THE spat between Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and DAP over the appointment of Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai (MPSP) president Mokhtar Mohd Jait began with a boycott, by PKR councillors, of Mokhtar’s swearing in. This then led to DAP leaders calling for the resignation of Johari Kassim, the PKR whip in MPSP which led the boycott.
The contention? Mokhtar was a civil servant, appointed by the DAP-led Penang government. According to Johari, the council presidency had previously been promised to a PKR politician. Soon, certain quarters began speculating on a possible rift within the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition and this was, of course, how some media eventually tried to frame the issue.
But above the political infighting within PR, the skirmish speaks to a more important issue that has been sidestepped by politicians and most media. That is, how one level of government is run by political appointees, rather than by representatives elected by the people. Nowhere in the MPSP saga, after all, was the Seberang Prai population’s opinions on the matter sought. Indeed, PKR’s Johari actually slammed Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng for failing to consult PKR, not the people, when deciding on the council president.
The lowest rung
Local government is the lowest rung in the three tiers of Malaysian government. When we think about majlis perbandaran, most Malaysians are likely to be reminded of basic municipal services such as garbage collection, street lamps, and pot holes.
However, like administration at the federal and state levels, local governments have the power to make laws (in the form of by-laws), issue licenses and permits for businesses, and plan development in the areas under their jurisdiction. They are also empowered to collect taxes, in the form of assessment tax.
It is the last of these powers that necessitate elections at the local government level.
“The principle is ‘No taxation without representation’,” former Penang municipal councillor and local government expert Dr Goh Ban Lee tells The Nut Graph, quoting the 18th-century axiom.
According to Goh, the currently-appointed local councils in Malaysia are “actually not bad”, and elections are by no means a guarantee of effectiveness. But holding elections is a matter of principle.
“If people elect a rascal, they should be allowed to. Rate payers should be able to choose the people they pay tax to,” Goh argues. “That, alone, is the reason why there should be local council elections.”
Losing the vote
It bears remembering that Malaysians did choose their local councillors, when we first became independent. This proverbial “third vote” continued until the Konfrontasi in the 1960s between Malaysia and Indonesia caused the Malaysian government to suspend, and then abolish, elections at the local council level. This was achieved through the Emergency (Suspension of Local Government Elections) Regulations 1965.
“Some academicians have argued that the real reason behind this was that the Alliance feared the Opposition taking over major Malaysian towns,” Goh says. “While they would win the state elections, they would lose control of the cities.”
Lim Guan EngGoh points out that several major urban centres then, including Ipoh and Seremban, tended to elect independent candidates unaligned with the ruling party. The Georgetown City Council, for example, was a stronghold of the Socialist Front.
Since then, the Barisan Nasional (BN), the successor of the Alliance, has been resistant to the idea of local government elections, typically citing the fact that there is already too much politicking in modern Malaysia.
In contrast, during the run-up to the March 2008 elections, the then-informal PR coalition was consistent in its promise to push for local council elections. During his inauguration as chief minister, Lim Guan Eng promised Penangites that his administration would work to restore such elections.
Working towards elections
“I’m all for elections. I’m very passionate about it,” civil society activist and local council elections advocate Datuk Dr Anwar Fazal tells The Nut Graph.
“The state government is most receptive, and is pursuing this actively,” Anwar reveals. Both Anwar and Goh are part of a working group, appointed by the Penang government, to look into bringing local council elections back.
“But it is not going to be easy,” Anwar adds. “It is going to be a difficult financial and legal issue.”
The National Council for Local Government is provided for by Article 95A of the Federal Constitution. This council is empowered to formulate “in consultation with the Federal Government and the State Governments” national policies “for the promotion, development and control of local government”. Any state government wishing to pass new laws with regards to local government — say, to institute elections — would have to consult this council.
“Unless the state gets permission from the National Council, they wouldn’t be able to do it,” Goh says.
“In my view, we need parliament to amend the laws so that local council elections can be held,” he adds. For now, the state governments’ hands, it seems, are tied.
Meanwhile, the conventional practice in appointing local government, where political-party figures are awarded posts, continue. This has been true even for the PR-led states, as the MPSP incident proves.
“Sometimes the power to appoint your own people becomes quite nice,” Goh quips.
Keeping politicians out
According to Goh, one way to make local government appointments more transparent and accountable would be to form an independent panel that would recommend councillors for the state government to appoint.
“These panels should consist of reputable citizens,” Goh says. State governments could set criteria for the panel’s selection — but, in the end, it would mean that the power to appoint would no longer be in the hands of political parties.
Goh admits that it would be a hard choice for political parties to make. “That would be a very big jump, for them. But since the PR takeover of several states, especially in Penang and Selangor, I’m hopeful.”
Promises may have been made about local council elections, and steps may be taken to combat mal-administration in local governments. But critically, politicians still need to make a paradigm shift, so that the power to elect local leaders is returned to the people. In the case of the PR, it’s good that they have at least promised the electorate they will do so. But the PKR-DAP spat over the MPSP president is proof that so much more needs to be done.