Casualty of appointed local government

Posted on 26 March 2012 - 07:52pm
Last updated on 27 March 2012 - 11:35am
Goh Ban Lee

ONE of the casualties of appointed local government is the blurring of line between state government and local council. Sometimes it is not possible to tell who is really responsible for a project or action even though it is carried out and paid for by the local council. Without a clear line of role and responsibility, there is no accountability, a critical ingredient of good urban governance.

The line of separation of roles was much clearer in the days of elected local government, especially in situations where the local council and state government were under different political parties. This was the scenario in George Town, Penang from 1958 to 1966 when the city council was controlled by the Labour Party and later the Socialist Front, and the state government by Alliance, the Barisan Nasional’s predecessor.

A brief recall of two important events in George Town is enlightening. They are the end-of-Emergency celebration and the Malaysia Day celebration.

The federal government declared Aug 1, 1960 as “Victory” day to celebrate the end of the Emergency, a term used for the war against the communist insurgency from 1948. Although George Town City Council had earlier agreed to participate in the celebration, it changed its mind when Socialist Front (SF) leaders decided to boycott it. It did not participate in the rally at Padang Kota or send its uniformed workers such as the fire brigade to join the parade. Worse, it did not fly the state and national flags in front of city hall and town hall located adjacent to Padang Kota.

There was nothing Penang chief minister Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee could do. Even the federal commissioner for local government admitted it was up to the city council to decide whether to celebrate or not.

However, the state government was not so forgiving. At a subsequent State Assembly meeting, it passed a motion condemning the city council for “disloyalty”. The sitting, which lasted until 1.50am, gave Alliance assemblymen all the time to criticise the SF as irresponsible and unpatriotic. To SF assemblymen, there was nothing to celebrate when its party members were still in jail without trial.

The relationship between the city council and state government was again tested leading up to the Malaysia Day celebration on Sept 16, 1963 when Sabah (then known as North Borneo), Sarawak and Singapore joined Malaya to form Malaysia. The George Town City Council did not want to celebrate the day.

According to the SF, Malaysia was a neo-colonialist concept. The party also claimed that the Cobbold Commission, which was set up by the United Nations to evaluate the support of the people of Sabah and Sarawak, had not completed its fact finding mission. Even when the Penang state secretary wrote to the city secretary telling the latter “buildings belonging to your council should be fully decorated and illuminated” from Sept 16 to 19, the reply of the acting city secretary, Sonni Pillai, was that he had received no instructions from the city council to make any such arrangement. To rub salt into the wound, he told the state secretary that in a recent meeting on the matter, one councillor had said “it does not mean that if the state government asks us to celebrate, we must”.

However, unlike the situation in the end-of-Emergency celebration, the state government had amended the law to enable it to take over the administration of the city council. As such, when it was clear that the council was adamant about not celebrating Malaysia Day, the state government empowered the state secretary to exercise all powers and privileges vested in the city council.

On Sept 14, the state secretary ordered the city secretary to decorate city hall and town hall and put up buntings and flags along several streets. Despite the short notice, the instructions were carried out.

The actions of the city council and state government were exemplary, at least as far as good urban governance was concerned. The separation of responsibilities was clear. Although the city council did participate in the celebration, it was clearly a decision of the state government.

Too many local councils are behaving like departments of state government today.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is a senior research fellow at the Penang Institute interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning.