ATTEMPTS to revive local council elections was mooted by civil society. It was a good idea for Kuala Lumpur DAP chairman Tan Kok Wai to revive the call for a local election for the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur once again.
But read further into the writer’s doctoral research at a local seminary on the condition of the human heart and why corruption is prevalent in Malaysia.
It is a based on the experience of some 2,000 years of ancient Chinese history experimenting with different forms of administration and there are lessons that we can learn which are still applicable today.
Once supported by Pakatan Harapan (PH) as a good solution to improve the services of the local government, the answer to good governance may not be in the implementation of local council elections.
Although the general perception is that candidates elected by the people are more likely to perform a better job than the existing system, the truth is that this may not necessarily solve the poor services rendered by the third tier of government.
Lessons from ancient Chinese dynasties
FROM the history of the ancient Chinese dynasties, we learn that whenever a new dynasty began, the founding emperor would always refine the system of government to make it better.
There were two groups of administrators who assisted the emperor in governing the imperial kingdom – the bureaucratic efficiency of non-scholarly officials (known as Li) and the corruption-free scholarly officials (or Ru).
At the core of the problem was how much power should be vested into each class of administrators; hence unless integrity was strongly inculcated, corruption became rampant.
Despite the emperors introducing measures for checks-and-balances – and making it compulsory for scholars to memorise the Confucius Classics – there was no guarantee that they would end up corruption-free.
When Emperor Gaozu of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) ascended to the throne, he introduced checks-and-balances to both his military and civilian officials. However, according to Chinese historian Liu Yan (680 AD), the emperor’s concept of checks-and-balances did not materialise with the two classes of civil servants– the Ru and the Li.
While the Confucius Classics used as a moral compass had some impact on the Ru, it was the non-scholarly staff who lacked moral fortitude who performed the menial tasks of governance, thus corruption was a major problem.
Later, during the Song Dynasty (960–1279), the much younger ‘Ru’ (scholarly officials) showed a lack of practical experience in governance, resulting in the incompetence of the government and resentment of the other non-scholarly staff.
The system of government was rectified by the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) by appointing non-scholarly staff and bodyguards to occupy important positions in the bureaucracy system.
While this had helped to improve the administration of civil affairs, it also led to serious corruption in the bureaucracy. Hence, the saying goes, “…the Song (Dynasty) fell because of scholarly officials while the Yuan (Dynasty) collapsed because of non-scholarly staff.”
By the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the recruitment process of government administrators was further refined to ensure that only the best officials were appointed to the job.
The separation of powers between military officials and the Imperial scholars (Jin Shi) was introduced whereby the new recruits had to go through a series of internship and probation before they were promoted to become senior administrators.
Every new recruit had to go through two systems of assessment, namely the Kao Man and the Kao Cha which are equivalent to an annual assessment and assessment for promotion respectively. This system carried on into the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911).
The Qing Dynasty introduced the drawing of lots to ensure that there was transparency in the selection of senior government administrators. Although this was said to be useful to combat money politics and bribery in the selection of these senior staff, it failed to stem corruption because of a lack of integrity in many of the highly-placed officials.
The Qing dynasty eventually collapsed due to the high level of corruption within the administration. This clearly shows one system of government after another was introduced and refined but the systems for selection of senior government official could not ensure a better and more efficient administration.
Election victors not necessarily the best people
With a pot of gold in every local council, it is likely that this will attract many rich people who have the funds to splash on election campaigns. The position as council president would add to their prestige.
Once elected, these candidates may start digging into the pot of gold and end up utilising the money for themselves and their own cronies rather than to improve the standard of living for the voters.
Therefore, local council election may solve one problem but lead to other sorts of problems that we see in the election of office bearers in multi-storey condominiums.
The best solution is to therefore have good people appointed to the job as local councillors after they have proven their worth; if they fail to deliver, the voters can still vote out the party these councillors belong to in the next general election.
Perhaps, the story of Yang Zhen during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-9 AD, 25-220 AD) shows us that having someone like him would be a better solution.
Despite being offered bribes, Yang Zhen refused to accept the gifts because he believed that “although the bribery happened in the middle of the night, the act would always be seen by the heaven, the earth, the contributor, and the receiver”. – Dec 19, 2023
Main pic credit: Hoi, Khaw and Su