Should local council elections be revived?

Joseph Tawie
Tuesday, 30 March 2010 02:39

KUCHING – Besides the MCA elections, the talks on local council elections dominate any discussion among Sarawakians nowadays.

The renewed interest has been generated by the decision of the Pakatan-ruled Penang and Selangor State Governments to resume local council elections, even though Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has rejected the idea.

Should the local council elections be revived in view of the much improved security situation in the state? The local council elections were suspended in the 1970s due to deteriorating security situations. These are some of the questions being asked by the people.

Before the formation of Malaysia, Sarawak had its own local elections to elect councillors and the next stage was for the councillors to elect among themselves representatives to the divisional advisory council. And this council finally elected members to the first Council Negeri, the state legislature. One among them was elected as chief minister of Sarawak.

Sarawak’s system of local council election was modeled along the line of British Council elections and many of its laws were based on English laws.

Two types of councils

The local authorities were established under the Local Authority Ordinance 1976 which spelt out two types of councils – one for municipality and the other for rural area. The state had 24 councils.

This ordinance is the successor of pre-independence law, the Local Government Ordinance 1948.

The power of the councils was clearly defined such as to collect taxes in the form of assessment tax, to create new laws and rules in the form of by-laws, to grant licences and permits for any trade in its area of jurisdiction, in addition to providing basic amenities, collecting and managing waste and garbage as well as planning and developing the area under its jurisdiction.

In those days, the council also looked after primary school education, but later the responsibility was taken over by the State Department of Education.

Local government or local authority was the lowest level in the system of government in Malaysia after the federal and state governments. And elections to the councils were a miniature referendum on the main parties.

Following the procedure adopted in West Malaysia during confrontation, all district council elections were suspended in Sarawak and continued to be suspended ignoring the recommendations of the royal commission headed by Athi Nahappan.

For Sarawak, the suspension of the council elections was due to the uncertain security situation as a result of the Indonesian confrontation and increased communist terrorist activities.

Security concerns

There were also security concerns as Stephen Kalong Ningkan’s government had the support of Sarawak United People’s Party, which was riddled with communists. As Ningkan was the chairman of the state security committee, his government might be infiltrated by the communist elements. Thus it was an intolerable threat to national security.

The Government was also worried with the fact that most of the urban or semi-urban councils were controlled by SUPP.

Moreover, most of the councils were inefficient. All these gave the government an excuse to suspend the local council elections.

But then, with the suspension of the council elections, popular involvement in the governmental process has been singularly limited. Local government is no longer determined on an elected basis and penghulus, tua kampungs and Kapitians became regular civil servants appointed without elective consultation and debarred from participation in party politics. This is in contrast to past practices.

Since then the local councils are generally the exclusive purview of the State government and in most cases, they are headed by civil servants and with councillors being appointed from the parties in the State Barisan Nasional. The councillors are being appointed by their respective parties as “rewards for their loyalty to the party.”

But one clear defect of this system is that those appointed are not necessary the best people, and many appointed to the councils are those who have little education and their main criterion is ‘loyalty’ to the party.

Councillors from rural areas

If this is the quality of our councillors, how can they contribute ideas and participate effectively towards the discussions in the council meetings? Their main presence is supposed to represent their parties and their communities, but more often than not they are tight-lipped in the meetings, nor do they know what are being discussed.

This is particularly true with councillors coming from the rural areas. Only councillors representing SUPP seems to be professional people such as lawyers, engineers, accountants and businessmen.

The other obvious flaw of the system is that since most of the councils are headed by civil servants, services have turned from bad to worse. Complaints often take days or even weeks for them to take actions; sometimes the complaints are simply ignored.

As a result, there are reasons why the local councils must have elections, so that more quality people can be elected to serve this local government. Any councillor who fails to perform to expectation will not be elected next time around.

When interviewed, Sarawakians are clearly divided on the issue: while the people in the Pakatan Rakyat want the council elections to be restored as the fundamental to grass-roots “preparatory democracy”, the BN on the other hand opposes such elections as a waste of time and money as well as creating more problems for democracy.

“Election to office as local councillors implies accountability to residents, and greater responsibility with regards to the many issues relating to the respective electoral wards concerned,” said Dominique Ng ( pic), a Sarawak PKR adviser.

“Efficiency and effectiveness should greatly improve, once periodic electoral mandates have to be sought by local councillors.

Third tier of government

“Elected councils will enable State and Federal legislators to concentrate on their briefs, rather than having to attend to myriad local issues over which they find themselves in,” he said.

Ng describes the role of the local councils as the third tier of government, closest to the day-to-day concerns of the people, a natural sequence in healthy political, social and economic development.

He said Najib should review his rejection of local council elections in order to bring them in line with the government slogan “people first, performance now”.

A consultant, Dr. John Brian, believes that the local council elections will bring greater participation and democratic practices to the people.

Baru Bian, a lawyer and Sarawak PKR chairman, agreed that the elections should be revived in local councils, and the elections of community leaders should also be brought back to the people.

A DAP leader, Voon Lee Shan, said that the only way to choose quality councillors is through election, which will then be able to provide better services to the people.

But most of the BN leaders do not agree for the local elections to be restored, saying that local elections are creating more problems rather than trying to solve them especially in a multi-racial society like Sarawak.

“We are going to spend more money and efforts unnecessarily to have local council elections,” said a leader from Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party, who preferred to remain anonymous.

Scottish council elections

“It makes our society more racially conscious. For example, if local council elections are to be held in urban centres, the majority of councillors are likely to be from one community; in the case of Kuching, Sibu and Miri, the councillors will mostly likely be Chinese. What part then the other races will play?” commented a leader of Parti Rakyat Sarawak. He also preferred to remain anonymous.

“Likewise, rural councils are likely to be controlled by Dayaks and Malays. Where do the Chinese come in? Certainly this is against 1Malaysia concept,” he said.

But an ex-councillor does not agree with their reasoning. “That is not a problem. In the case of urban councils, the absence of Dayaks or Malays should not be a problem as they can be appointed to the council. Similarly in the rural areas, other races, if not elected can also be appointed to serve the council.”

He suggested that Sarawak can follow the system used in Scotland where Scottish council elections are held on the same day as the Scottish parliament general elections. In this way, such elections are very much cheaper.

Polling districts of parliamentary constituency should be contested by those who want to be elected as councillors, whereas MPs should contest the parliamentary seats and State Assemblymen for the State seats, said the ex-councillor.

“With much improved security situation in the country, there is no reason not to restore local council elections. What we need here is the political will to enable the people to elect their representatives to the local councils,” he said. MalaysianMirror....