Local Democracy: More Politics or Less?

There are two sets of contradictory ideas when it comes to the discussion of local democracy in Malaysia. While many call for local elections, there are also some activists who call for “less politics, more professional appointments” to the local councils.

At a conference on decentralisation in Penang in September 2014, social activist and local councillor that Malaysians should emulate Seoul for electing an NGO mayor, he went on to argue the ills of having politicians at the council level.

I have met Park Woon Soon, a human rights lawyer turned social activist turned mayor of Seoul, twice. Park was a reknown human rights activist until 2000 when democratic elections took a firm root in Korea. He switched to social activism and formed various groups to encourage more participation in the governance of the community’s daily lives. Groups were formed to improve bus routes or community facilities and Park called these “do tanks” as opposed to “think tanks”, which he regarded as talk shops.

I met him for the first time at his Hope Institute in 2010. The second time I met him was at the Seoul mayoral office in August 2012, a year after he won a by-election. He has since become the Opposition’s strongest contender for the next presidential election. His rise from NGO mayor to the nation’s No. 1 opposition politician is certainly a fascinating one.

Indeed, in all of Asia’s three most successful democratic transitions from authoritarian rule – namely Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia – local elections have played a crucial part. Without local democracy, new emerging leaders like furniture exporter Jokowi could not have gained credibility as an administrator which he later used against his opponent Prabowo, who hailed from an elite background.

When there are more politics at local level, it is possible for more risks and experiments to take place, without having a negative effect on society as a whole (as can sometimes occur once new politicians or political parties assume power).

Of course, popular mayors may not necessarily become good presidents; Taiwan’s Chen Shui-bien and Korea’s Lee Myung Bak are clear examples of such failures.

If we take stock of democratic transitions in Asia, one could even argue that while democracy has brought significant gains in liveability to cities in Korea and Taiwan (and, to a lesser extent, Indonesia), national politics in these countries are still less than optimal in delivering general wellbeing to the voters.

At the same decentralisation conference in Penang, senior Ipoh-based lawyer claimed that, “there is no politics in garbage collection hence there should be no politicians at local level of government.”

I gave the lawyer a lengthy reply about how garbage collection contracts are one of the most important spoils of office for local councillors and how removing those contractors through direct hiring would generate jobs for locals. (I will discuss the changes at the Seberang Perai Municipal Council which ended all outsourced garbage collection contracts in July 2014 in a future article).

One of the funniest news of 2014 was when Local Government, Housing and Urban Wellbeing Minister, Abdul Rahman Dahlan announced his intention to take over the management of all public toilets in the peninsula. Apparently the contractual value of cleaning toilets was worth the risk of public ridicule. Hence there is plenty of politics in garbage collection and even in the cleaning of public toilets!

The advocates of “less politics in local governments” often cite Section 10 (2) of the Local Government Act 1976,

“Councillors of the local authority shall be appointed from amongst persons the majority of whom shall be persons ordinarily resident in the local authority area who in the opinion of the State Authority have wide experience in local government affairs or who have achieved distinction in any profession, commerce or industry, or are otherwise capable of representing the interests of their communities in the local authority area.”

For nearly 40 years since the Act has been enforced there were very few councillors who had achieved professional “distinction”. To assume that professionals are better at representing the community’s interests is unrealistic. To assume that one can abolish politics at local level is simply naïve.

The Athi Nahappan Report (1968, pg 3) has this to say: ~

“As a technique, democracy is slow, cumbersome and expensive. Nevertheless, there is strong force in saying that democracy should continue to be identified with local government in this country as in the case of the Federal and State Governments. True, it has not worked effectively in most local authorities, particularly the Local Councils. The remedies lie not in doing away with democracy but in finding suitable avenues to invigorate it. In Malaysia, the road that democracy has travelled in the field of local government is very short and fragmented, both in terms of space and time. No great damage has therefore been done to warrant complete replacement of democracy. What defects thathave been experienced can also be atrributed to other causes that need a complete innovation, co-ordination and consolidation to improve the system.”

Hence the argument that we need less politicians at the local level of government is flawed and inconsistent with the call for full-fledged local democracy via elections.

Yet to have elections of local governments without re-arranging our three-tier democratic institution is a recipe for disaster. Currently, power is concentrated in the Federal Government (and actually in the hands of the Prime Minister) while States have very limited powers. On the other hand, local councils have significant powers in dealing with the daily lives of ordinary citizens.

In 2014, 16 local councils’ budgets exceeded RM100 million, and four local councils’ budgets exceeded RM250 million – City Council of Pulau Pinang, City Council of Shah Alam, City Council of Petaling Jaya and Municipal Council of Subang Jaya. Ironically, the 2014 budget for the Perlis State Government was only RM244.5 million.

If the local councils ceased operations the consequences would be instantly noticed, as grass cutting, drain clearing, road maintenance and local busineses fall under the purview of the local authorities. I used to joke that no one would notice so if the State shut down for a year as the State doesn’t control much apart from natural resources (including water), local councils and religious affairs.

The Local Government Act 1976 was designed so that the local authorities serve almost as a branch of the State authorities. Without devolving powers and roles of the Federal Government to the States, and without redesigning the local councils, local elections would give rise to a competition for power between the States and the local authorities (which is not the intent of those who advocate for local democracy).

Hence local democracy has to come together with the decentralisation and devolution of powers from the Federal Government to the States to complete the reform.

Should we have more politics at local level? I say “yes”.

This article first appeared in REFSA Quarterly, a magazine produced by think tank REFSA, of which Liew is also Chairman.

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