‘Inside story’ of Penang’s local government

Lim Mah Hui's book offers valuable insights into the challenges of participatory democracy in local government

Books and discourses on politics and governance in Malaysia are aplenty, but if there is one level of government that continues to be elusive to most, it is local government.

Often associated with dirty drains, uncollected rubbish and faulty elevators, the local government in fact plays a much wider role. It delivers public services, enacts by-laws, enforces laws and issues permits – things which affect our lives.

Without doubt, it is the level of government that is closest to us and one that hinges upon our active participation in decisions that affect our communities.

Lim Mah Hui’s book Local Democracy Denied? A Personal Journey into Local Government in Malaysia demystifies this poorly appreciated strata of governance through his insightful journey as a councillor in the Penang Island City Council (MPPP) from 2011 to 2016. Mah Hui is also a civil society activist championing local democracy and economically balanced, environmentally sustainable development in Penang.

He had an illustrious career in academia and banking in major cities across the world before returning to Penang and getting nominated as an MPPP (now MBPP) councillor representing Penang Forum.

This book, split into 13 chapters, takes a unique approach in discussing local government. It brings the reader on a narrated journey through his life before and during his tenure as MPPP councillor while also covering technical aspects of history, function and structure of local government.

It begins with a flashback to a pivotal moment in the Penang NGO scene, the civil society mock election in November 2010, which catapulted Mah Hui into his six-year term as MPPP councillor.

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The subsequent chapters reveal some astounding stories about the prominence of local government in Penang, for example how the first local council elections were held in George Town and Malacca almost a century before Malaya’s independence, and how till the 1960s, the local government in Penang provided public housing, water and public transport.

These chapters also meticulously navigate the administrative structure of MBPP and the functions of its 13 departments.

Starting from chapter five, Mah Hui reveals episodes during his tenure as city councillor, when he observed inconsistencies within the council on issues of development planning, finance, law enforcement and voiced out on these issues. The response from the local authorities to his criticism and ideas was not always welcoming, as one of these instances culminated in a brush with the then-chief minister who called him a “liar”.

Personally, chapter five on law enforcement and deadly landslides was the real eye-opener for me. As someone concerned about the hills of Penang and having witnessed both the destruction of the hills and two landslides (Granito and Bukit Kukus) which killed 20 people, I often wondered how hill land on the island could be cleared so wantonly right under the noses of the authorities when Penang was supposed to have stringent guidelines relating to hill-land protection.

It is in chapter five that Mah Hui demystifies this and shows us how these deadly landslides are a result of a lack of monitoring and enforcement, and hill clearing is intrinsically related to a lack of political will and administrative capacity to enforce existing laws.

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Chapter eight on planning and development leaves the reader pondering. Are all critics of development really “anti-development”? Using the concept of motherhood as an illustration, this chapter deconstructs the lenses through which we analyse development. What sort of development do we want – one that is destructive or sustainable?

And closely related to the type of development is planning. Good planning ensures well-laid out cities with integrated facilities that are life-enhancing while poor planning reduces the quality of life. Good planning hinges on a clear vision, and in articulating this, models can be helpful guides. While Penang often looks to Hong Kong and Singapore as model cities which it aspires to become, Mah Hui shines the torch on an unlikely model, Kyoto, a heritage city with well-planned light industrial and service sectors.

In the final chapter, Mah Hui concludes with a forward-looking vision in building local democracy, one that is based on enhanced public engagement and participation which makes the government more transparent and accountable.

I recommend this book to anyone with a curiosity in knowing about local government. It is OK if you start with no idea about what local government is because Mah Hui’s personal experiences narrated in full rigour make it easily understandable.

I also recommend this book to those with political aspirations, especially new councillors, as it is important to see issues in balanced and refreshing perspectives, not merely through party lenses.

Mah Hui’s experience as a civil society-nominated councillor offers valuable insights into the challenges of participatory democracy and raises important questions about the environment, finance, and law enforcement.

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A copy of Local Democracy Denied? A Personal Journey into Local Government in Malaysia may be obtained here.

Rexy Prakash Chacko is an electronic engineer by profession, nature lover by passion and writer by conviction

Source: Free Malaysia Today

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