Bring back local elections

16 Jan 2018 / 10:09 H.

    MALAYSIANS are expected to go to the polls soon to choose their representatives. It is again timely to raise the issue of local government elections.
    Although Malaysia is a democratic country, only members of Parliament and state assemblymen are elected by the people. Local councillors are appointed by mentris besar and chief ministers.
    We did have elected local government in the past. In the early 1960s, the City Council of George Town, Municipal Council of Ipoh and Municipal Council of Malacca and all the local councils of new villages were elected.
    The last local council elections were in 1963. Local government elections that were supposed to be held in 1964 and 1965 were suspended. The official reason given by the federal government was Indonesia's confrontation with Malaysia.
    The suspension, supposed to be temporary, became permanent in 1976, when the Parliament passed the Local Government Act which only provided for appointed councillors, abolishing local government elections altogether.
    Even before the 12th general election, the DAP had made calls for elected local councillors. Some consumers' associations, residents' associations, academicians and notable personalities, like retired judge Harun Hashim, also made similar calls.
    Elected local government does not necessarily lead to good leadership and good urban governance. In elections, there is no guarantee that the good guys win. Scoundrels and bunglers could also get elected.
    Besides, local government elections incur additional costs that can be enormous if held once every three years.
    Another negative point is that in a multiracial and multi-religious society, local elections provide opportunities for racists and fanatics to hijack election campaigns to serve their narrow interests at the expense of national unity.
    A sound argument for elected local government is that elected representation is the cornerstone of democracy.
    Hence, the absence of elected councillors is a denial of democracy and accountability at the grass-root level of government.
    Even if scoundrels or bunglers were to be elected, they would be, at least, the choice of the people.
    According to the Royal Commission of Enquiry into the Workings of Local Authorities in West Malaysia led by Senator Datuk Athi Nahappan, if a local government is not elected, it is non-representative.
    If we hold fast to the time-honoured concept of "no taxation without representation", nominated local government undermines the legitimacy of local authorities to collect assessment rates which are the most important source of income of the local authorities.
    That is why the Royal Commission Report concluded that the merits of elected local government with all its inherent weaknesses outweigh those of the nominated ones.
    It is only right that Malaysia reintroduces local government elections. In a democratic society people elect their representatives.
    While local government should be elected, there should be no partisan politics.
    Local issues, such as safety, pleasant neighbourhoods and vibrant downtowns are non-ideological.
    Party politics has no place in local government. Candidates should contest these elections under their own banners and symbols randomly drawn from a list.
    Non-partisan local government is neither unique nor inconceivable.
    Local government in Malaya before 1960 was conducted without parties. Many cities around the world, including, for example, some of the largest in the United States such as Los Angeles and Chicago, have non-partisan elections for their city councillors.
    Hopefully in the years to come, race- and religion-based political parties will become insignificant entities.
    As such, the workings of the local councils will be rid off over-emphasis on race and religion rather than on the welfare of ratepayers.
    Each local council should establish commissions to help and advise on specific issues such as architecture, planning, waste management, traffic and beautification.
    Members of the commissions can be appointed from knowledgeable residents and leaders of trade or professional associations.
    This not only lightens the work of councillors, but also ensures that many ratepayers have a role in the governance of their towns or cities.
    In conclusion, elected local councillors are more accountable to ratepayers than appointed ones.
    Conducting non-partisan elections for city councillors enables more democratic representation at all levels of government, and fosters a better sense of civic and community engagement among residents.
    It would go a long way towards instilling pride in our towns and cities.
    Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments:

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