Local govt elections: Look at big picture, not race, says ex-MP Maria Chin Abdullah

Discussions and debates on the need for local government elections should be on why it matters instead of rejecting the proposal based on racial narratives.

Former Petaling Jaya MP Maria Chin Abdullah said decision-makers should revisit local government elections, and see how they can ensure better accountability and transparency.

“We need such elections to have a wider pool of people representative at local councils. Right now, many councillors are political appointees,” said Chin.

“Because they (politically appointed councillors) report to their party whip, their decisions would likely favour their political party,” she said.

While it is not guaranteed that local council members would not be affiliated with political parties, Chin believes having a larger pool of representatives is beneficial.

“I do not think it will be a messy affair. It would guarantee that the people’s wishes are better conveyed to the council,” she said.

“The people’s mandate must be respected. Right now, even if the people do not want highway projects in the area, local government heads insist it should proceed.”

On Sunday, Cheras MP Tan Kok Wai, a long-time proponent of local council elections, urged the government to bring them back to the federal capital to strengthen democracy.

Tan’s suggestion was rejected by Umno and Pas.

Umno Veterans’ Club secretary Mustapha Yaakub had reportedly said that if local elections were held, its representatives could easily win in Chinese-majority areas.

Federal Territories Pas Commissioner Azhar Yahya said Tan’s suggestion was dangerous as it could lead to “racial monopoly” due to the unbalanced distribution of the population by race, especially in the Federal Territories.

In 2008, the Selangor government commissioned the Coalition for Good Governance (CGG) to prepare an advocacy paper titled ‘Bring Back Local Government Elections’.

It was to provide recommendations on how to bring back local government elections in Selangor. As the chair and secretariat of CGG, Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti, Selangor (Empower) coordinated the writing of the paper.

Besides Chin, the paper was also written by Andrew Khoo, and Wong Chin Huat, and edited by Honey Tan.

It noted that the issues that local government deals with impact the daily lives of the residents, and the importance could be divided into environmental, public, social and developmental.

The paper argues for the reinstatement of the local council elections and also recommends several stages of implementation to ensure its reinstatement. It sets out immediate and short-term recommendations as preparatory steps that will help pave the way in the long term for the local government elections.

It also discusses the legal, social and political challenges and lists recommendations for long-term measures to ensure that elections, and not appointments, are the mechanism to determine who should run local governments.

The paper noted that local elections, first introduced in George Town in 1857 and abolished by 1913, were reintroduced in 1951 with the passing of the Local Authorities Elections Ordinance 1950.

Two years later, the Local Council Ordinance 1952 created local councils for villages. By 1958, local elections covered city councils, municipal councils, town councils, town boards, rural district councils and local councils.

Under the Local Government Elections Act 1960 and its amendment in 1961, the Election Commissions took over the conduct of all local elections.

Local elections in 1963 were the last ones in Malaysia as local elections were suspended under a proclamation of emergency in September 1964 amidst the Indonesia-staged Confrontation.

The paper noted that political parties and scholars like James Anthony believed that the suspension of local elections, as early as 1959 in Kuala Lumpur, was to prevent the opposition parties from winning them.

In 1965, the Royal Commission of Enquiry to Investigate into the Workings of Local Authorities in West Malaysia (the Royal Commission) was set up to study the matter.

The enquiry was led by Athi Nahappan, then deputy president of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), to consider the usefulness of “the continued existence” of local authorities.

The paper noted that while many opposition leaders saw the Royal Commission’s term of reference as “a kind of death warrant to local authorities”, its comprehensive report published in December 1968, (commonly known as the Athi Nahappan Report) strongly recommended that every state capital in West Malaysia be administered by a local authority, consisting of elected representatives. This should also be extended to all local authorities outside state capitals.

“The Athi Nahappan Report was superseded by the Development Administration Unit Report which effectively set aside the Athi Nahappan’s recommendations in 1971.

It sounded the death knell of the local government elections. Section 15 of the Local Government Act now provides, ‘Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in any written law, all provisions relating to local government elections shall cease to have force or effect.”

However, legal experts have stated that local government elections were necessary as it is an important part of local government and it could be easily done as it was no different than normal elections. Experts have also said that it was simple to identify who voters are as it can be those who are paying quit rent or those staying in localities.

Some legal experts had also opined that even though the right to hold elections was removed from Local Government Act 1976 and substituted by the power to appoint councillors, the federal government has the right to exclude any section from the Local Government Act 1976 from applying to States.

Tagged with: