As a federation of states, Malaysia has three distinct tiers of government. At the time of the Malay state federation, and after the formation of Malaysia in 1963, with Sabah and Sarawak, all three levels of government were subject to democratic elections. However, elections for local government were “temporarily” suspended back in 1965, on the pretext of the Indonesian Confrontation, under emergency law. Section 15 of the Local Government Act 1976 made the suspension of local elections permanent, with the federal government increasing its influence and control over local government through various pieces of legislation.
Local government in Malaysia consists of various organizational units, including city councils covering urban areas with over 500,000 people, municipal councils covering other urban areas, and rural district councils. Councils and mayors are appointed by state governments for two-year terms. Federal territory councils are corporations under the control of the ministry of federal territories. Federal and state civil servants are appointed to councils in middle and senior positions.
The prime responsibilities of local government include budgeting, formulation of by-laws, business and premises licensing, restaurant and hawkers licensing, project and building approvals, road and sidewalk maintenance, public parks, street lighting, waste collection, collection of rates assessment, tree maintenance, town signage, environmental enforcement, traffic control, public amenities, public health, dog licensing, and social and welfare related programs. Total local government expenditure represents around four percent of aggregate government expenditure, where state and federal governments provide approximately ten percent of local government revenue.
Over the last 60 years, the federal government has gradually increased its influence over the local government sector. In 1960 a constitutional amendment was made to form the National Council for Local Government, made up of the federal minister for local government as chair, one representative from each state, and 10 other federal representatives. A succession of pieces of legislation including the Local Government Act 1976, and the Town and Country Planning Act 1976, further eroded local government autonomy. The temporary suspension of local council elections was made permanent, under section 15 of the Local Government Act 1976.
The suspension of local government elections did not go unchallenged. In 1968, a Royal Commission into local government, known as the Nahappen Report, recommended the resumption of local elections, but this was ignored by the government at the time. In 1971, a report from within the Prime minister’s Office recommended the resumption of local government elections, but this was rejected by then prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein as ‘over democratizing’ local government. The Democratic Action Party (DAP) led state government in Penang had local elections on their agenda, enacting the Local Government Elections (Penang Island and Province Wellesley) Enactment 2012. The Penang government then challenged the then federal government’s refusal to allow local government elections in the Federal Court. However, the court found that the Penang State Government had exceeded its jurisdiction by unilaterally exempting Penang state from section 15 of the Local Government Act 1976, which prohibits state legislatures from holding local government elections.
Although the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government had a policy of democratizing the processes of local government, it did little to secure local elections during its short 20 month tenure of government. Ex-Party Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) housing and local government minister under PH, who is now a member of Party Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, or Bersatu, Zuraidah Kamaruddin, who is a staunch supporter of local government elections, ruled out any local elections under a Muhyiddin government, due to objections from several UMNO ministers within cabinet.
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed consistently opposed local government elections over his two terms as prime minister. During his first term (1981-2003), Mahathir believed that local government elections would stir up racial conflict, widen the rural-urban gap, and prove to be too expensive to conduct. Local government became a place where party loyalists were be appointed on mass. Local government also became another dominion of civil servants. Local government became subservient to the federal government, as subsequent federal budgets starved councils of funds.
Mahathir continued to block the re-introduction of local government elections in his second term as prime minister. Mahathir, who dominated cabinet decision making, was known to strongly oppose local government elections as he believed they would produce the wrong results. This frustrated other members of the PH government, including the DAP and more liberal elements of the PKR, who saw the reform agenda being thrown on the backburner.
The reluctance by the federal government to re-introduce local government elections can be seen as being part of a much larger agenda. There has been a long trend towards centralizing government into the hands of the federal administration, since federation. Federal agencies like the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) inside the Prime Minister’s Department see local government as a logistics mechanism to deliver plans, infrastructure, and services, to reach specific local communities. This can well be seen in the program based budgetary approach the EPU takes for five-year plans. This to some extent by-passes state government, particularly those governed by opposing parties.
Civil servants appointed to local government see themselves as agents of the federal government and not facilitators to local communities they are serving. Due to no local election of officials, and very little in the way of community participation programs within local government, civil servants are not scrutinized, not accountable, and there is no transparency in relation to the decisions and actions they take. This has led to wide spread corruption at the local government level, where little mafias have developed to ride roughshod over procurement, tenders, licensing, and enforcement. Some of the externalities of this include, river pollution, unlicensed factories, unkept gardens, unrepaired roads, and the misappropriation of funds.
Local government by-laws and regulation are proclaimed without public debate and scrutiny. Since the 1990s, contracts and franchises have been given to private companies under the “Local Agenda 21” program to outsource services, without any public purview of these arrangement and contracts. Local council meetings have traditionally not been open to the public, with the minutes being classified as confidential. Two million Malaysian citizens residing within Malaysia’s federal territories have no local or state representation, which of great concern within a metropolis like Kuala Lumpur with so many issues to deal with, that are in-effect done confidentially by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall.
The current situation within local government has three major consequences; lack of representative government, lack of public participation in the affairs that affect citizens’ daily lives, and problems within the domain of public administration of local government.
Local government has been detached and isolated from the communities it intends to serve. Policy making is top down and administrators serve other stakeholders than the communities they are serving. Paid bureaucrats and political appointees must serve their masters to survive, and are very hesitant to risk these relationships, even if this loyalty conflicts with the best interests of local communities.
The absence of local government elections has made local government a drone of the current political and administrative culture within the country today. The current Malay polity fears that if the pandoras box of democratic local government is opened up, they will be threatened by a rise of independent politicians within local government who will question the comfortable status quo of current government administration. They know that the resumption of local government elections will potentially change the political culture of the country.
Local government elections would potentially challenge the central government’s prerogative. The Malay political leadership, and top echelons of the civil service don’t welcome public participation in decision making, even if the nature of these decisions affect citizens everyday lives. Local government elections would challenge a major tenant of both the federal government and civil service, the centralization of government.
State and federal members of parliament fear that elected councillors would erode their tenure of control over their individual constituencies, as citizens will have an alternative public representative to approach with their problems.
Although there are many strong and logical reasons why local government elections should be re-established, such as the development and implementation of poverty eradication programs at the community level, in the most relevant manner possible, this is a threat to the power of existing government. Current councillors and officials have little direct power, as they are subservient to an appointed mayor, and collectively obligated to the state and/or federal government for their appointments. Elected councillors would come with their own agendas and policy objectives, based on public mandates.
This would potentially bring a new vibrancy to Malaysian politics and government. Public participation within local government has already been legislated for, so no legal impediments exist today. This will immediately generate scrutiny, accountability, and transparency to the local government process. It is not just elections to local government that the federal government is resisting, its public participation in local government as well.
Today, local government is run by a privileged group of apparatchiks, insulated from public scrutiny and accountability, knowing they have very little chance of having to answer for any wrongdoings. No checks and balances exist at local government level. The nation is being robbed of an environment that would be capable of nurturing new leaders in the future. Local democracy has been stolen in the interests of maintaining the prerogative of big central government.
An abridged version was published in Asia Sentinel