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How can local gov't elections be detrimental to race relations?

Kua Kia Soong  |  Published:

COMMENT | On Aug 7, while writing to deflate the view by the Pakatan Harapan government that there was no money to run local government elections, I had already anticipated Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s statement that local government elections would be detrimental to race relations.

His reasoning was that since most of the ethnic Chinese are residing in the urban areas and a majority of the Malays were in rural areas, if local council elections were to be held, this would see urbanites governed by one race, while another race would be managing the rural areas.

In fact, during the early years of independence, the Barisan Nasional was reluctant to have local council elections because many local council elections in the towns and cities tended to be won by the opposition.

In the 1960s, many towns and cities were run by the Socialist Front. This was the real reason for not wanting local elections and not because of the so-called “racial divide”. Anyway, Mahathir now heads the old “opposition”, so there is no reason to fear such competition.

Furthermore, a non-partisan local government is neither unique nor inconceivable. Local government in Malaya before 1960 was conducted without parties. Many cities around the world, including, for example, some of the largest in the United States such as Los Angeles and Chicago, have non-partisan elections for their city councillors.

There is no reason why race and religion should dominate, rather than a healthy focus on the welfare and demands of ratepayers.

I have often stressed the fact that an elected local government can, at a stroke, depoliticise education in Malaysia simply by building schools based on the need of the local communities and not treating this as a political football during general elections by the Education Ministry.

Few Malaysians have noticed, for example, that the all-important role of local education authorities in the Education Act 1961 is no longer mentioned in the new Education Act 1996. Local education authorities serve to allocate funds and other facilities to needy sectors and can serve to dissipate politicisation of education.

More convenient to appoint party cronies

It was clear that the Alliance, and later the BN, opted for the convenience of appointing their own political party cronies as councillors, rather than risk the uncertainties of democratic elections.

Since 2008, the Harapan government has been following suit in the states it controls, namely, Selangor and Penang. This temptation for any ruling coalition is certainly strong, for the local tiers of government have been seen as the launch pad for political party appointees as well as their NGO allies all these years.

During the 10 years of Harapan rule in the states of Selangor and Penang, polls could have been held unofficially with the support of civil society and without requiring the Election Commission. But political party appointments provide the convenience of perpetuating patterns of patronage.

The periodic outbursts of discontent by those party leaders and NGO activists who were overlooked are symptoms of this unhealthy party appointment system.

We can’t afford to run local council elections?

An elected local government is not some futuristic hope that only First World countries can afford.

The new Housing and Local Government Minister, Zuraida Kamaruddin (photo), has said that local council elections might be implemented within three years.

Zuraida said the Harapan federal government had arrived at the three-year target as it needed to give priority to other important matters such as ensuring the country was in a stable financial position.

So, Malaysians, it looks as though the questionable “RM1 trillion national debt” is now being used also as an excuse to put off the promised local council elections in the Harapan manifesto.

This justification for putting off the holding of local council elections is laughable when we bear in mind that even before we became independent, we had our very first democratic election – the Kuala Lumpur Municipal Elections of 1952.

It was the first step we took on the way to self-government. After Independence, we continued this commitment to local government elections because appointments to political office were seen as a colonial practice.

This is remarkable, considering how economically poor we were at Independence compared to our economy today. At Independence, our GNP per capita was US$800 (RM3,338 at current exchange rate). Our GDP per capita is now US$10,000 (RM41,733) and we are supposed to be almost a high-income society - but we can’t afford local government elections!

One would expect that as our society becomes more mature in the “new” Malaysia, democratic principles of accountability at the local community level would be considered the highest of priorities and the new normal.

Local government elections long overdue

In the democratic tradition, taxation cannot be justified without representation. Ratepayers must be represented on the governing body which determines how that money is to be spent.

This is a fundamental precept of parliamentary governance which is critically applicable at the local-level government. It is to satisfy the requirement in a democratic society for greater pluralism, participation and responsiveness.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into the Workings of Local Authorities in West Malaysia, led by Senator Athi Nahappan (photo), recommended the return of elected local government. Their recommendation was not carried out by the BN government and it proved to be the start of a disgraceful habit by the BN to ignore RCI recommendations.

If we hold fast to the time-honoured concept of "no taxation without representation", the nominated local government undermines the legitimacy of local authorities to collect assessment rates which are the most important source of income of the local authorities.

That is why the Royal Commission Report concluded that the merits of elected local government, with all its inherent weaknesses, outweigh those of the nominated ones.

Bersih must take up the issue of bringing back local elections

Malaysians are no longer prepared to put up with negligence or irresponsibility. Residents, whose voices objecting to crass so-called “development” projects have been ignored, are demanding that their voices be heard at the local council.

In this sense, we can see why local authorities are considered the primary units of government. Many services including education, housing, health and transportation, require local knowledge and can be better coordinated and more efficiently implemented through the local authority.

Finally, we find that in the modern state, many social groups such as women and manual workers are grossly under-represented and the local government can provide them with the channels to air their concerns and participate in decision-making. Generally speaking, bottom-up local level participation is vital to ensure voters are able to influence decisions.

Since Harapan has reneged on this promise to bring back elected local government councils, it is incumbent on Bersih to take up this challenge of fighting for our right to have this third tier of democracy. Malaysian civil society is totally behind Bersih on this move.


KUA KIA SOONG is adviser to human rights NGO Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram)..

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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