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PR’s spin on local elections

Karpal Singh

SPARE us the spin. The Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s promise to merely “strengthen local government democracy” in its common policy framework (CPF) is not a wider plan to go beyond local elections. It’s a compromise to substitute local elections. And from DAP chairperson Karpal Singh‘s comment, the obstacle to the coalition’s commitment to local elections is clearly PAS.

But why does PAS object to local elections? What are its considerations? We have no idea, because no PAS leader has explained why the party does not support local elections. No Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leader has, either. For some, this is esprit de corps at its best between PKR and PAS. But when the tables are turned, this is also denial of information to the citizenry.

How can an election pledge, upheld explicitly by the DAP and PKR in their manifestos and signed up to indirectly by PAS, be thrown out of the window without any explanation? If local elections should not be held or pursued aggressively, why can’t PAS and  — according to media reports — PKR politicians who support PAS make their case known? Is this not the practice of accountability?

Make no mistake: this is not just an academic debate. The PR’s CPF is the coalition’s de facto manifesto. If elections are called tomorrow, this is what the coalition will use. If elections are held much later, then the CPF will still inform the coalition’s manifesto.

Removing the phrase “local elections” and replacing it with a vague expression like “local government democracy” means that if the PR comes to federal power, it has no obligation to carry out local elections, not unlike PAS’s Kelantan state government today.

Official PR logo

Can you accept a new Malaysia under the PR, which insists on continuing to appoint local councillors?

If today the DAP and PKR can use coalition unity to justify their compromise to accommodate PAS, then the case for “coalition unity” would only be stronger if the PR manages to form federal government. Think about it: if PAS threatens to pull out of the PR in objection to local elections, do you think the DAP or PKR would be willing to forego federal power to fight for local elections?

You may ask: What is the chance of the PR winning the next elections? If it is very low, should we make a big fuss over some undeliverable electoral promises?

The fear

The question is, then: If the chance of the PR winning federal power is extremely low, why should PAS and perhaps its other partners be so adamant to rule out the possibility of introducing local elections? Why should the PR fear local elections in the same way, if not more than, the Perak Barisan Nasional (BN) “government” fears a fresh state election?

There could be two answers. The first is that the PR has a problem with the outcome of democratic elections. Not unlike the BN, it wants to win as many seats as possible. It likes elections only when it can win them. Since local elections may lead to it losing some local council seats, or even the control of certain councils, the PR does not want local elections. In short, the PR is as authoritarian as the BN.

(Pic by hinks / sxc.hu)

The second answer is that the PR has problems with the participants of democratic elections. In other words, the PR does not want local elections because in non-Malay-Malaysian-dominated urban centres, this would result in the political dominance of non-Malay Malaysians.

This is what is widely believed by the media and politicians to be the reason why local elections are excluded from the PR’s CPF. The PR can therefore be seen as racist because it will not allow geographically concentrated minorities to dominate their own local governments. In other words, if Ipoh is 70% non-Malay Malaysian, what’s wrong if the city council consisted of 70% or so non-Malay Malaysians?

One may argue, like Shah Alam PAS Member of Parliament Khalid Samad does, that PAS is not racist, but is merely worried that it will be attacked by Umno as “selling out Malay [Malaysians]“. This argument is lame because if PAS or the PR wants to avoid reforms to escape demonisation by Umno, they might as well not oppose the Internal Security Act, which some Malay-Muslim Malaysians claim is instrumental in defending ketuanan Melayu. The solution should be to educate the Malay Malaysian ground to demand for local elections together with their non-Malay Malaysian counterparts.

The return of the dhimmi

Coat of arms of the Ottoman Empire (Public domain; Wiki commons)

One may cite the inclusive language of PAS spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat and president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang in the PR national convention as evidence that PAS and PR are not racist. But how do you reconcile their two positions — “you are not outsiders”, and “you must not control the local government even if you are the majority group there”?

It looks as though the answer is the dhimmi discourse. “Dhimmi” is the term coined for protected minorities in the Islamic state. But the example of the goodwill offered to dhimmi in Muslim empires such as the Ottoman Empire has so far failed to convince Malaysians, especially non-Muslims, about the inherent goodness of the Islamic state. Hence PAS‘s disastrous electoral defeat in 2004.

One cannot help but wonder: has the PR’s foolish  resistance to local elections accidentally unveiled a larger lack of principles? What the PR needs now is not spin but corrective action before its credibility gets further eroded.


A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He believes that smart politicians ride on the wave of democratisation, while the less smart swim against it.

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9 Responses to “PR’s spin on local elections”

  1. Ashraf says:

    I gather from this article and http://www.thenutgraph.com/hurdles-for-local-govt-elections, there is no legal hurdle in having local elections in PR states from TNG’s standpoint. Then PR should come clean with a statement stating clearly why local elections are not carried out just yet. If they don’t, then clearly it is not a Pakatan Rakyat, as the rakyat is not part of the equation.

    Editor’s note: Actually, the standpoint is that of our columnists, Wong Chin Huat and KW Mak, not ours. As brilliant as some of our columnists are, their views are their own. We publish their pieces when they conform to our policies: http://thenutgraph.com/comments-and-columns-policy

    But that’s just a minor clarification :-) I’ll leave Wong Chin Huat to respond to your very necessary and very timely feedback.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  2. Shawn Tan says:

    They are all politicians – bunch of snakes – nothing surprising there at all.

    What I don’t get is why they are so afraid of ‘change’ – especially when they campaigned on a platform for change. Since change is not coming, the important question is what can the people do?

    If they can renege on such clear language in their manifesto, then their promises are worth less than the paper it is written on. If they renege on their promises, then I think that all bets are off.

    I rue the fact that we Malaysians are stuck with the choice of two evils – neither of which seems to be lesser.

  3. YH Lee says:

    Agree with most of what you’ve said. This is just the latest in a long line of PR-induced disillusionments.

    Do have one quibble though, with this sentence: ‘This argument is lame because if PAS or the PR wants to avoid reforms to escape demonisation by Umno, they might as well not oppose the Internal Security Act [...]‘ Specifically the use of the word ‘lame’ as a derogatory adjective – it appears somewhat insensitive to members of the disabled community.

    Editor’s note: We take this very seriously because it is a policy of ours not to use disparaging or discriminatory language. I was the editor of this piece, and I let this word through because my own dictionary, Collins, has two definitions of “lame” – 1. disabled or crippled in the legs or feet. 2. weak; unconvincing.

    Collins is pretty good at being quite clear about terms that are offensive. The second definition of “lame” did not have this disclaimer.

    But I do understand your objections – language does evolve, after all. Terms that were once considered unproblematic are now deemed sexist in certain instances. So I would be happy to be proven wrong for allowing the word “lame” through. Let’s see where the discussion takes us, and we will have our own internal editorial discussion in The Nut Graph and decide what to do next.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  4. chinhuatw says:

    @Ashraf,

    The Selangor-commissioned report on Local Government Elections by the Coalition of Good Governance proposed three solutions, two of which do not require federal consent. Pakatan Rakyat may face some constitutional or legal challenges, but this would only help the cause and mobilise the public. As far as we see it, this is really a matter of political will, not legality.

    Having said this, there can be legitimate concerns why local elections may need a more comprehensive package. One view raised by Liew Chin Tong, MP for Bukit Bendera, in his personal capacity is that the state government – in states like Penang – could become hollow if the local authorities with combined budgets larger than that of the state become autonomous. If this is the real reason holding local elections back, the PR state governments unfortunately have not been upfront in public. Instead, the responsibility is shifted to the BN/federal government. Without addressing the real issues, I doubt even a PR federal government will introduce local elections.

    @Shawn,

    I don’t agree that PR and BN are equally bad, not least because PR has not come into power and will be more responsive to public pressure. As the Chinese saying goes, until one sees one’s coffin, one will not be afraid of death and shed one’s tears. That the BN refuses to embark on any institutional reform 21 months after March 8 speaks volumes of its reluctance to change.

    Personally, I don’t see politicians as lower than human beings in other positions. Human nature remains the same in politics, business, love or other forms of human enterprise. We all pursue our self interests – in both private and public senses – and respond to incentives. Hence, if politicians behave badly, often it is because they are rewarded to do so.

    And treating politics differently from other human activities – as something incomparably disgusting or incomparably noble – does not help members of the public to take ownership of the country.

    The politicians are really a reflection of our deeds and thoughts. They are our collective karma if you like. If they are a bunch of snakes, that’s because we are collectively somewhat snake-like.

  5. YH Lee says:

    Thanks for the response, Shanon. I really admire the fact that the Nut Graph has an active policy against disparaging or discriminatory language. I thought perhaps this thread might be helpful for a discussion of the uses and non-uses of the word ‘lame’: http://www.amptoons.com/blog/archives/2009/06/16/why-not-to-use-the-word-lame-i-think-im-starting-to-get-it/

    Editor’s note: You’re welcome, Yin Harn, and thanks for the very valuable link. I am making my way through it and it is very persuasive. Happy holidays to you.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  6. siew eng says:

    Side topic – I’m so used to saying “disabled” or “people with disabilities” that I’d almost forgotten the other meaning for lame and read the line as Chin Huat intended.

  7. kahseng says:

    As Chin Huat pointed out and implied by MP Liew Chin Tong, the MPPP (Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang) is much richer from local taxes, compared to the state government, which depends on federal handouts.

    Given the high % of PR seats in the Penang state assembly, PR can only do worse in a local-council election. The longer PR waits, the less reluctant Penangites will be to give local council seats to Gerakan and MCA.

    So I think DAP has a strong fear in losing control in a local council election, losing its main revenues for populist spending, hence losing its next state election.

    But not holding local elections will be worse for PR and DAP. Most local problems cannot be solved unless there are local elections: City planning, housing development, hill cutting, garbage collection, parking violations and traffic jam solution, attempts to wrestle transport licensing from the federal government, beach pollution, KOMTAR revitalization, heritage planning, local entrepreneurship, market and pasar malam upgrade, toilet and public space upgrade, the lack of commitment to sensible and economic trash recycling options, proper control of the local district mine and land department (a powerful, secretive, and dubious department).

    I am beginning to lose respect for my MP Liew and DAP for not insisting on local elections. I come from a theoretical path of thinking.

    But I can feel many of my neighbours are starting to feel upset and disappointed from encountering daily problems that can only be solved by local elections.

  8. kahseng says:

    The US press, which is forced by its readership to be sensitive to derogatory terms, has no qualms about “lame-duck president”. Hope this perspective helps.


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