Local government elections: Sarawak can show the way

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Voters casting their ballots enthusiastically at the Penang Forum 3 experimental local council poll in 2010

Bersih Sarawak views with great concern the recent hasty announcement by Dr Mahathir Mohamad stating that the federal government does not intend to implement local council elections despite Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin earlier stating that her ministry is currently conducting a study on the proposal to bring back local council elections.

The move has been today described by GPS leaders as yet another U-turn or backtracking by Mahathir but as Sarawak’s Local Government and Housing Minister Dr Sim Kui Hien rightly pointed out, the state has its own local government ordinances and is free to decide its own destiny.

Historically and through the pre-formation of Malaysia documentation, namely the Intergovernmental Committee Report 1962*, the autonomy to run its local government including to conduct local government elections for its local authorities was among the powers retained by Sarawak upon its becoming part of the Federation of Malaysia. Local government also appears as an item in the State List of the Federal Constitution to this day (*Paragraph 22 of the Report of the Intergovernmental Committee).

Sarawak has the necessary experience in conducting elections to elect councillors to the local authorities going back to 1948 based on the Local Government Elections Ordinance, 1948 (Cap 118) and Local Authorities Ordinance, 1948 (Cap 117). We should have continued holding these elections as we have been holding the elections to the State Legislative Assembly and Parliament regularly.

Our established system of electoral college was even lauded by the Cobbold Commision in its report. Lest we forget, the first Chief Minister of Sarawak, Stephen Kalong Ningkan, was elected a district councillor, then a divisional councillor, and finally a member of the state legislature, and a member of the supreme council in 1963. These elections were abolished in the 1980s for reason(s) which were not widely known to the general public.

READ MORE:  Why not have local elections?

Bersih Sarawak is also of the view that having local government elections will strengthen grassroots democracy and participation in decision-making amongst communities that are often already bonded together by local ties (ie that of a particular district or even division).

These kinds of elections would provide a good start and a good training ground for young people who aspire to be future people’s representatives at a state or national level. If they are elected councillors they would have already learned about budgets, taxes and levies and other basics of good governance, accountability and integrity in the running of local government.

Needless to say, it would also be beneficial for ratepayers and citizens as a whole because non-partisan local government elections would mean that councillors are accountable to the voters and ratepayers who voted them in.

Issues and services close to the hearts of the residents and locals like low-cost housing, town/country planning including public libraries, recreation and other public amenities and public health, sanitation and the environment can be better aired and heard by those elected councillors and hence decision-making would be more reflective of the wishes of the locals. In other words, voters and ratepayers would overall be better served by bringing these elections back.

Having effective and accountable local councillors and mayors would also free up the state assembly members or members of Parliament to focus on policymaking and the business of law-making – as opposed to the current scenario where they will have to daily face complaints and handle issues that are within the purview of local councils and councillors.

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We therefore call upon the state and the minister in charge to show the right way and bring back local council elections in the state of Sarawak – but of course not before having further consultations and debates with stakeholders and grassroots civil society about the merits of restoring these elections.

Endorsing NGOs:
Ikram Sarawak
Pade
Lawyer Kamek 4 Change (LK4C)
Rise Of Sarawak Efforts (Rose )
Dayak Think Tank Group (DTTG)
Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (Sadia)
Teori Timur
Save Rivers

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