Connexion: Start neighbourhood governance or be left far behind

By Joachim Ng

Perakians must take bold steps to reform the nation’s governance structure if they want to stay above the waters. Do not wait for our parliamentarians to come up with a vision for new generations. Instead, what has come is retribution, for down in Teluk Intan near Sungai Batang Padang, villagers saw December flood waters rising to adult neck level. Develop a people-centric vision and tell the parliamentarians to support it.

We are now hearing advice that local communities must self-organise. We can’t leave everything to the Government, says Global Environment Centre river care programme manager, Dr Kalithasan Kailasam. 

To improve service delivery, we need citizen participation at the lorong where you stay, coupled with decentralised administration wherein city council staff work in street offices to provide networking and guidance to neighbourhood councils in their deliberations and action plans. This is already the practice in more than a dozen countries around the world.

In Malaysia’s current political structure we have city, state, and federal levels of government. It’s like a plant with a trunk, branches, and leaves. There are no roots. Neighbourhood governance is the grassroot level, the primary level or missing first tier of governance. Every household should be part of this first tier of government whose scope includes neighbourhood maintenance and strong enforcement of rules. 

Neighbourhood governance existed before political parties emerged, and it was the only tier of government for years until the dawn of agriculture and civilisation. With the rise of politics, neighbourhood governance was abolished and only the surviving hunter-gatherer tribes like Orang Asli kept it going. But, after a hiatus of some 10,000 years, neighbourhood governance re-emerged in Britain 20 years ago. 

Dozens of elected and statutorily empowered neighbourhood councils run local maintenance services in forward-looking neighbourhoods, and they also participate in the budget deliberations of several city councils. It’s a revival of bottom-up governance empowering John Smith and Susan Jones down at the laundromat. 

With reinstatement of localism, community requirements can be addressed in locally appropriate ways instead of the “one hammer for all nails” city council approach that focuses on slow remedial actions and not preventive measures to avert breakdowns.

A senior public relations trainer in Kuala Lumpur two weeks ago aired a widely held grievance that complaint letters sent to government offices including city councils are usually not replied to. This is the downside of having just three tiers of government with the primary foundational tier missing. Complainers must wise up to the fact that higher authorities don’t have time for clogged drains, uncut grass, and potholes. 

With floods getting worse each year, Ipoh City Watch president and city councillor Richard Ng has cited the December deluge as a wakeup call for everyone. Part of the reason for the occurrence of floods in your neighbourhood is that the drains are clogged. Back in August last year, Richard had pointed out that drains in some parts of the city were being overwhelmed by grease sludge that eateries pour out. 

The problem is more severe in Klang Valley where eateries have been pouring fats, oils and grease into drains and rivers for more than ten years, creating fatbergs that block water flow and cause flash floods during storms. 

But it’s not just irresponsible restaurants and negligent cleaners. In 2017, a fitness trainer in Puchong, Selangor noticed a vehicle packed with empty plastic water bottles and its owner walking back and forth dumping the bottles into a drain. Many are guilty of similar practices. Used face masks have become one of the biggest sources of litter washed into drains as users throw them by the roadside and at parking lots.

Householders contribute to flooding when they flush sanitary pads, wet wipes and diapers down the toilet. Rubbish dams up the sewer lines causing overflow. Keep your eyes open as you explore Malaysia, and you will see unrepaired broken drains and drain covers that crumble because commercial drivers park heavy vehicles on them. Drains along many residential roads are choked with thick mud.

Up north in Bukit Mertajam, industrial premise operators turned a vacant lot the size of two football fields into a dumpsite with garbage piled one storey high. Down south in Johor Bahru, the city council picks up 30 tonnes of waste plastics from Sungai Tebrau every month.

Chat groups have been rife with praise for NGO (non-governmental organisation) volunteers — common people who became heroes rescuing trapped flood victims and bringing necessities to the affected despite facing grave danger of contracting hepatitis A, typhoid, cholera, leptospirosis, and skin infections caused by worms and bacteria present in flood waters.

With the storms abating, these dedicated community service NGOs should begin discussions on forming neighbourhood councils that can effectively take preventive measures of a long-term nature. They had better hurry and put the formation of neighbourhood councils at the top of their agenda, because neighbourhood governance is the new tide that will sweep across the world.

Long before Britain introduced new localism around the year 2000 and inspired Western Europe and North America to follow suit, China had already pushed the concept of shequ jianshe or neighbourhood community building, with urban precincts under the governance of street offices in cities such as Beijing and Nanjing.

Nanjing is a particularly good example of new localism as it was designated as an Experimental City for Neighbourhood Governance and Community Reform in 1999 and hosted eight Experimental Zones for Community Governance and Service Innovation between 2012 and 2019. A neighbourhood administrative area would usually have a population of around 3,000 households.

The strength of neighbourhood governance as a foundational tier of democracy is that it avoids politics while generating citizen participation, accountability, responsiveness, efficiency, and joint local action bringing homeowners, civic organisations, and city council officials together to deliver prompt service and punish rule-breakers such as litterbugs and drain cloggers, fatberg restaurants, and traffic violators.

Neighbourhood-based service providers such as drain cleaners, grass cutters, garbage collectors and roadside sweepers can be monitored daily to ensure high performance. Maintenance budgets should be drawn from the taxes paid by homeowners and businesses in the neighbourhood, with the city hall monitoring the income and expenditure. Neighbourhood governance is the way forward. Don’t be left far behind.


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.



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