Empowering local governments, ensuring accountability through polls

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The Penang state government took the case right up to the Federal Court

Local elections are the most effective way to restore the link between residents and their local councillors, writes Farha Yusof.

Many elected representative in Malaysia receive phone calls from time to time requesting them to take care of rubbish problems, clogged drains and potholes.

The complainants’ thinking appears to go along the lines of “Saya undi kamu; kamu bertanggungjawab” (I voted for you; so you are responsible).

But somehow they don’t complain in the same way to their local councillors. Why? Simply because local councillors are not elected unlike the Aduns and MPs in Malaysia, and they thus escape the scrutiny of most residents.

One of the major topics missing from the discourse in the build up to the last elections was the issue of decentralisation and local government. Under the Malaysian Federal Constitution, matters relating to local government are under the State list – Ninth Schedule and Article 113 (4). Yet, laws relating to land and local government in the Peninsular Malaysia are creations of the federal Parliament.

Local government is the third tier of government, usually called Majlis Perbandaran, which is responsible for a smaller, more localised area than the federal and state governments.

Calls for reform in the system or operation of local government have grown louder and more frequent lately.

In May 2012, the Pakatan Rakyat coalition government in Penang passed a Local Government Enactment to enable local government elections in Penang. But this was not consented to by the Election Commission, prompting the Penang government to embark on a long battle in the Malaysian courts.

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In the end, the apex court held that the Penang government had no jurisdiction to conduct local government elections and that the federal Parliament had not trespassed into its legislative powers.

Why should we support this effort to reintroduce local government elections?

Control by state and federal authorities is open to abuse of power. Under the Local Government Act 1976, the State enjoys wide control over the administration and finance of municipal and district authorities within its jurisdiction.

The appointments of councillors, mayors and presidents are currently at the discretion of the state. Not just that, the state also approves budgets, permit loans and exercises discretion over the dismissal of any personnel.

So whoever controls the state government would be able to appoint all of the local councillors including in areas where the elected representatives – whether Aduns or Mps – are not from the same ruling party of the government.

This can be seen in the Kuala Lumpur City Council: despite the Pakatan Rakyat coalition winning 9 of the 11 parliamentary seats in the area, the alliance has zero representation in the council.

Informal or behind-the-scenes intervention by state authorities and elected representatives in the appointments of council committees, grants of tenders and approvals of development plans could arise.

At the macro level in Malaysia, the electoral process takes place but not at the local government level. The key positions in local authorities are merely political appointees; they thus lack democratic legitimacy. Appointments also seem to lean heavily towards businessmen and close allies of the ruling party or elected representatives; some of them may not serve the interests of the rakyat.

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The current system thus lacks accountability – a key principle of Competency, Accountability and Transparency – in administration as touted by the Pakatan Rakyat coalition.

There is also a lacuna in the consultative process with members of the public. There may be laws like Section 10 of the Local Government Act 1976 which states that – one of the criteria for appointing councilors is their “capability of representing the interest of their communities in the local authority area”. Section 23 of the same act states meetings are open to the public.

But the gap between the residents/local communities and local government still persists.

Public participation is important to enable real and proper policy evaluation. The overall decision-making and policy structure should be people-orientated and not founded on elite bias.

The representative character of local councils needs to be improved. Councilors should comprise representatives with friendly grassroots relations with the people in the area. Representatives for the third tier of government should be directly elected by ratepayers.

Councillors or, in the Malaysian context, Ahli Majlis should have regular meeting with the people. The people’s questions and concerns should be addressed adequately. And most importantly, these meetings should be advertised to ensure that the public are notified.

A mechanism that could be emulated and expanded would be the Kaunter Bergerak way of reaching residents and members of the public at morning markets and our local pasar malam.

I personally had a chance to follow Rafizi Ramil, Member of Parliament for Pandan, on this Kaunter Bergerak, conducted by him periodically all around his constituency on weekends.

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It proved effective in getting to know what was really happening on the ground. People were able to respond and voice out their concerns directly to him and his constituency office staff.

Not everyone was able to rush down to his constituency office, widely known as Pusat Khidmat Parlimen Pandan during office hours on weekdays; thus the Kaunter Bergerak serves as an effective alternative.

The autonomy and quality of local government should be improved as it is an important form of public service. Democratic legitimacy is the way forward for the third tier of government and can instil trust to the public by serving the needs of the people.

Local elections are the most effective way to restore the link between residents and their local councilors. If the expectations of the residents of their elected local councilors are not met, the councillors concerned would very likely be voted out of office in the next elections.

Farha Yusof, who is currently pursuing his tertiary education, is involved in social activism in the Klang Valley. 

Farha participated in a recent Aliran Young Writers Workshop on Federalism and Decentralisation, supported by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives. “The workshop has taught me how to express the concerns of the public and students through better and more effective writing,” he says.

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