By Joachim Ng
Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim has placed emphasis on institutional and governance reforms in addition to emphasising economic progress and reduction of inequality. However, one governance reform that no administration has thought of is the need to add a basic tier to our existing three-tiered structure of government.
We have a federal government to handle national affairs, state governments to control such matters as land and water, and local authorities to manage the cities and towns. This is like a tricycle that can’t go very far, unlike the four-wheeled vehicle. What has all along been missing — and no political analyst or residents’ association has raised concern — is the neighbourhood governing committee that should be entrusted with maintenance duties.
The neighbourhood committee isn’t a high-tea gathering for old folks; it is the missing basic tier of governance and the nation’s progress has been a wild zigzag ride without this grassroots base.
Who fixes the potholes in your neighbourhood roads before a motorcyclist gets killed or your car gets damaged? Who picks up the litter that makes your neighbourhood unhygienic? Who ensures that drains stay unclogged to prevent flooding and the back lanes are free of Aedes mosquito breeding spots? Who conducts safety checks on children’s playground equipment? Who is overall in charge of making sure your neighbourhood is liveable?
Political analysts and residents’ associations throw all these basic tasks at the local authorities. They may as well be throwing bedroom furniture into a river. On paper, it looks impressive as the nation has 155 local authorities comprising 19 city councils, 39 municipal councils, and 92 district councils to govern our cities, towns, and villages. In practice, they can’t look after your neighbourhood if it is situated in a city or large town.
The first big reason why local authorities can’t manage your neighbourhood is the size of jurisdiction. A city council handles more than half a million people, a municipality has 150,000 to 500,000 people under its care, and a district council manages up 150,000. These are huge numbers and if you’re a councillor, you will feel good. But you can’t manage the small things.
The second big reason why local authorities are not responsive to you is that they have to generate revenue. About half of their income is non-tax revenue, coming especially from development charges for new property projects. So they focus on issues pertaining to housing, as they easily get RM2 million in approval fees for each project. In one big city south of Perak, the council approved 21 condos along a 2.5km stretch of narrow kampung road. The result? A long traffic bottleneck.
The third big reason why councils neglect neighbourhoods is that their major responsibility is to provide mandatory essential services including health and food safety, pest and infectious disease control, and supervision of public markets and food courts. Then there are public parks to maintain, as well as street lighting, traffic control, and road safety management particularly in the city centres where tourists flock. Quite obviously, the doctors have no time to check your nails for cleanliness.
The fourth big reason why you as a ratepayer are not that important is that many councillors are appointed by the State Government by virtue of their positions in the ruling parties. Back in 2005, Dr Katiman Rostam of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia asked: “Whom do councillors serve? The people or the councillors’ political masters?”
In 2015, Jeffrey Phang of Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman revealed that negotiations are hotly pursued within every political party to ensure favoured members get positions as local councillors. “Often, it is a reward for political patronage and support that has been given by the minions to the power brokers of the party.”
Author Lim Mah Hui in his 2020 book Local Democracy Denied? wrote: “Yet the overwhelming majority of councillors appointed are junior members of political parties attempting to make their way up the political ladder.” Fifteen years ago, a street survey found that many people do not know whether councillors represent them or the political parties that appointed them.
Ironically, it was the expressed desire to improve local government efficiency and its responsiveness to local interests that the appointment system was introduced in 1976 to eliminate partisan politics that come with the holding of elections. But the appointment of most councillors on the basis of political affiliation effectively turned all councils into appendixes of the state governments infused with political bias.
Decades of chronic neglect should have convinced all residents’ associations, political analysts, and mayors that ratepayers are the best people to govern their own neighbourhoods. Potholes are a spine-breaking example. How fast can a hole appear? Two months of rain created potholes at 72 locations in Ipoh, and the city council allocated RM600,000 last month to repair them.
A resident in Ipoh’s Taman Pengkalan Harmoni complained last month that no action had been taken to repair Jalan Persiaran Margosa 1 despite three years of complaints and several accidents. In Selangor alone, there were 37,130 reports of potholes on roads maintained by local councils over a 21-month period in 2019-2020.
The following year, Klang motorists complained about stretches of road with perilous crater-like potholes. One 230-metre stretch of Jalan Sungai Kapar Indah, particularly, had not been repaired for 10 months despite being riddled with potholes. There were eyewitness accounts of motorcyclists flung off their machines. Scores of motorists had to repair their tyre rims, exhaust pipe, steering alignment, and even the front bumper.
Drive to Johor Bahru, the city made famous by community do-gooder Panjang. A spot check last December found multiple potholes on high traffic roads such as Jalan Tebrau. As far back as 2006, Jalan Tebrau had already been highlighted in newspapers for its potholes. In that year, an odd-job 64-year-old resident known as Panjang took it upon himself to fill up potholes around Jalan Maju, Jalan Serampang and Jalan Perang with stones and pebbles before sealing them with cement.
In 2007, a 20-year-old ran his motorcycle over a pothole, fell and died from head injuries. In 2009, a hairdresser was killed when she fell off a motorcycle which hit a pothole. So, up to 2020 Panjang was still braving the traffic. “So many potholes appearing, especially roads around residential areas. Very dangerous for motorcyclists and cyclists,” he had told reporters.
A university study in 2017 found that more than 1,000 road traffic deaths in Malaysia were caused by potholes. If neighbourhood governing committees had existed, most of these tragic deaths wouldn’t have occurred.
Probably inspired by Panjang’s self-sacrificing example, a group of bikers set up an Ikatan Silaturrahim Brotherhood in 2007 to fix potholes in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, and Malacca. Spending their own money, they persisted valiantly in their life-saving work for a good 14 years despite objections from the local councils.
The group’s leader Azlan Sani Zawawi had personally known of three bikers who died in pothole crashes, and one of the volunteers, Muhammad Azizi, said he joined the brotherhood because of an incident when he was hit by a car while trying to avoid a pothole. Last year in Sabah, Pensiangan district villagers launched a cement donation drive so that they could fix the potholes along a 30-metre length of road that posed a great safety risks to users.
These pothole adventures are a telltale sign that the right people to keep every neighbourhood in a sprightly condition that promotes happy living are the ratepayers. The councils, instead of trying to micro-manage, should delegate neighbourhood maintenance to the neighbourhood committees comprising ratepayers who then appoint the maintenance contractors and supervise them. Better still if these contractors are themselves blue-collar residents of the neighbourhood.
Councils still control the finances as they pay the contractors, and they can stipulate a rule that no person related to a neighbourhood committee member can be awarded a maintenance contract. Another important rule is that no member of a political party can be a member of the neighbourhood committee. This removes politics completely from neighbourhood governance.
A far-reaching benefit of the neighbourhood committee is that it provides experience in non-political governance. With such a base to stand on, ratepayers will make better councillors if appointed and better civil servants if they hold such jobs. When such councillors or civil servants advance into state and federal positions, they will be poised to reduce politicking at every level of government.
Send a message to Nga Kor Ming, the Minister of Local Government Development. He is in Kepayang, Ipoh. It falls under his purview to establish this missing basic tier of government.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo