Archives: The struggle for local democracy in Malaysia

This is one of those special times for Malaysia when change and ideas are most  welcome. So there is hope and opportunity.  And it is one of those special times when change, even paradigm shifts are possible, and local governments given a new and more central place in the lives of our citizens. If we can together constructively, creatively and systematically build and add to the many promising initiatives , and if civic engagement leads an upsurge of citizen interest, we will surely see the emergence of an efficient, effective, equitable, democratic local government system in Malaysia that is socially, ecologically and economically sustainable.  And make a marked improvement in the quality of life of all Malaysians.
* Anwar Fazal, Penang. In Malaysiakini, 12 April 2001


This call for local democracy and citizen participation in local government in Malaysia is as valid today as it was when originally published in 2001  at another  difficult time. It is amazingly prescient and worth reading line by line more than 15 years later.
* Selected extracts follow: Full original here – Originally posted in 12 April 2001, updated in 29 January 2008.

The global community (including Malaysia) assembled at the 2nd United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (popularly known as HABITAT 2) in Istanbul, Turkey in June 1996, adopted a remarkable set of goals and a plan of action “to make human settlements safer, healthier, more livable, equitable, sustainable and productive.”

For Malaysia this is not a new challenge. There has been a history of local self government with Penang having elections (albeit with limited franchise) in 1857. Strangely, these were discontinued for a lack of public interest. In the early 50s, they were reintroduced and this time successfully, with universal franchise with Penang leading again.

There was much to be proud of – the 1952 Report of George Town stated: “The streets of George Town are swept everyday … Our city is practically free of mosquitoes and flies and this is proof of the efficiency of our health department.”

Democracy and “development” then both became joyously rampant. Even every new village had local elections and schools, roads, clinics were appearing in an unprecedented sweep (led by such innovations as the “Red Book” under the leadership of Tun Abdul Razak) that put Malaysia high on the scale of human development. Literacy, infant mortality and income levels saw dramatic and impressive gains. Local authorities were politically competitive and major towns and villages had, to some, an annoying tendency to vote for candidates from opposition parties.

In fact, it seemed so exciting that it boiled over and Malaysia’s First Royal Commission to study the local government was appointed in 1996. Headed by Dato’ Anthi Nahappan M.P. (who is originally from Penang but now has a road named after him in Taman Tun Dr. Ismail, one of the better designed housing estates) it conducted a comprehensive review, hearings and reached hundreds of memorandums.

The Royal Commission made comprehensive sweeping recommendations which stated among other things:

– All local authorities should be elected, with district councils having the additional provision to have 30 per cent being nominated from special interests such as trade, culture, trade unions, professions and even sports.

– Party politics should be allowed despite its good and bad aspects and those who wished to stress their faith in non-conformism should have the right to stand as an “independent”.

– A literacy test was recommended to ensure the candidate could at least read.

A government committee set up by the Cabinet reviewed the final report and broadly supported the recommendations as being consistent with the tempo of the following requirements: a) national unity, b) social and economic development, c) efficiency, d) democracy and e) autonomy.

However, an accompanying study by the Development Administration Unit (DAU) of the government took a fundamentally different stance and challenged the Royal Commission report as having serious weaknesses from the point of view of “ecology structure and consequence”. It stated that the recommendations will not facilitate national unity, will have adverse effects on development, create inter-ethnic and “politico-economic disequilibrium”, contribute to instability and disunity, lead to control by oligarchic elites, facilitating the “haves” to dominate and exploit the “have nots”. It would be subject to exploitation by “subversive” elements and “infiltrators”.

In short it said that the recommended system was “structurally complicated and costly”, “over-democratised” and represented “over-government” and will not be a solution to “problems” of maladministration and malpractices. What an indictment!

The context of this rather astonishing set of views were “Confrontation with Indonesia”, the May 13 riots and alleged scandals of maladministration and malpractice eg. The City Council of George Town, led for many years by the Socialist Front, was suspended and an inquiry instituted. George Town was the Crown Jewel of the Socialist Front, while Ipoh was led by the legendary Seenivasagam brothers and the People’s Progressive Party.

So after six years of study, guess who the Cabinet listened to? Elections at the local government were abolished, and while appointed councils came primarily from the dominant party at state/federal level. Chief ministers/mentris besar often doubled as “mayors” of state capitals. Kuala Lumpur had long remained “administratively” managed, with at one time a minister of federal territory to oversee the mayor and city hall.

Today we have come to another turning point, arising from another political resurgence, a groundswell of interest in democracy and sustainable development where rapid growth and local dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement of various kinds seems again to generate deep and passionate concern. There are those who call for a paradigm shift in responsiveness to public concerns are as compelling as those articulated in the era of the struggle against colonisation.

So where do we go from here? I suggest the following 10 ideas to explore:

1) A national awareness campaign be launched called the “Local Democracy Project”. Its rallying cry could be “The Spirit of Community” or “Action for Better Cities (ABC).” A charter outlining core principles and a plan of action could be developed. Endorsements could be obtained from hundreds, even thousands of key organisations and individuals. This could serve both as an awareness and advocacy tool with the aim of restoring popular participation in local authorities.

2) A Citizen Commission called the Local Democracy Commission be set up to formulate principles and plans for local democracy drawing from the rich experiences from the previous Royal Commission, subsequent reports, the UN Habitat Declaration and plans of action and current realities. The Commission could be chaired perhaps by former supreme court judge Tan Sri Harun Hashim who had earlier chaired a Royal Commission on salaries and working conditions in local authorities. He is an advocate of local democracy. The proposed commission could, in particular, address the issues of competitive partisan politics, money politics and professional management.

3) As an immediate measure all state governments should ensure that:

i) 30 per cent of all local authority appointments go to women.

ii) 30 per cent of all appointments are from independent professionals and other civil society organisations and which are not associated with party politics.

4) All appointed councillors should be allocated neighbourhood zones for which they would be responsible and accountable for.

5) Citizens Consultative Councils be appointed at the ward/neighbourhood basis with a direct role of liaison with the local authority. These councils can be elected on a non-party base by the residents. Voting can be through a new, clean, efficient and effective system where no posters, banners and other wasteful circus/carnival modalities will be allowed. Instead, the local authority could send out a circular giving biodata of the candidates. The candidates can supplement these by visits and handouts while the local authorities can systematically organise public meetings to know the contradictions at community centres and such places.

6) Every local authority should develop local vision statements, through popular participation of the resident. These could supplement and popularise the “clients’ charters” of local authorities.

7) “People’s Report Cards”, could be organised as regular “”people’s audits”” on the performance or lack of performance of the respective councillors and authorities and specific services.

8) A systematic national annual dialogue could be undertaken by the Ministry of Local Government and Housing and local authorities to get ideas and feedback before their budgets are planned. This procedure could benefit from the experience of the Ministry of Finance’s annual budget dialogues.

9) A comprehensive website on good ideas and education about local democracy and management can be developed and cyberlinked to best practices globally. There are, internationally, over a hundred excellent sites relevant to good governance and local authorities. There could also be a section on malpractices or what some would call “crimes against the people”. Such a systematic effort of recording such struggles is important for systematic structural change as people have short memories.

10) A team from the conference should visit the new Minister of Local Government and Housing with a view to usher in a new era of partnership and participation in the spirit of the Istanbul Declaration and Plan of Action. The Ministry had recently declared its new policy to be “proactive”. I believe that it is one of those special times when change and ideas are most welcome.

# # #

So there is hope and opportunity and it is one of those special times when change, even paradigm shifts are possible, and local governments given a new and more central place in the lives of our citizens. If we can together constructively, creatively, and systematically build and add to the many promising initiatives and if civic engagement leads an upsurge of citizens interest, we will surely see the emergence of an efficient, effective, equitable, democratic local government system in Malaysia that is socially, ecologically and economically sustainable, and make a marked improvement in the quality of life of all Malaysians.

* Full original article at:

DATO’ DR. ANWAR FAZAL is vice president of the Kuala Lumpur Society for Integrity and Transparency. He is also the senior regional advisor of The Urban Governance Initiative of the United Nations Development Programme and director of the Socio-Economic Research Institute.

# # #

The editor:

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | | #fekbritton | | and | Contact: | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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