Time for the third vote

MALAYSIANS have chosen for change, and have peacefully voted out a coalition that has ruled the country for more than 60 years.

The Pakatan Harapan government has wasted no time to implement the changes and promises made during campaigning.

Yet, in Malaysia citizens only vote for representatives at the state and federal level. In many countries, elections are held at the local level as well. Those who administer towns and cities are elected by the people.

It's heartening that Pakatan Harapan pledged in its campaign manifesto to strengthen local authorities. What better way to do that than to restore or revive local elections. In fact, the two main component parties of Pakatan Harapan, DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat, have long been campaigning for local elections.

In the aftermath of GE14 there are renewed calls for local elections by MPs.

Kepong MP Lim Lip Eng said: "We need an elected mayor who is answerable to the electorate and will pay more attention to the needs of the people and not to those who appointed them."

Maria Chin Abdullah, MP for Petaling Jaya, is calling to "get the 'third vote' back into action".

Bukit Gasing state assemblyman Rajiv Rishyakaran said: "I believe that it is the best way for us to choose the mayor right down to the councillors."

In Malaysia, there is no constitutional and legal recognition for local democracy. The absence of local democracy is compounded by lack of transparency in decision making in local authorities.

Local councillors are appointed by state governments, more specifically the chief ministers or mentris besar. They tend to pay allegiance to those who appoint them. As such, the local authorities are not accountable to the communities they serve. This can result in conflicts of interest which can become incentives for corruption. Furthermore, appointed officials may not adequately understand the needs of constituents.

As noted in this column before, local elections are not new in Malaysia. The first experience in electing local representatives was in 1857, when ratepayers in George Town, Penang, elected three of five municipal councillors.

But in 1913, local government elections were abolished by the colonial government. Then in 1950, the Local Authorities Election Ordinance was passed and George Town once again took the lead, electing nine out of 15 municipal commissioners in 1951.

In 1952, 12 out of 18 councillors were elected in the Kuala Lumpur Municipal Council. In 1956, George Town Municipal Council was the first local council in Malaya to be fully elected.

However, over the next few years, many scheduled local elections were suspended, possibly due to the ruling party's fears of losing control of local authorities.

Despite the recommendation of the Royal Commission of Enquiry to Investigate the workings of local authorities in West Malaysia in 1968 led by Senator Datuk Athi Nahappan to implement elected councils, the Local Government Act 1976 provided for only appointed presidents and councillors.

It has been more than 50 years since Malaysians have been deprived of our rights to elect local representatives and have had to live with appointed councillors.

The commission described the pros and cons of elective and nominative local government. It was not blind to the pitfalls of elected local government. However, its preference for elections was clear.

It said: "But weighing both the processes in a dispassionate manner, we cannot but take cognizance of the fact that the merits of the elective process with all its inherent and attendant weaknesses, outweigh those of the nominative process ... Democracy with efficiency is always more desirable and better than efficiency without democracy."

GE14 is a historic moment for Malaysia. According to the Election Committee, 12,299,514 Malaysians cast their vote, the highest number of votes cast in Malaysian history. This represented 82.3% of registered voters, a remarkable number considering polling was in the middle of the week. For comparison, the previous election, GE13, was held on Sunday, and had 11.257 million votes cast, comprising 84.8% of registered voters.

It is clear from GE14 that Malaysians are eager to participate in the electoral process and have their voices heard. The next step is to bring back local government elections.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com