Restore local elections

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

Like many Malaysians, Penang Forum believes Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s opposition to the idea of restoring local elections in Malaysia based on racial concerns is misplaced and not factually substantiated.

Malaysia has held local, state and federal elections without any outbreak of racial violence except for the 1969 general election, which was not local elections. Furthermore, as many have pointed out, the ethnic demography in cities has changed substantially such that in major cities, such as Kuala Lumpur, Malays form the majority of the population.

We welcome Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow’s statement that Penang is ready for local elections. We urge the chief minister to take the next concrete steps in that direction. For instance, aside from being the Penang State Assembly member for Padang Kota, he is also the member of Parliament for Tanjong, an institution with powers to amend and enact federal legislation.

We urge him to submit a private member’s motion/bill as a backbencher – with the support of the finance minister, who is equally sympathetic to the idea of reviving local elections – in Parliament to debate the merits of amending the Local Government Act 1976 to facilitate local elections. We also appeal to all Pakatan Harapan MPs to throw their unequivocal support if such a motion is introduced in Parliament.

The Penang state government had unilaterally initiated a Local Government Elections Enactment in 2012. Although it was invalidated by the Federal Court on the excuse that it contravened Section 15 of the Local Government Act 1976, civil society had urged the Penang state government to hold a mock local election, which it regrettably did not do.

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If Parliament fails to amend the law to allow for local elections, Penang could still initiate such a mock election. The state can also explore alternative models of election such as a proportional representational system that can better take into account the concerns of minorities that are not addressed under the presently practised first-pass-the-post system. This will increase the likelihood for representatives of minority groups, special interest groups and women to be elected.

It could then replace the appointment of local councillors with those elected by ratepayers in the mock election. This people-oriented selection process would effectively allow the state government to circumvent the Local Government Act and enhance the spirit of local democracy in Penang. Penang could lead the nation and showcase this as a pilot project that local elections are viable and desirable in this country.

Therefore, we urge the chief minister to take a more active role in championing the restoration of local elections on behalf of all Penang and Malaysian people.

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