Restoring local government polls would empower people in new Malaysia

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

Much depends on whether civil society can argue convincingly that such elections would promote grassroots democracy, writes Ngu Ik Tien.

First up, Aliran is organising a writers’ workshop to be held on 27-28 July 2019. The theme for this workshop is “Writing for Change in New Malaysia”. Do register for this workshop if you wish to pick up some writing tips and gain confidence in becoming a published writer on issues of public interest. Here is the link for the registration. If you are outside Penang, please forward this message to your relatives or friends in Penang who might be interested.

Now that more than a year has passed since regime change in Malaysia, all indications are that civil society has decided to come out in full force to check the power of the new government – and rightly so, I might add. Civil society is expected to – and should play – the watchdog’s role, ever on the alert for any abuse of power or human rights violations.

In the case of activists Amri Che Mat and Pastor Raymond Koh, both of whom were victims of enforced disappearance, their families and human rights groups played an important role in pressuring the Ministry of Home Affairs to initiate a fair investigation into their abduction.

The latest case is the conviction of preacher Wan Ji Wan Hussin, which has outraged human rights groups and individuals and led to swift and concentrated efforts to pressure the government to repeal the Sedition Act, as promised in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) manifesto.

In these cases, it is encouraging to note the support from certain quarters in government to the demands of civil society. Thus, it is safe to claim that the government of the day is no longer a monolithic structure as was the case during the period before the 2018 general election.

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Although many issues and problems remain unresolved, we can see an opening up of the space for political discourse and action, especially for groups fighting for more regional autonomy.

Recently, a two-day conference entitled Federalism in Malaysia: Redefining The Federal State Relationship in Malaysia was held at Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia. The conference was launched by the Yang DiPertuan Besar Negri Sembilan, Tuanku Muhriz Tuanku Munawir. In his opening address Tuanku Muhriz urged Malaysians to avoid federal parochialism in maintaining their loyalty to the federation. Instead, he urged Malaysians to subscribe to the principle of subsidiarity so that the localisation of authority will allows state governments to respond to local concerns in a more effective manner.

The conference covered a variety of topics ranging from state rights in the Federal Constitution, local government elections, the political economy of government-linked companies, federal-state conflicts over vital issues, inter-state relations and more.

Guest speakers included politicians who are known for their progressive views such as Charles Santiago and Liew Chin Tong, renowned academicians such as former Aliran president Dr Francis Loh, emeritus professor Shad Saleem Faruqi and Prof Terence Gomez, legal experts, think tank researchers as well as representatives from East Malaysia.

It is safe to conclude that on the whole, the majority were in favour of decentralisation with the difference being mainly in terms of its degree and depth, and varying with different sectors and various levels of technicality.

Currently, six out of 13 states – Perlis, Kelantan, Terengganu Pahang, Sarawak and Sabah (pro-PH) – are administered by non-PH governments.

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For some PH-states, Malay royal families play an active role in asserting their role of safeguarding state welfare and interests – and this has on occasion placed them at loggerheads with the federal government.

It has been argued that some of these states have gained an advantage in striving for more balanced federal-state relations since 2008 by leveraging on the relatively weak ruling coalition then.

It would seem that in the interest of ensuring continued state support, the previous federal government may have ‘given in’ to some requests from the states. But then, no institutional change with regard to federal-state relations took place under the Najib administration.

Meanwhile the PH manifesto has specifically promised to devolve power and finance to state governments, but they have yet to deliver the promised goodies. In other words, if PH plans to fulfil the promises made in its manifesto then it would be obliged to seriously look at and eventually implement policies that decentralise power to the states.

What is disturbing though is that despite championing regionalism and state rights, the opposition state governments and local strongmen have demonstrated little interest in devolving power and resources to local governments and individuals or to their fellow state people.

States led by Pas, for instance , even reject restoring local government elections by racialising the issue, claiming that having these elections would result in giving power to the Chinese in urban centres.

Interestingly, the prime minister has also gone on record to share similar views ie that local government elections may disrupt inter-racial harmony.

READ MORE:  Restore local elections

Nevertheless, Housing and Local Government Minister Zuriada Kamaruddin has been mandated to explore the possibility and feasibility of restoring local government elections and is in the process of gathering feedback from the ground.

So there is still a chance that local government elections may see the light of day. But much depends on whether civil society can get together and argue convincingly that such elections can promote democracy and empower citizens at the grassroots.

It is also important to debunk the myth that local government elections will disrupt inter-racial harmony by providing proper geographical censuses and statistics.

In the new Malaysia, civil society must continue to be vigilant and proactive in pushing for all the reforms promised by the PH government in its manifesto.

The rakyat who voted for change had exercised their electoral right and experienced the sweet taste of victory. They sent a clear message to all Malaysians that, every five years or so, voters can and will evaluate the performance of the government of the day before deciding whom or which party they wish to support.

If the ruling coalition and the opposition realises that real power lies in the hands of the rakyat via the ballot box, then the hope for good governance principles to prevail will stand a much better chance.

We can then hope that integrity, accountability, justice, fairness, equality and freedom will be the backbone and framework of Malaysia’s political culture. We may then rest assured that we will pass down a better Malaysia to future generations.

Ngu Ik Tien
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
15 July 2019

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