“LET’S decide together,” said the Lord Mayor of Kuching South.
Yes, let’s. That’s participative democracy.
I’m reacting to the statement credited to the Kuching South Mayor recently. This call by a mayor of a city for a share in decision-making is a positive note with which we should begin the Year of the Dragon.
An assertive public
When a mayor invites members of the public – he must have meant those under his jurisdiction, the ratepayers, to ‘decide together’ for the good of the city. He is being transparent in his administration of that city.
We should be happy to reciprocate.
He will be better able to undertake planning and execution of his tasks if he has the benefit of thorough and critical discussions of problems with elected councillors, who can articulate the interests of the ratepayers in the various sections of the city.
For instance, there are citizens who are irritated by dogs howling during the ungodly hours of the morning; others with complaints of swarms of mosquitoes in areas that need fogging regularly but it’s not done; others worrying about dilapidated buildings being used for dubious purposes. Yet others, especially people living above their shop houses, who would like to sleep without the din, music to some ears, coming from the karaoke lounges nearby after midnight. Those living in the periphery of the city would like their kitchen and garden wastes collected and grass trimmed regularly.
A mayor or head of a district council would do a better job if the areas under his or her jurisdiction are demarcated into various wards and each ward is serviced by a councillor, elected for a term of years. A good councillor gets re-elected every time there is a council election. No good, some else gets the job.
In Sarawak, there is a pool of people with talent and experience living in the various areas under every council and are ratepayers – retired civil servants, servicemen, doctors, nurses, teachers, businessmen and women with time and money to spare – all are still healthy and able to serve the community via the councils. But are they given a chance to do so?
The present councillors or commissioners are nominees of the ruling political parties. Some of them are conscientious representatives of their respective organisations but they are not representatives of the ratepayers from a particular locality.
How do you expect someone from Song who is appointed a councillor in the Samarahan council to know the problems of the ratepayers in Sebayor, let alone solve them? He doesn’t even live there but he’s a supporter of a party boss.
A real VIP
As a public figure and the head of local government, the mayor or chairman of a council is an important personality. He works at the level where ordinary mortals live, or struggle to survive. At this level, public service is badly needed and if effectively rendered would be most appreciated.
Often, the mayor cannot get all he wants because of various constraints, normally financial; sometimes, his hands are tied by regulations and sometimes by the state government policy itself.
But if he is surrounded by elected councillors, he would have a stronger voice vis-a-vis the state or central government. He would speak for you and me, the electorate, the same people who at other times elect the members of our State Legislative Assembly and Parliament.
In the case of a district council, the man who wields more clout is the secretary of the council, the chairman basically being a public relations man.
Each head of a local authority has to deal with the ratepayers who are fussy by nature. They want the best out of the council. They want the best drainage and sewerage systems around their houses, the best of street lighting, rubbish collection, transport facilities. They want the best of health, educational and recreational amenities.
For all these they are prepared to pay rates. Unfortunately, many stop at this point. After the payment of rates, the rest of the responsibility of looking after the city or district is left to the council.
It does not stop there.
I like the motto of Kuching South – ‘My City, My Home’. Every local authority should adopt a similar motto.
Implied in this concept is the symbiotic relationship between the city council and the rate-paying community. The council does its best to serve the community of ratepayers and the ratepayers assist the council in its work. There should be a sense of belonging and civic duty on the part of the ratepayers.
Sense of belonging
The city belongs to its citizens and the citizens belong to the city. Anybody who does not love it moves away from it. A loving citizen would try his best to look after it as if it were his own property. He doesn’t litter and sets a good example to his kids – don’t throw ice cream wrappers out of car windows! A shopkeeper keeps the toilets of his eatery clean. He does not do this for the tourists only. He does it for all his customers, he does it to keep his city clean.
Provided with rubbish bins, a good ratepayer sorts out wastes according to their kind. Ideally, there should be a bin for glass bottles, another for plastic, and yet another for paper. But what do you do with only one bin? Everything is dropped in there.
A good town-dweller cannot leave everything to the council’s workers. There are people who think that once they have paid the rates and other charges, their responsibility ends at the rubbish bins.
City councils or municipalities are run according to their own respective laws and regulations while the district councils are still governed by the Local Authority Ordinance 1948. Although the enactment has been tinkered with and repaired from time to time to accommodate changes in policies and the political environment, yet it is basically a working document.
It contains the basic principles of local government, which are fundamental to the survival of a parliamentary form of government based on the Westminster model, like ours.
That is democracy worth fighting for.
To re-enforce the foundation of that democracy, can we have local government elections again?
Think about it over this weekend.
Meanwhile, allow me to wish every one Gong Xi Fa Cai and thank them for their support of this column.
Comments can reach the writer via [email protected].