A détente – sensible strategy

A voter casts his vote at Rumah Wilson Begat Bakir, Penom, Ulu Paku, Betong during the 11th State Election. Have you thought of Sarawak holding elections at the same time as the other states? For good measure, include local government elections for the GE15? — Bernama file photo

AFTER the GE14, we have been hearing repeated statements made by the politicians from both divides about the importance of close rapport between the federal and Sarawak governments, and of the necessity to set aside political differences for the good of society.

Good on them, I say.

One would have thought, however, that the same spirit of comradeship or political rapport should prevail over other matters, including the reform to election system. Why the silence on this particular subject?

The peaceful transfer of political power through the ballot box that we have recently seen would be better sustained if we revisited the local government elections. For Sarawak, where the rural population depends so much on government for services of all kinds, local authorities can fill the gaps. Ratepayers would be better served if there is a system of checks and balances as is normally expected to exist in a competitive electoral system.

National Council for Local Government

Such an outfit does exist in the Federal Constitution, not just something I have plucked from the air.

If any state government wishes to hold elections for the local councils in its state, its representative on the National Council for Local Government may convey such a proposal from his or her state for consideration. As simple as that. And according to the Federal Constitution, it is the duty of the council to advise the state concerned, accordingly.

In Sarawak’s case, it is an amendment (or putting back the old wording) to the Local Authorities Ordinance, 1948 or reinstating the Local Government Elections Ordinance, with the necessary modifications.

Once the proposal is endorsed, then it is the duty of that national council to advise the Sarawak Government on the matter of local council elections before preparations for those elections may proceed. I can’t wait.

By the way, does anybody know who represents Sarawak on the NCLG? I don’t.

According to Article 94 of the Federal Constitution (valid as at Feb 20, 2016 – federal powers in respect of state subjects), the federal government has the right to establish ministries or departments to exercise the functions of the federal government in relation to matters within the legislative authority of a state, and such matters may include soil conservation, local government, as well as town and country planning.

So where is the legal or constitutional constraint there?

Lack of political will

As I see it, the only thing that prevents restoration of local government elections in Malaysia is the lack of political will on the part of the ruling politicians, who insist on holding on to the status quo, warts and all. What’s the purpose of the Institutional Reforms Committee (IRC) then? They should add to their list of recommendations already submitted to the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP), if reform to the local government system was not in that list?

The question in Parliament is an indication that there are many people in Malaysia who wish to see that all local councils hold regular elections during which they can vote in the councillors of their choice. If they can vote the councillors in, they can also vote them out at the next council elections. The councillors who did not perform to their satisfaction during their tenure of office may not be voted in again.

Under the current system (non-elective councils), the residents or ratepayers do not have the voice of dissent or of checks and balances because the councillors are not accountable to those paying rates. The councillors are only accountable to their respective political parties, which nominated them to sit on those councils. I’m not saying that all present councillors are not performing but are not free as they wish to help the residents without referring to, oops consultations with, their political bosses.

Obviously, the system has worked very well for the ruling parties. No wonder there’s the reluctance to initiate reform. But is it good for democracy in the long run, though?

For a country like Malaysia, there’s no substitute for a vibrant democracy at the grassroots level. The gerrymandering by the Election Commission, creating constituencies across local authority boundaries in Selangor as a substitute for local government function has caused considerable inconvenience to the ratepayers there. The solution is an elective council, not the Election Commission, using Sub-Section 2(d) of the Thirteenth Schedule of the Federal Constitution.

A good colonial legacy    

If there is one legacy of the colonial government for Malaysia, the local government with power to hold elections is the one worth inheriting, keeping, and nurturing.

In 1965, Malaya terminated local council elections against the Athi Nahappan Report’s recommendation that these elections should continue to be held. Penang once tried to revive the elections but then we stopped hearing about the subject until the subject was brought up in Parliament recently. Now has Penang government lost interest in these elections?

In Sarawak, we should have continued holding these elections as we have been holding the elections to the State Legislative Assembly and Parliament regularly. We have established a tradition – a good tradition. Lest we forget, the first Chief Minister of Sarawak, Stephen Kalong Ningkan, was elected a district councillor, then a divisional councillor, and finally a member of the State Legislature, and a member of the Supreme Council in 1963.

Local government is a good training ground for young people, who aspire to higher office later on in their political careers, beginning with service at the grassroots level, then to the State Legislature and then on to Parliament. By then they will have learnt the basics of good governance – for instance, how to prepare the council’s annual budgets; how to devise ways and means by which to raise taxes or levy cesses; how to draw up tender documents and the procedure to award tenders (not to your relative); how to be responsible for the welfare and health of the residents in your ward or area of responsibility; and how to appreciate the importance of integrity, in the process of running a local government.

An elected councillor has to work harder than an unelected one in order to retain the confidence of his voters before the next council elections. Like all politicians holding office for a specific term, local government councillors have to think of the next elections. But they should never forget about the next generations.

Do not allow the hard work in amending laws relating to local government elections to discourage any state government from holding them. The drafting of amendment to laws can be entrusted to the Attorney General’s Chamber. There should be good law draftsmen there; it’s their bread and butter. The politician’s job is to initiate the move to amend any laws tied to the subject of local government elections and to present the amendments to the State Assembly or Parliament for debate and approval.

Financial implications of elections

For the proper conduct of every general election, a lot of money is required. However, it would not be much more expensive if all elections – local government, state, and parliamentary – were to be held simultaneously.

Have you thought of Sarawak holding elections at the same time as the other states? For good measure, include local government elections for the GE15?

By holding simultaneous elections, there may be a lot of saving in costs compared to the expenditure for staggered elections. Consider this – the same boats, the same vehicles, and the same helicopters are used to carry personnel and ballot boxes. Additional ballot boxes (local government election) are necessary. Those do not cost much.

At the nomination centres and polling stations the same returning officers can do the same job without extra expenses.

The same polling booths can be used and the same polling staff can do the same job. Additional boxes are required for local government council votes but this does not cost much compared to the whole expenditure for a general election.

A few extra election personnel may be recruited; a few more police personnel may be required. Rela may also be roped in to help.

The extra expenditure and the bother to amend certain laws related to the subject of local government elections should not be made an excuse for the reluctance to reinstate these elections, at least to Sarawak.

What say you, the Sarawak nationalists? Where are you, you, you?

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]

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