Monday, May 23

Reinstating local government elections

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Photo shows the Kuching South City Council building at Jalan Padungan. Councillors should be elected, not appointed, to all local authorities in Sarawak, says the columnist.

I HAVE been following news reports about local government elections in the United Kingdom with some interest. What’s the attitude of the Malaysian politicians, especially those in Sarawak, when we talk about resurrecting elections to the Local Authorities in this country?

In Sarawak, these elections were abolished in 1981, for no reason that I could not understand, and we have not heard about the rationale for the abolition since then.

I have been writing and talking about the importance of local government elections for Malaysia because I consider them necessary in order to sustain our parliamentary system of government.

Come to that, wasn’t this a condition of Sarawak’s entry into Malaysia?

Has the Special Committee on Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63) ever discussed this subject?

They do talk about the loss or erosion of rights of the States of Sabah and Sarawak.

As their deliberations are held in secret, we can only assume that the members of this committee are doing the right thing.

I wish these committee meetings were open at least to representatives of the political parties, in a similar manner to what the Cobbold Commission did 70 years ago.

Wishful thinking on my part?

Now suppose that many of those items agreed within the meeting room of the Special Committee on MA63 were not what the Sarawak people had actually wanted their government to fight for. Suppose the people wanted the repeal of the Territorial Act 2012 and of the National Petroleum Act 1974, or even an amendment to the Petroleum Act 1974 that would include provisions recognising and thereby, restoring to Sarawak its rights to oil and gas within its former territorial waters, right back to the original boundaries defined in 1954.

Wishful thinking maybe, but we have the right to know what is being discussed on our behalf.

For your manifesto

Now, back to local council elections.

The political parties are probably looking for materials for inclusion in their respective manifestoes as policy proposals or measures for implementation, if and when they come to power, or in the case of the incumbent government returning to power.

However, going through a number of such documents during the past two general elections, I failed to see any special mention of local council elections.

Why? Sometimes I think mine is the only voice in the wilderness, referring to the subject at hand ad nauseam.

Is there any effective medium through which to reach out to the politicians and to impress upon them the importance of resurrecting the elections to the local authorities?

Although the elements of local government were introduced in 1921 by the Rajah, local government in Sarawak was properly organised only in 1948 (see Local Authorities Ordinance 1948). Elections to choose councillors were held regularly – much fun was had by all!

But by now, local councillors are appointed by the political parties in power. The allegiance of the councillors is to the parties nominating them, and not necessarily to the payers of the rates and cesses.

When Sarawak agreed to be a founding partner of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, one of the terms was the retention of the local government system together with the power to hold elections in order for the rate-payers to choose their spokesmen or spokeswomen in each council.

While the system is retained and indeed recognised by the federal constitution, elections to the councils in Sarawak have been done away with.

For the manifesto

That news about the recent local council elections in Britain has given me ideas about reviving interest in our own local government elections. Hopefully, people concerned with getting back Sarawak’s rights after more than half a century of inaction, would pick up and share my thoughts. Together, we shall send a synergised message to those politicians who aspire to be statesmen.

The local parties intending to compete in the forthcoming general election should include in their manifestoes written pledges to restore the local government elections and fulfil them when they are in a position to implement them.

If nothing else, local government elections can serve to ‘test the temperature’ of the population, politically-speaking!

Importance of local government elections

It seems that only Penang takes an interest in elections to the local authorities. That does not mean that Sarawak cannot carry on with fulfilling the wishes of those of our founding fathers who represented Sarawak at the Malaysia negotiations!

Article 95E of the federal constitution provides for exclusion of Sabah and Sarawak from national plans for local government.

The Election Commission needs not worry about conducting our local council elections. It’s the job of the Commission to conduct elections.

It is therefore up to the people of Sarawak, through their government, to get these elections restored sooner rather than later – for the sake of good governance in this state.

The question of costs of elections is another matter altogether; to avoid large expenditure, simultaneous polling may be held on the same day.

The exercise would require only three boxes: one for parliamentary seats, another for state seats, and the third for the local council members.

No extra workers would be necessary to man the polling stations. The jeeps, boats and helicopters can carry three lots of boxes; the same police personnel would guard the three ballot boxes; the same clerks would man the polling booths — three for the price of one!

Repeat, local government council members should be regularly elected, not just appointed as ‘reward’ for being ‘good old faithful party activists’. They need to represent the people of their ward, not the political parties!

For what they are worth, these are my humble views – they constitute my contribution to any party working on the manifesto for the next general election.

It’s around the corner, mate!

* Comments can reach the writer via columnists@theborneopost.com.