Contributed by Goh Chuan Chean and Lau Yi Lin
MALACCA: A conference on the Roadmap to Local Government Elections was jointly organized by the Malacca Bar Committee in cooperation with the Civil Society Initiative for Parliamentary Reform (CSI-Parliament) and the Centre for Policy Initiatives (CPI) on July 26th, 2008 at King’s Hotel.
The aim of this conference was to serve as a platform to propel practical but exciting development options to hold elections in local government and to encourage further collaboration between the federal administration and local authorities in regards to civil society advocacy. The outcome of this conference will form the basis for wider public consultation and it is the fervent wish of the organisers that it would ignite institutional reform towards a democratic system of locally elected representatives.
About 60 participants had attended the conference.
In the opening speech, the Chairman of the Malacca Bar Committee, Mr. Ng Kong Peng commented that the implementation of local government elections was a virtual and complete exercise of democratic right by the people. Mr. Ng also recorded his appreciation for the hardwork and effort given by the Chairman of the Malacca Bar’s Human Rights and Contemporary Issues Sub-Committee, Mr. Anthony Chua and his sub-committee members, CSI-Parliament as well as CPI in organising this conference. Chief Executive Officer of CPI, Dr. Lim Teck Ghee told the audience that the authority had systematically tried to expunge local government elections from people’s memory. Before the general election results in March, 2008 were announced, restoration of local government elections was generally regarded as unthinkable. However, after the political tsunami of March, 2008, there is hope of having the elections again. Wong Chin Huat, a founding member of CSI-Parliament opined that the principle of “no taxation without representation” should be upheld. As such, all taxing authority should be elected. He urged the five states governed by Pakatan Rakyat to set out a timetable for local government elections to be carried out in respective states soonest possible.
Session 1 of the conference was entitled “Why Local Democracy”. Moderator of this session was Mr. Ng Kong Peng. The first speaker was Mr. Derek Fernandez, a town planning lawyer and a member of the Petaling Jaya City Council. Mr. Derek gave a presentation on the topic of “An Assessment of the Status Quo Under the Current Laws.” He commented that the will of Pakatan Rakyat state governments in having local government elections was eroding. This should not have happened as the most crucial factor of Pakatan Rakyat’s win in urban areas in the last election was due to its’ component parties’ promise of restoring local government elections. He further elaborated that the need to restore local government elections arises from the many issues concerning poor management and abuse of power in local authorities as highlighted by our local newspapers. People were angry by political interferences in the decision-making of the local councils and they want changes to be made. He also went through the statutory provisions governing local government with the participants, amongst others, section 9 of the Local Government Act 1976 (power of state authority to issue directions) and section 10(2) of the Local Government Act 1976 (criteria for councillors of the local authority to be appointed). The appointment of local councillors under the present scheme or system is a political appointment and certainly there is no transparency. Mr. Derek was of the view that section 1 (4) of the Local Government Act 1976, Article 95B(1)(a) and Article 113(4) of the Federal Constitution actually provided a way out for the state governments to abolish the present appointment scheme and call for the elections for local government. He also opined that certain emergency legislations which suspended the local government elections may be invalid. Article 150(5) of the Federal Constitution was also interpreted by Mr. Derek as requiring emergency laws to contain the express provision on emergency matters and if there is none then such emergency legislations should be invalid.
The next speaker was Mr. Edward Lee, the state assemblyman for Bukit Gasing, Selangor and the President of Resident Association Section 5 Petaling Jaya who spoke on the topic of “The Role of Civil Society in Local Governance.” Mr. Lee shared about his personal experience of taking part in the community activities and assured the participants that he would use his official position to contribute to the restoration of local government elections. He also encouraged the participants to take more active role in local governance by taking step such as attending the local council meetings.
The last speaker for this session was Mr. Victor Oorjitham, a former local councillor serving from 1970 to 1975 in the Petaling Jaya Council. Mr. Victor shared with the participants about the historical background of the local councils. He outlined the differences between the local councillors in the 1970s and their successors since 1980s. In 1970s, when the local councillors were appointed, section 10 of the Local Government Act 1976 was followed strictly. He also gave examples of the types of persons who were appointed in the 70’s. The Petaling Jaya Council included a Banker, the Legal advisor of the Employees Provident Fund, a senior police officer, a senior civil servant from the Treasury, a senior civil servant from the Ministry of Information, the Editor of a leading newspaper, a medical practitioner, himself (Legal Advisor to A.I.A ) and others who came within the guidelines. But, all these people, in addition to the professional expertise they brought to the post, were involved in community affairs. However, in 1980s, the local councillors began to change to be political appointees from component parties of the ruling coalition. Before 1980s, the local councillors were loyal to the public but after that, the local councillors were only loyal to their political masters. Since then, corruption had tarnished the service given by the local authorities whereby by-laws and guidelines were not followed strictly. This had then affected people’s lives and interests.
After a tea break, the conference resumed with Session 2 -“Reviving Local Elections:The State Solutions”. The moderator for the session was Dr. Lim Teck Ghee.
The first speaker for the session was Mr. Andrew Khoo, the Co-Deputy Chairperson of the Human Rights Committee of the Malaysian Bar. Mr. Khoo went through the statutory provisions passed for the purpose of suspending local government elections and the available statutory provisions for the state authorities to pave way for the local elections to be carried out. He concluded that state authorities may apply the “opt-out” notifications provided by the provisions in their attempt to conduct the local government elections.
The audience then had Tan Sri Dato’ Dr Chin Fook Weng, a national speaker for Gerakan, to present Gerakan’s position with regards to the issue. Tan Sri Chin pointed out that Gerakan had actually included local government elections as one of its promises in their manifesto in 1969. However, after going through the state of emergency laws and having formed a coalition with their political partners in Barisan Nasional, it cannot be carried out as there were other issues to be considered. He was of the view that although there has been no local government elections since the suspension of the elections, people have been giving mandate to the elected state assemblymen forming the state authorities to appoint their councillors. As such, this is an indirect elections for local councils. He also stated that our society is fragile and the direct election for local government can only be restored when people become more mature. The Gerakan’s view presented by Tan Sri Chin triggered comments from the participants as they have doubts on the “immaturity” of Malaysian society after 50 years of independence and question on the cause of such “immaturity”.
The next speaker for the session was Mr. Ronnie Liu, the Selangor Government Exco member for Local Government, Study and Research Committee. Mr. Liu began his presentation by making a stand that it was the intention of the Pakatan Rakyat government in Selangor to restore local government elections as there were advantages of doing so. However he mentioned that in view of the fact that the federal government does not propose to amend the laws to restore the local government elections, it may not be practical for the state government alone to conduct the elections at the moment. He was prepared to meet the federal minister who is in charge of the local government and the Prime Minister in order to persuade them to convince the cabinet so that such amendment may be tabled and passed in Parliament. During the Q & A time, Mr. Wong Chin Huat tried to get a confirmation from Mr. Liu on the preparation and timetable for the local government elections to be implemented by the Selangor government. However, Mr. Liu insisted that a thorough study needed to be carried out on the matter first. According to Mr. Liu, a special committee would be set up by the Selangor government in 6-month’s time, as proposed by the Menteri Besar of Selangor, Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim. Nevertheless, the actual time needed for the process could not be confirmed now as the state government had other priorities to consider.
After session 2 ended, the participants took a break for lunch.
The third session discussed ways to revive local elections via federal solutions.
Professor Abdul Aziz Bari addressed the fact that in the Federal Constitution, the conduct of elections is regulated by the Elections Commission. As long as it is under the prerogative of the federal government, the political will to conduct local council elections shall come from the federal government.
Mr. Sivarasa Rasiah, MP for Subang and Vice President of Parti Keadilan Rakyat spoke next on the parliamentary mechanisms to initiate local government elections via the private members’ bill and select committees. He believes that one should not separate the state and federal process. Clause 4 of Art.113 of the Federal Constitution provides that Federal or State law may authorise the Election Commission to conduct election. Thus the State Assembly could pass local elections law themselves by drafting the law and promulgating it to the public. Mr. Rasiah further mentioned on the difficulties to have the private members’ bills tabled in the Parliament. The Standing Order 15 provides for conduct of meetings in the Parliament and, as always the case would be, the governmental matters would always take precedence over private concerns. To have the private members’ bills discussed or passed at Parliament is an uphill task. Thus, according to him, there is an urgent need for Parliamentary reform. The problem of lack of supporting staff for individual members of parliament needs to be addressed . He compared our Parliament to that of Indonesia where an MP there would be designated five staffers; and in the Philippines, seven staffers would be designated to a single MP. In Malaysia, an MP does his duties without such assistance.
Dr Goh Ban Lee, a retired USM Associate Professor spoke on the National Council of Local Governments (NCLG). On November 28th, 1971, after NCLG deliberated on the Athi Nahappan Report in its meeting, it was held that the suspension of local government elections should continue to be in force. At another meeting held on September 30th, 1972, it was decided that local councils were incapable of running their own affairs satisfactorily. In the pre-independence period, Penang’s local councillors were fully elected.
However, because of lack of understanding on the meaning of being councillors, in new Chinese villages, the elected councillors behaved without constraint and were above the law. Dr Goh thus holds the view that elections do not necessarily bring about a good government. Dr Goh said that it was possible to appoint an Independent Committee to select local councillors.
Conference on the Roadmap to Local Government Elections
Contributed by Goh Chuan Chean and Lau Yi Lin