Local elections vital for democracy

Housing and Local Government Minister Reezal Merican Naina Merican last month said Malaysia would not restart local elections due to the cost and the inability to provide the best service to the public.

Are these reasons valid and why are local elections important in this country?

The rich history of local elections in Malaysia dates back to Law (India) XXVII of 1856, which accepted the principle of elections and recognized the need for an elected majority in city council.

Over the next century, Parliament passed several laws on local elections: the Municipal Ordinance of 1913, the Elections of Local Authorities Ordinance of 1950, and the Local Elections Act of 1960 (revised 1961) .

Nonetheless, the proclamation of a state of emergency during the Konfrontasi (Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation) at the end of 1964 effectively suspended local elections in 1965 and 1966, which remain in effect to this day.

At the same time, the National Council of Local Authorities appointed a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate the functioning of local authorities on the peninsula under the chairmanship of Senator Athi Nahappan.

The most important recommendations of the report include the need for an elected local authority to administer each state capital and elective representation in all other local authorities outside of state capitals.

Rather, the passage of the Local Government Act 1976 (Bill 171) abolished local elections and allowed state governments to appoint councilors.

The tide has turned again, after the historic general elections of 2018, which led to the first change of government with Pakatan Harapan pledging to relaunch the local elections.

Former Minister of Housing and Local Government Zuraida Kamaruddin has pledged to conduct a study on the implementation of local elections within three years.

Following the political crisis of 2020, Perikatan Nasional decided not to relaunch the local elections following objections from several deputies.

Despite these recent developments, the reintroduction of local elections can have far-reaching positive effects.

As the lower level of public administration, local councils are responsible for public services, such as waste disposal, public recreation facilities, and municipal roads, among others.

They also oversee local enforcement by issuing pet licenses, business permits, and parking tickets.

They formulate and implement various development plans and policies within their jurisdictions. In most cases, when local authorities are not providing services, citizens first turn to their MPs and MPs.

However, legislators are not responsible for these matters as they fall under the jurisdiction of local councils.

These public expectations are reasonable. Citizens are inclined to approach and involve elected officials first.

The lack of local elections in Malaysia widens the gap between the public and local authorities, with Malaysians increasingly excluded from decision-making at the local level.

Current government efforts to encourage local authorities to hold their meetings only via live streaming will not ensure public participation.

In addition, recent headlines highlight the lack of transparency and integrity of some local authorities.

In 2019, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) interviewed 20 Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) officials about their involvement in the information leak on a RM 60 million contract.

The MACC also arrested two district officers, who were previously chairmen of the Selangor city council, for allegedly receiving bribes from a project contractor and a real estate developer.

A former mayor of Iskandar Puteri city council was also arrested for corruption in August.

Local elections can minimize the recurrence of such cases because they provide a mechanism to hold local officials accountable for corruption, poor governance and inefficiencies.

Citizens can punish underperforming officials by removing them. Elected officials are more likely to engage with the public to get feedback on their programs and improve them accordingly to increase their chances of re-election.

Of course, elective representation at the local level is not always effective. Likewise, the current system of appointing officials can also be ineffective at times.

Both systems of representation have their advantages and disadvantages. However, in the long term, healthy and dynamic citizen participation at all levels of public administration is more desirable than the short term goal of efficiency.

Malaysia should strive for effective democracy rather than effectiveness in the absence of democracy.

Local governments can also serve as democracy “nurseries” that cultivate grassroots democracy. Therefore, local elections serve as a solid platform for Malaysians to understand their country’s democracy and their rights.

Voting in local elections can naturally help citizens to participate better in national and federal elections. – January 3, 2022.

* Yohendran Nadar Arulthevan reads The Malaysian Insight.

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