By Loshni Nair
Ahead of GE14, Pakatan Harapan (PH) made an unabashedly bold promise in their manifesto – to revive the now defunct local council elections.
Local council elections were introduced during the British Colonial era. The first recorded election in Malayan history was the Penang Municipal Council elections held in 1911.
The Local Government Election Ordinance 1960 provided local authorities the power to organise elections for the office of councillors.
In this issue, Ipoh Echo seeks public opinions regarding local council elections and discusses options and aspects pertaining to this form of poll.
“The merits of the elective process far outweigh those of the nominative process” – Datuk Kuthubul, former president of the Malaysian Bar Council.
A History Lesson
The Malaysian-Indonesian Confrontation, popularly known as Konfrontasi in our history textbooks, was a low-level armed conflict that took place between Malaysia and Indonesia from 1963 to 1966. It was, in all honesty, an undeclared war of sorts between two neighbours who share common racial roots.
Konfrontasi began with the creation of Malaysia through the amalgamation of the Federation of Malaya (present day West Malaysia), Singapore, the British crown colonies of North Borneo and Sarawak (present day Sabah and Sarawak) in September 1963.
President Sukarno of Indonesia and President Macapagal Ruyong of the Philippines were concerned that this was a ploy by the British to further expand their sphere of influence to Indonesia and the Philippines.
Indonesia adopted a more aggressive stance – they launched armed raids into Sabah and Sarawak along the border regions and set off bombs in various parts of Singapore. Indonesian troops landed in Labis, Johor. They were duped into believing that locals would receive them with open arms. They were all rounded up within 48 hours after landing. Some were killed in skirmishes with security forces.
Armed conflict between the two neighbours continued for a period of two years (1963 to 1965). It culminated with the ouster of President Sukarno following a military coup led by General Suharto.
Suspension of Local Government Elections
The Malaysian-Indonesian confrontation in 1963 led to the declaration of a state of emergency on September 3, 1964. This in turn forced the Federal Government to suspend local council elections, through the passage, in parliament, of the Emergency (Suspension of Local Government Elections) Regulations 1965 and Amendment Regulations 1965.
This suspension was made permanent with the passing of the Local Government Act (LGA) 1976. The enactment has remained effective till today.
The LGA placed the power of appointing mayors, council presidents and councillors in the hands of state governments.
Three-Tier Electoral System
Local council elections are third tier elections, just behind the parliamentary and state elections. Local councils are the level of governance that is closest to the people. Therefore, decisions made by the local council has a more immediate effect on the people, compared to the decisions made at the federal or state level.
Responsibilities of the Local Council
Technicalities aside, what exactly is the local council responsible for?
They collect taxes in the form of assessment rates, collect parking fines, grant licenses and permits for trades, provide basic amenities, collect, dispose and manage waste, as well as plan and develop local areas.
Nineteen-year-old pre-university student and aspiring lawyer, Ashrvini Nair, strongly agrees that local council elections should make a comeback.
“Local council elections represent the voices of the people. These elections also provide representation for smaller groups of people who don’t have the opportunity to make significant changes in the political arena,” she adds.
Edwin Tan Tjin Shuen, second year law student, concurs. “These elections are an important part of the circuitry that translates policies to action at the municipal level. Local council elections aren’t just motivators for the local council to perform, they’re also a signalling mechanism – failure to act is reason enough to be fired,” he says.
The ability to choose leaders is something that we should cherish. Personally, I did not know the members of my local council till last year, and that just goes to show how apathetic an average person is to the political process. Allowing the public to vote will increase political participation, and simultaneously, teach us to actually care about how our city is managed,” Edwin adds.
Associate Professor Dr Richard Ng, President of Ipoh City Council Watch, said that as part of PH’s manifesto to uphold integrity and have checks and balances, it is best that the third vote be returned to the public, especially ratepayers.
“Ratepayers should be allowed to exercise their democratic rights to elect their representative so that the assessment paid to local councils is utilised in a more efficient manner and ratepayers are provided with efficient services,” he added.
As a preventative measure, Dr Richard said that there must be provisions made whereby an elected representative can be terminated by a tribunal due to reasons such as bankruptcy or criminal acts. A by-election should then be carried out to replace him or her.
Datuk Kuthubul Zaman, lawyer and former president of the Malaysian Bar Council says that he is all for local council elections.
“After the passing of the Local Government Act 1976, councillors had been appointed. Over the years since then we’ve experienced instances where the local authorities are found to be unaccountable, inefficient in their management and intolerable in the way services are provided,” he added.
“There are instances where the councillors are arrogant, abuse their powers, serve themselves rather than the public, and are lacking in credibility,” he continued.
Datuk Kuthubul goes on to say that normally, the political party in power appoints the councillors. They are appointed not based on their track record of merit or performance. Instead, their position in the party overrides all other considerations.
He recalls a case where a councillor was re-appointed despite having flouted the building laws and regulations by putting up illegal buildings. “Family members were also appointed as councillors,” he added. “It’s cronyism.”
Pros and Cons
Local council elections place voting power in the hands of the people, indirectly forcing representatives into performing their best. Their actions or inactions will allow people to decide whether they are worthy of their position in the council.
Therefore, no one is guaranteed a position, regardless of their power, influence or wealth. Councillors can and will be held accountable for their decisions.
Datuk Kuthubul thinks that by having local council elections, issues of credibility, transparency and accountability will be better addressed with elected councillors.
He says that it will strengthen democracy, institutionalise public participation, fulfil the expectations of the people and provide good governance.
“It’ll reduce inefficiency in the management of the local councils and reduce abuse of power. An elected councillor will have a better understanding of the local needs of the electorate,” he added.
However, when considering the positives, the negatives cannot be overlooked.
Datuk Kuthubul mentions costs. He said that this issue was addressed in the Athi Nahappan Report on Local Council Elections.
He added that there will be a wider circle from which a councillor can be picked which will include professionals who may not want to stand for election.
“From my experience, the government of the day did not pick professionals as councillors despite the availability,” he said.
Elections may also be hijacked to push forth religious agendas and ulterior motives that do not benefit the people.
All said, the former Bar Council President strongly believes that the merits of the elective process far outweigh those of the nominative process.
Politics-Free Local Council?
Non-partisan local council elections were practised during the local government elections in 1960. This may be a good way to avoid underlying political motives.
Dr Richard Ng agrees, adding that eligible candidates should contest using random symbols that are not affiliated with any political parties.
Datuk Kuthubul agrees that the idea of a non-partisan local council election is feasible.
Dr Richard stressed that the Election Commission (EC) should come up with criteria and mechanisms to conduct Local Council Elections, with the same technology and expertise that is used during general elections.
“Some things that the EC needs to focus on are candidacy criteria, campaign duration, campaign methods and the amount of campaign money that can be spent by each candidate,” he remarked.
He makes another important point, naming the United States of America as an example.
“In the US each candidate is not allowed to spend more than USD5000 and they are not allowed to receive donations of more than USD1000. This is to prevent corruption and manipulation by corporate companies on candidate selection.”
Ideally, when should the local council elections be revived?
Datuk Kuthubul says that the minister in charge of local government has indicated that the local council elections will be held in three years.
“However, several NGOs have urged the government to hold the local council elections in 2019. My view is that it should be held as soon as possible,” he stressed.
Speaking on the legal aspects, Datuk Kuthubul says that the government will need to amend the Local Government Act 1976 to allow for the elections of councillors and to repeal the provision for their appointments.
Ipoh City Council Shortcomings
With the current advancement of technology, plenty can be done to improve the living conditions of the people.
No council is perfect, but there is a difference between a council that actively does their jobs and provides for the people, and a council that does not.
Some of the more notable shortcomings of the Ipoh City Council are issues like poor cleanliness. Although the cleanliness of public places is improving, the same cannot be said for housing areas.
Issues like illegal dumping and irregular collection of rubbish are still ongoing problems.
Clogged drains, and damaged roads are issues that have been raised time and again but to no avail.
‘Patchwork’ fixes are done, but these fixes are temporary and result in uneven roads which are not only dangerous, they are also not ideal for vehicles.
Lack of pedestrian-friendly facilities like zebra crossings and pedestrian bridges is also a concern, as it endangers the lives of people.
Poorly-maintained infrastructure, for example, the Tun Razak Library could do with a new coat of paint and clean windows while Taman D.R. Seenivasagam is in dire need of a thorough clean-up.
Generally, it seems that the public is eager for local council elections to make a comeback. The new Ipoh City councillors were sworn-in on Monday, July 30.
There definitely is more than enough work to keep them busy till the end of their term in July next year.
Rest assured, they will be closely watched by Ipohites.
It is after all, the dawn of a new government, as they keep saying.
Power to the people.