By Joachim Ng
Since January, dozens of NGOs have been performing one task of government — circling the town bringing food packets to hungry families. All over Kinta Valley, Klang Valley and other major urban centres from Penang to Johor Bahru, rescue efforts were undertaken by citizens who braved COVID-19 to save the destitute from starvation.
These many hundreds of volunteers, supported by many hundreds more who formed the supply chains, were usually not the ADUNs nor MPs, not the cabinet ministers, not the political secretaries, not the civil servants. Who were they? They were the rakyat.
It is the duty of a government to serve its citizens, using tax money. So what do the valiant efforts of these volunteers, using donations and their own money, tell us? First, it tells us that a basic function of government is now left to the rakyat to undertake.
When the Government imposed a full lockdown and ordered the people to stay at home, it also ordered 80% of civil servants to work from home. This was a poor decision. If these civil servants had instead been deployed in the field bringing services to all needy folks, the white flag movement would not have been necessary.
The Government also ordered Parliament and the State Assemblies to close, but gave no advice to MPs and ADUNs to patrol their constituencies and map out those areas with families in dire straits. Instead the majority of people’s representatives joined the bulk of civil servants to stay at home, while out there thousands were losing jobs.
This is not whole-of-society governance. If you compare government to a tall forest tree, the federal and state levels are the high and low branches while the local councils are the leaves. Which level of government is the tree trunk, and what about the roots? Political parties claim to be the grassroots level. But they are highly partisan communal organisations, focused only on serving their voter base.
The second observation we can make from these food distribution efforts is that the structure of government is seriously defective. We need to reform the structure. If Malaysia is to avoid yet another starvation crisis, all NGOs involved in food distribution should volunteer to build a foundational or first tier of government.
What is glaringly missing is a grassroots tier of neighbourhood governance comprising all neighbourhood families voting for an executive committee that runs on a budget drawn from property assessment taxes. The committee takes charge of neighbourhood maintenance such as drains, grass-cutting, litter clearance, garbage collection and pavement upkeep while also keeping watch on general welfare.
If the structure of government is reorganised into a whole-of-country web of neighbourhood executive committees, Malaysia can do a turnaround from the lorong tikus of mediocrity to the high road of glorious success. There is one essential condition: all these neighbourhood committees must be strictly non-political and recognise only merit and a “serve others” mindset as the basis for holding a position.
This window of opportunity to restructure the government will not come again, unless a new pandemic or climate change were to strike. The NGOs, residential committees and social activists must speak up and brave the wind. Make it a wind of change so that the country is better governed. As can readily be observed, neighbourhood volunteers are non-partisan, non-racial, and non-communal in their service activities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has opened this window of opportunity for the rakyat to form a non-political meritocratic base of direct government at neighbourhood level. If we let the window close, Malaysia will continue its decline with no turnaround. All it takes is a change in the law to make it happen. Can’t our MPs, Senators, and ADUNs manage this? It’s the least they can do for the people.
Let residents perform the basic function of government. Let them become the government taking care of neighbourhood maintenance using property assessment taxes as their source of funds to engage contractors that the committee selects through open tender to get the best and most cost-effective. The benefit to politicians is that it frees them for bigger tasks.
Long before COVID-19, rakyat action for direct governance had already sprouted up at various spots in Malaysia. Most unforgettable was an old man dubbed as pothole patcher Panjang who began mending road potholes in Johor Bahru on his own in 2006. Last year he was still mending potholes in residential areas.
His valour may have contributed to encouraging a group of bikers in 2007 to form Ikatan Silaturahim Brotherhood and undertake pothole repairs on Klang Valley roads. They were still doing it early this year. Last year in Penang, the president of one NGO decided to repair potholes in Chowrasta Market all by himself.
What could have given added drive to this activism was the death of an old man in Puchong, Selangor, who accidentally walked into a deep, water-filled pothole in 2006. Over the years, many vehicle users have lost their lives after crashing into deathtrap potholes. Even without fatalities, potholes cause severe damage to motorbikes and cars.
Besides pothole patchers, other social activists undertake trash collection, drain clearance, and dengue prevention. You are lucky if you live in one of these areas that have NGOs, Rukun Tetangga members, or public-minded individuals patrolling the neighbourhood to inspect the upkeep. Since last year, we have also been seeing couples, singles, and teenagers picking up discarded face masks from walkways.
Isn’t all this the job of city councils? But the council is 10 kilometres away from your clogged drain, whereas you are 10 metres away. If the photocopying machine in your office gets jammed, do you call the CEO’s office and wait for a site inspection by the manager? So why do residents have to wait for the city hall to fix their clogged drains?
City hall officials don’t live in your neighbourhood, so they won’t have a sense of ownership of your problems nor the same sense of urgency. Maintenance is a job for neighbourhood committees as the first tier of government. Our folk heroes who are doing neighbourhood maintenance on their own are telling us that government for the people and by the people means the rakyat should govern their own neighbourhoods.
What should be the real function of city hall? As the second tier of government from the bottom up, city hall plays a support role to neighbourhood committees, guiding them and auditing their expenditure to ensure financial integrity. This frees city hall officials to concentrate on the big issues like preventing the spread COVID-19 when the numbers are still below 10 and easily containable. Instead, we let a stove fire burn on until the entire house caught fire.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo.