By Tricia Yeoh. First published in The Sun newspaper on 29 January 2015
Earlier this week, the Islamic party PAS President’s statement that local council elections would eventually lead to racial riots raised ire amongst civil society, as well as members of his own coalition party member, DAP. His argument is that local council elections would only be advantageous to the largely Chinese urban residents, thereby widening the rural-urban divide.
This statement is flawed on several levels. First, some of the largest cities in Malaysia are actually mixed in racial breakdown. For instance, our country’s capital Kuala Lumpur’s breakdown of ethnicities includes 45.9% Malays, 43.2% Chinese, and 10.3% Indians. Johor Bahru has 47.5% Malays, 34.2% Chinese, and 9% Indians, amongst others. Urbanisation has taken place steadily over the last twenty years, and cities today are vibrant multiethnic and multicultural hubs. Whilst true that the rural areas tend to be more mono-ethnic in nature, over 75% of Malaysia will be urbanised by 2020.
Second, it assumes that it is only urban-minded voters who would desire and appreciate the ability to vote in their own representatives at local government. In Indonesia – before they were abolished last year, to the chagrin of many – local elections led to greater participation by villagers and benefited several constituencies that were formerly ill represented and neglected. Although success stories varied widely between different regions, there were rural areas that benefited from local elections through the empowerment of the residents themselves.
Third and more importantly, race-based arguments are highly unnecessary and in fact merely detract from the real issue at hand, which is that: Local elections means giving the common man better quality public service, since people can determine which local representative can best serve your personal neighborhood interests.
The Indonesian government enacted a Law on Public Services in 2009, which, together with their Freedom of Information Act in 2008, served as a basis to eventually adopt an approach towards a more open, transparent, interactive, inclusive and accountable government.
Although the laws themselves took a long time to implement, the relationship between the law on public services and better governance was simply that government could more easily flourish and succeed when the quality of public service delivery was improved. Giving people the ability to decide when to get rid of a councilor when the person is not giving his or her best services would achieve better delivery of public services, which is the ultimate goal of a well-meaning government.
In many parts of the country, government services are in disarray, with uncollected rubbish or poor basic amenities and infrastructure. Through local elections, you get to vote for the person who makes sure that your potholes are filled, rubbish is collected and drains are cleared. It really is as simple as that.
The Federal Court ruled last year that although the Penang state government had passed an enactment to hold local elections, it was not possible since they would still have to go through the National Local Government Council (the Council is chaired by the Minister of Housing and Local Government). Both Pakatan-led states Penang and Selangor have attempted in the past to restore local elections, although it is unclear whether there was any real consensus on the matter amongst its three partners even since they started governing in 2008.
Despite not having a clear way forward on local elections, it might be pertinent to point out that in fact, Selangor under the Pakatan government had in the past put this into practice already. In 2011, three of its Chinese new villages - Kampung Baru Sungai Jarom in Jenjarom, Kampung Bagan in Pulau Ketam and Kampung Baru Pandamaran – carried out local polls to elect their new village chiefs.
And Selangor was the first state to hold democratic elections of mosque committees, as far back as in June 2009, and surau committees in June 2010. The experience of it showed that more professionals and locals were being appointed on the committees, as opposed to appointments being made from the religious council (many of whom were speculated to be heads of party divisions). Likewise, the Penang state government also allowed mosque committees to be elected as opposed to being appointed, which at the time was vehemently opposed by Umno and newspaper Utusan Malaysia.
This principle of allowing everyone to democratically elect their leader can be applied at all levels, from mosques, to Rukun Tetangga committees, and therefore by logical extension, to local councils. If you voted for your classroom’s head monitor in primary school, you would be able to apply the same at local government.
There are certainly numerous issues to iron out before local elections can be implemented, but these can be addressed. For example, there is a need to re-examine the structure and governance of local councils, and possibly the size of existing local councils in states that are in fact small enough to be able to self-govern. Finally, the roles, responsibilities and budgets given to state governments versus those of local governments, and how these ought to be balanced out by function.
Having said that, these issues would only be dealt with if indeed local elections were to be seriously considered. Ultimately, although political parties by their very nature are defined by their survival, they also ought to think of the larger trajectory of where Malaysia is headed. Already the annual Economic Intelligence Unit’s 2014 Democracy Index labels us as a ‘flawed democracy’. There are a great many flaws in the system to correct, and having local elections is one that democratically minded leaders could certainly consider supporting.
Tricia Yeoh is the Chief Operating Officer of IDEAS