Elect local leaders

24 Oct 2017 / 10:00 H.

    AS a general rule, democratic countries hold elections to elect their leaders, members of parliament, state assemblymen, and local municipal councillors. Malaysians elect only members of parliament and state assemblymen whereas local councillors, including mayors or presidents, are appointed by their state government leaders.
    However, there were local government elections in the past. In fact, as early as 1857, a hundred years before Malaya achieved independence, there were elections in Penang Island to elect local councillors.
    The ratepayers in George Town elected three of the five municipal commissioners.
    But the local government elections in George Town did not last very long. In 1913, elections were abolished and the colonial government in the Straits Settlements reverted to appointing the leaders in local authorities.
    In 1950, the Local Authorities Election Ordinance was passed and once again George Town took the lead in local government elections in 1951. Nine out of 15 municipal commissioners were elected.
    In the following year, elections were held to elect 12 out of 18 councillors in the Kuala Lumpur Municipal Council.
    Similar elections were held for some state capitals in Malaya.
    In fact, elections were also held in the new villages that were created to resettle farmers in enclosed settlements as part of the war against communist insurgents.
    Winning candidates in local elections ranged across political parties. For example, in the 1952 municipal elections in Kuala Lumpur, nine out of 12 successful candidates were from the Alliance, a coalition of Umno, MCA and MIC. Two other elected councillors were from the multiracial Independence of Malaya Party led by Datuk Onn Jaafar. An independent candidate also won.
    In December 1956, George Town Municipal Council became the first local council in Malaya to be fully elected. The president was chosen from among the councillors and the first person in the country to hold the post was Goh Guan Hoe, popularly known as G. H. Goh, of the Alliance.
    Although Goh was popularly addressed as "mayor" he was officially the president of the council, as George Town was declared a city only on Jan 1, 1957.
    By December 1957, when the head of the George Town City Council was officially designated as mayor, the Alliance had lost its majority and D. S. Ramanathan of the Labour Party was elected the first mayor of George Town. A road in Pulau Tikus has been named after the mayor.
    Unfortunately, the progress of democracy in Malaysia was obstructed. In 1959, elections scheduled for Kuala Lumpur were suspended on the grounds that the electoral rolls were not ready. The planned elections were abolished the following year.
    Furthermore, the scheduled local government elections for the rest of the country in 1965 and 1966 were also suspended. The official reason was "Konfrontasi" (Confrontation) from Indonesia.
    It is fair to believe that the real reason for withholding elections was the Alliance government's fear of losing more local authorities to the opposition parties.
    A Royal Commission of Enquiry (1968) led by Senator Datuk Athi Nahapan was set up to investigate the workings of local authorities in West Malaysia. He did a very good job. The report concluded that local authorities have an important role to play in providing essential services to the people and that local council elections should remain.
    Unfortunately, the Local Government Act of 1976 provided for only appointed mayors or presidents and councillors. Until today, the leaders of all local councils, irrespective of whether they are city councils, municipal councils or district councils are still appointed.
    It is time to bring back elected local authorities after more than 50 years, with political participation of local people for better accountability and transparency. Besides, elected councillors will be more effective in keeping cities or municipalities safe, clean, vibrant and interesting. As they are answerable to their electorate, they will pay more attention to the needs of the people rather.
    Appointed mayors or presidents and councillors tend to pay allegiance to those who appointed them. As a result, they tend to take care of the state government's interests.
    Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com


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