous sittings, hearings and received memoranda from far and wide and completed an excellent and comprehensive study of the workings of West Malaysian local authorities. It completed its work in December 1968, coming out strongly in support of elected councils. However, the central government chose to completely ignore and set aside the findings and recommendations of the Nahappan Commission.

After the Nahappan Report was completed, the Cabinet appointed yet another commission or committee to study the implications of the Nahappan Report. This Cabinet Committee was headed by Hassan bin Mohd Noh, the secretary general of the Ministry of Technology, Research and Local Government. Among its members were Hashim Yeop Sani, the then representative of the Attorney General. To the credit of this Committee, it went along with the spirit and most of the Nahappan recommendations.

It was, however, another report submitted by the Development Administration Unit (DAU) of the Prime Minister's Department which effectively set aside the Nahappan recommendations in 1971.


What did the Nahappan Report recommend that was so objectionable and why did the DAU recommend the abolition of locally elected councils? The DAU's main arguments were that elected local councils were no more consonant with new national objectives such as the New Economic Policy and that they provided for "an over-democratized over-government at the local level" (sic). Furthermore, the DAU claimed that the system led to "oligarchic elites" facilitating the domination of the "haves" over the "have-nots".

More objective observers, however, have cited two ostensible reasons for the collapse of locally elected councils. First, the Indonesian Confrontation led to the de facto suspension of local level elections since 1965 and second, the May 13, 1969 racial riots provided the perfect excuse to kill off opposition elective local councils.

In reality, ethnic factors probably had nothing to do with the demise of elected councils. Rather, opposition politics and the issue of inefficiency or maladministration may have led to the decline of local government.

Without doubt, the smothering of opposition politics triggered the demise of local democracy. Consider the fact that both George Town and Ipoh consistently elected opposition parties Socialist Front and People's Progressive Party to head and run the city councils. The same happened in Malacca.

Also consider the fact that in the 1962 local council elections held in Perak, the PPP won 57 per cent of the votes and 112 of the 150 seats contested in the Kinta District. The Alliance won only 27 seats, while 11 seats went to the Socialist Front.

Road to Local Democracy's Demise

A few prominent personalities were connected in one way or another to this saga of declining local democracy.

The first major character involved was the erstwhile Socialist Front Mayor of George Town, D.S. Ramanathan. (Later, Ramanathan became an independent and then Alliance councilor). Ramanathan, who has a road named after him in Pulau Tikus, caused a major sensation in 1963 when he alleged serious malpractices on the part of George Town councillors.

Of course, his accusations in those days pale into insignificance compared with the kinds of scandals that Malaysians are now used to hearing about. One charge was that there was fraud in the construction of the city's largest market. The flap led to a vote in the council, which although rejecting Ramanathan's complaints, agreed to a commission of inquiry.

However, it was only three years later in 1965 that the Royal Commission headed by Nahappan was formed. The Nahappan Commission had the likes of Ramanathan, Awang Hassan, Chan Keong Hon, Tan Peng Khoon and Haji Ismail Panjang Aris serving on it. Just as the commissioners started their work, the onset of the Indonesian Confrontation led to the suspension of all local councils.

The Nahappan team finally submitted its report in 1968. Its recommendations were crystal clear. It called for the restoration of elected local government but with a variety of administrative changes and a new set of rules. On hindsight, one could surmise that the commissioners were acting in good faith although perhaps somewhat naively. Some of the more important Nahappan recommendations were:

  • Every state capital should be administered by a local authority and have elective representation. The same principle should also be extended to all local councils outside state capitals
  • There should be one single law applicable throughout the country relating to and governing local authorities, and every state should adopt and enforce the law within six months after it has been passed by Parliament
  • A local authority should be decentralized and should be an autonomous body corporate consisting of fully elected members with financial and administrative autonomy but subject to the control of the State government on matters of national importance and interest
  • Party politics should be allowed to continue despite its good and bad aspects and those who wish to remain non-conformist should have the right to stand as 'independents' as in the past
  • A Local Government Tribunal should be constituted by the State Authority of every local authority
Despite the submission of the Nahappan report and its very considered and reasoned recommendations for the revival of local democracy, the minions of state stepped in to snuff out elective local government in complete contradiction to the spirit of the recommendations.

The then Local Government Minister Ong Kee Hui played a significant role here. Long after Confrontation ended in 1971, he recommended the setting up of the Cabinet Committee to study the Nahappan commission's recommendations. And again, against the grain of the Cabinet report on the Nahappan commission's findings, proclaimed that there was consensus among the states to oppose restoration of elected local government. He then did nothing in particular for a number of years except to allow existing councillors to be replaced by members of the same party upon death or inability to continue.

Then, the Local Authorities (Temporary Provisions) Act was enacted in 1973 which in theory implemented some of the administrative and restructuring recommendations of the Nahappan Report.

The writing was on the wall and the coup de grace came three years later when the government enacted the Local Government Act of 1976. The new Act only allowed for the establishment of 12 municipalities and 90 district councils within three years, but most detrimentally members of these councils would be appointed and not elected and in most cases the chairman would be the District Officer or some other civil servant. This is the system of local government we now have.

We cannot but conclude that the setting aside of the recommendations of the first Royal Commission of Malaysia was an act of betrayal. Had the Nahappan Commission's recommendations been fully implemented, we would have in Malaysia today a healthy democratic practice at the local level.

The government's reactions to the Commission's recommendations were calculated and deliberate although it must be said that a variety of personalities also played their role in the decline and eventual demise of local democracy in our country. Still, the betrayal must surely fall squarely on the shoulders of the governments of the day federal and state which did nothing to revive elective local government. Instead, they literally, through acts of commission and omission, snuffed it out.

It remains for citizens now active in championing local issues to pick up the pieces and struggle on for the restoration of local democracy in Malaysia.

Johan is a professor in political science at a local university