Local government elections: The forgotten reform!

Letter to Editor

OVER the decades, there have been so many strident calls for local government elections (LGE) by DAP and PKR. However, now that they are in government, there is hardly a whimper about this issue.

Almost all governments worldwide have local polls as a means of empowering the lowest tier of government. In Malaysia, regrettably reintroducing the LGE has become polemical and controversial as there is a fear that it could introduce new features and elements that the government has no experience handling.

During the short Pakatan Harapan (PH) rule from 2018–2020, the need for re-introducing LGE was mooted, and the Local Government and Housing Minister was Datuk Zuraida Kamarudin, who was very vocal and keen on taking steps to revive LGE.

However, the proposal was shot down by former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who stated that it could upset the present balance of power in the country.

What he alluded to by upsetting the balance of power was that Malay dominance in the local authorities could be diluted. This is an unjustified worry and excuse. Dr Mahathir does not know much about LGE or has not even experienced it.

Old as he is, he does not know much about LGE as the last local government elections were held in 1965. Dr Mahathir only became active in politics from 1969 onward.

Despite recommendations from the Athi Nahappan Report in 1968, the government did not act on them.

Possibly the May 13 episode had left a deep division on the government that reviving LGE could stir up communal trouble in the local authorities, especially in the urban areas many of which were dominated by opposing parties.

The government thought LGE could help revive and bolster support for the opposition, which was very much decimated during the 1980s and 1990s.

Barisan Nasional (BN) was not willing to take the risky step of holding LGE and emboldening the opposition. BN formed the JKKK (Jawatankuasa Kemajuan dan Keselamatan Kampung) to look into local issues through its appointed councillors from the BN parties.

This practice has continued until now with an additional layer of the federal government, BN JKKK after some state governments were won by PH in 2008. This system of appointed councillors cannot be an alternative to LGE.

The people, as ratepayers, should elect the councillors for better and more democratic representation. Even authoritarian governments allow for local government elections as they do not want local issues to snowball to threatening levels.

In fact, in some countries the local government is administered better than the state or central government!

Moreover, the present government members who were then in opposition were crowing their heads off in demanding LGE. Former Attorney-General Tan Sri  Tommy Thomas was hired by the DAP-led Penang state government to look into the possibility of holding LGE in Penang.

It was found that without federal government sanction and cooperation, LGE could not be held and the matter was put to rest.

Nevertheless, LGE was put to the test again when PH formed the Federal Government in 2018 but Tun Mahathir opposed it.

Now that the unity government is in control and has the mandate for another four years, it should initiate the groundwork for LGE. The government should not give the excuse that additional expenses will be incurred and that during the present difficult times this is not a priority.

In my opinion, at least a billion ringgit can be saved annually from the extravagant and wasteful expenditure incurred by local authorities nationwide, as there are not enough checks and balances or responsible people to monitor the expenses.

If PH does not start LGE then no other party or coalition will do it.

For a start, LGE can be initiated in Selangor, KL and Penang . For the residents of Kuala Lumpur, LGE will be a boon as they can have a two-tier system with MPs and elected councillors as compared to other states that have a three-tier system.

Furthermore, LGE will surely reinvigorate and revitalise the present laggard local councillor system.

The present local councillors are appointed by the parties for their loyalty and nothing else and they do not show any allegiance to the community and its needs. There is a vast difference between selected and elected councillors. Selangor despite its developed state status is the worst in local administration governance.

The state is full of municipal problems and shortcomings and this can be fully attributed to weak, unrepresentative and undemocratic local governance. The present appointed local councillors, who are mostly men, cannot do much against an indifferent municipal administration, unlike the elected ones who are voted in and empowered by the residents and ratepayers and can force changes for the better.

Presently, local authorities are marked by waste, extravagance and corruption and the money collected from rate payers and allocated by the state and federal governments is not utilised efficiently.

The time has come for Malaysia to implement the Athi Nahappan Report which strongly advocated local democracy and provided guidelines for an effective and efficient local government that will be a boon to the people. It is also time for this long-delayed and forgotten reform to see the light of day for the betterment of the country. – Dec 9, 2023


Sungai Buloh

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.


Main photo credit: New Naratif

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