The dumb ducks in our local councils

Sim Kwang Yang | May 23, 09 4:28pm

You see a rat running around the house. You pick up the next solid thing at hand, aiming to throw at the rodent. Then, you hesitate because you do not want to smash up the furniture and the china lying about the house.

That is an old Chinese proverb. It describes my present mood to the tee. Many Internet commentators and bloggers must be sharing my dilemma.

We have so far steered away from criticising the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, not because they are perfect, but because we value them as a vehicle to a two-coalition system and democratic progress in Malaysia.

But political parties are strange organisms. They are huge, complex, and run on their unique dynamics not always comprehensible to outsiders. They are a little like secret societies that way.

They do not like their internal problems known to the outside world. Their internal legitimate dissent can get buried away.

But, when they take power in five states after the 2008 general elections, they found themselves in the unfamiliar territory of governing the people.

They make mistakes, and that affect the welfare of the people. If we do not criticise them, they may lose votes next time. Worse still, the people under their charge will suffer.

I put my dilemma to two Pakatan Rakyat YBs in two different states where the PR coalition rules. They enthusiastically urged me to go ahead and criticise their government, for they too knew the problems. Still, I worried for the nice furniture and the expensive china in the house.

Then, last weekend, I saw a scene that must be reported to the public.

The pasar malam has always been a problem in my neighbourhood.

The tin-god bureaucrats

I used to work closely with hawkers in Kuching City for nearly two decades, so I know what hawkers are like generally. They are admirable in their tenacious will to survive, enduring the hardship of hard physical labour, the blazing sun and the pelting rain, the long hours, and the odd unfriendly customers.

Often, their worst enemies are the tin-god bureaucrats from the local councils who control their licensing and enforce all kinds of by-laws.

They are also very individualistic cowboys in their demeanour, because they have to be like that to survive on their petty trading by the roadside. They grab and they protect their own small turf fiercely.

They are not so easy to be organised. Once they are organised, they can become very powerful in regulating themselves, and help out the local councils.

I have watched the hawkers in my neighbourhood suffer from all kinds of problems for a couple of years now. Some of them have become personal friends.

They griped to no end about this lady councillor from the local council controlled by the Pakatan Rakyat state government, who seemed to be in charge of their pasar malam. They did not dare to oppose whatever she said or did because she was quick with her sharp tongue, and she seemed to hold the power over their trading licences.

Then, the chairman of their old association died last month. The hawkers could not ascertain to me whether the old association was registered with the Registrar of Societies. There was never any general meeting, regular committee meeting, or audited accounts. A great deal of money was collected and spent without audit.

So, I got the active members from my neighbourhood residential committee to help them organise a general meeting to form an association formally, and to elect a pro-tem committee.

Intimidating the hawkers is not the way

When the night of the inaugural meeting arrived, a huge crowd of hawkers turned out, and they did have a quorum, much to my surprise and delight. There were some hiccups. But they would learn to organise themselves better over time.

Although the councillor was not officially invited, she turned up just before the meeting started. The hawkers did not mind if she wanted to talk to the crowd first, because she must be given “face”.

Without consulting with the organisers about the purpose and the rationale of the meeting, she spoke to the motley crowd for quite a long while in the make-shift meeting venue at the five-foot way in front of the shophouse.

Although the crowd was made up of 98 per cent Chinese, she chose to speak for half an hour in Bahasa, which some did not understand at all. Finally, she turned to a spate of Cantonese.

Her tone was aggressive, authoritative, and assertive, reminding me of the image of a teacher talking to a bunch of school children. The crowd cowered under her sweeping gaze.

After some rhetoric, she pontificated that those without licences could not join the association. Because there were a lot of outstanding issues with the dubious old association, the new association could only be formed for three months.

She would take away all the membership application forms just signed up by the hawkers. Meeting was then dismissed. No question was invited from the audience.

Everybody then walked away with lowered heads. I could not believe what I saw and heard!

In denying the hawkers their spontaneous effort to form their own association to fight for their rights, she has denied their constitutional right to free association and free assembly.

She has assumed the role of legislator, prosecutor, judge, and executioner in her one person alone.

An arrogant councillor who upsets the hawkers

In treating the hawkers, not as her equal subjects with immortal souls like her, but as soulless objects of her puny administrative powers, she has diminished their humanity,

After the events, the hawkers were quietly hopping mad. They complained that in the old days, the BN councillors wanted only money, but they could still cari makan. Now, their rice bowl is dancing with this PR councillor.

Then, I understand her biggest problem. She was not elected. She never had to go through the cauldron of pounding the streets or going on the campaign trail door-to-door to beg for votes, especially as an opposition candidate.

She has never had the chance of learning about humility and making friends with the lowliest people in the community.

Later, I was to discover that the problem of councillors is quite common in the PR-controlled states.

Ideally, the PR government should scour for qualified dedicated community leaders to the posts of councillors. But inside their parties, there would always be those long-time loyal party members who lobby for the positions as a reward for their “sacrifice”.

If their local party chief refuses to appoint them, they would lobby against their leaders, and make them lose badly in the party elections.

Some of these appointed councillors are either clearly not qualified or lacking in right aptitude. Some are not educated enough. They cannot speak English or Bahasa Malaysia, and they sit in council meetings like dumb ducks.

Sometimes, the councillors from the three component parties of PR become embroiled in ideological or personal feuds. The councillors from different factions of the same party can bad mouth one another openly.

When you pay peanuts, you get monkeys

Their low pay is another issue. In Penang, the councillors are paid RM500 a month. In more affluent Selangor, they are paid RM750 a month. When you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

The workload of a dedicated councillor can be heavy. There would be endless complaints from members of the public, about pot holes, streetlights, blocked drains, garbage collection, and so on, things that I used to take care of as an MP.

Strictly speaking, these petty issues ought not to be the job of a councillor, state assemblyman, or an MP, if the local town and city councils are efficient, professional, and responsive to the people, and if the people are educated enough to go around taking care of their own business in these matters.

But our Malaysian local councils are sluggish, mammoth, corrupt, insensitive, and inaccessible, as they tend to be in any third world country.

The people, who are supposed to be the masters of their own destiny in a democracy, have been treated as objects of mere administrative powers for so long, that they see all public officials – including councillors - as patrons.

That is a great pity for Malaysian democracy. What we need is the kind of local council elections that were so effective and popular in the nurturing of grassroot democracy. I remember fondly those grassroot leaders from the Labour Party and the Supp in Sarawak in the 1960s.

I may disagree with their agenda or their political ideology then. But the elections for councillors meant they really had to serve the people as effective leaders. Those local council elections were colourful meaningful affairs.

Those elections were terminated by the late Tun Razak in the 1970s when he was prime minister, so that in his words, “the country can reduce politics and to concentrate on development”.

Now, it seems like we have to vote out his son as Prime Minister so as to return the third vote to the people of Malaysia.

SIM KWANG YANG was MP for Bandar Kuching in Sarawak from 1982 to 1995. He can be reached at More…