Local government elections

I REFER to the statements made by a federal minister and a Sarawak assistant minister about local government elections in Malaysia, as published in The Borneo Post on Aug 1 and 2.

Minister of Housing and Local Government Zuraida Kamaruddin, answering a question relating to the said subject, told Parliament that before such elections could be held, a detailed study should be made of the legal and economic implications of such a move.

Instead of supporting the move, Assistant Minister of Local Government Datu Dr Penguang Manggil cautioned his federal counterpart against rushing into reinstating the elections for Sarawak’s local councils.

He is reported to have said, “As far as Sarawak is concerned, it will stick with the status as the existing system has worked very well.”

As the Americans would say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

For the advocates of local council elections, however, any step taken to restore those elections is regarded as an important reform of the election system of the country. The fact that it was brought up recently in Parliament means that the matter merited serious discussion at the highest law-making body.

In the July 2018 meeting of the State Legislative Assembly, Datuk Tiong Thai King was complaining about Sibu Municipal Council not having planning authority. He cited several cases to substantiate his claims of poor coordination between a local authority and the ‘higher authority’ (to use YB Tiong’s term). For example, in one case, approval was given by the higher authority for a shophouse to be built on an existing road without the council knowing it. This was obviously an extension to an existing commercial house, which required approval from the SMC but was apparently bulldozed through by another authority – a superior power.

Obviously, the problem of overlapping powers in our present local government system need to be fixed or sorted out between the higher and the lower levels of power, if the Sibu councillors, being local planners knowing better, are to do their job well.

In an elected council, a bureaucratic ‘bulldozing’ like this by the higher authority could not have happened without prior and full consultations and deliberations with the lower authority. Such power once belonged to the local authority but is now in the hands of the Sarawak government.

Local authorities in Sibu are not the only councils having lack of power. About two years ago, I discovered to my surprise that the Kuching South City Council and the Padawan Municipal Council had no power and authority to handle a problem relating to the occupation permit for a house built in the 1950s. The house was sold to another person in 1979 without an OP – just a letter written 25 years ago from the Kuching Rural District Council’s Secretary to say the house was ready for occupation and all the rates assessed must be paid.

It is my guess that in Kuching there may be many houses built in the 1950s which did not require an OP as a condition for sale or purchase. Please tell me that I’m wrong.

An elected council could have made its own bylaws to do away with an unnecessary bureaucratic impediment of this kind. The minister in charge of local government in Sarawak would be in a strong position to argue in the cabinet for a quick solution to the problem faced by one of the councils under his purview. As it is, he has to toe the line of the superior authority or else he may get into some hot soup.

Reformasi

It is submitted that this system (non-elective) is not working very well as claimed, as we have seen in several important cases. Isn’t reform of the system necessary so as not to deprive owners of houses built in 1950s, for example, those built in Kuching and in other cities, the right to sell their property without having to deal directly with the cabinet? Dealing with the local authority nearest to you would be good enough.

Basically, it is only the bank which requires the OP for the purpose of processing a loan application. Such a requirement might not have been compulsory in the 1950s. I don’t know.

A problem of this nature can easily be solved within the four walls of the council room by means of bylaws. Of course, consultations with the minister of local governments in Sarawak are necessary. The minister based in Kuching needs full details of any proposal to strengthen his hand at bargaining in the cabinet room. A good minister knows where his support lies; it lies at the grassroots level. A proposal carries more weight if it comes from an elected councillor or from a group of such elected councillors, especially those from an influential political party. That party may well be the minister’s own party.

Restoring local government elections

For Sarawak, it’s a question of restoring the local government elections, not a novelty. In preparing Sarawak for self-government and eventual full independence, the then colonial government had introduced in 1948 the Local Authorities Ordinance and the Local Government Elections Ordinance. The Kuching Municipal Council held its elections first, and in 1963, councillors had to be elected to the District Councils; from the District Councils to the Divisional Councils and eventually on to the Council Negri itself. In between, the Divisional Councils playing the roles of the electoral colleges in turn had elected the Divisional Councillors to the Council Negri at Kuching.

The famous Stephen Kalong Ningkan became the first Chief Minister of Sarawak after having won all these elections at all stages. No other chief minister of the state has gone through this process since then.

Therefore, it’s a matter of restoring the District Council elections, the Divisional Council elections having been abolished. We now have direct elections to the State Legislative Assembly.

What’s the real reason for abolishing local government elections?

May one ask, “What’s so difficult for the Sarawak Government to reinstate the local government elections which it abolished sometime in 1981?”

That elephant

The claim that it would be too expensive to hold local government elections doesn’t hold water, as shown above. Nor is it difficult to amend laws to enable those elections to be held. I think there was something else that nobody wanted to talk about.

I think there was an elephant in the room. It was a political strategy of a governing party then to prevent councillors from an opposition party from having political clout. Local governments run by elected councillors would be a potential threat to the Sarawak government if they did not belong to the same coalition.

I once asked the late Datuk Amar James Wong if it was probable that SNAP would win many seats if elections were held for all the 52 district councils. He smiled. That certain smile spoke volumes. But now SNAP, the elephant, is dead and safely buried – so why the fear of restoring the elections?

National policy on local government

All human-made laws are meant to be amended from time to time. It is the duty of the government of the day to make amendments to existing laws or to introduce new legislation to cater for the needs of the prevailing conditions in the country. I cannot rationalise the reluctance of the ruling politicians to reinstate local government elections with the need for reform to the electoral system for the purpose of sustaining democracy. Are we thinking of another ideology?

To be continued.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]

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