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NGOs should Boycott Local Council Appointments

Posted: 19 Jun 2013 12:59 PM PDT 

It has been observed that both coalitions are jealously guarding their "privilege" in appointing the councilors they have coopted and awarding contracts to contractors who support them in the states under their control.

Dr Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser

The declared commitment to elected local government by the new Selangor exco member Teng Chang Khim must be commended. It shows that if there is a political will to bring back elected local government, it can be done. Considering that this long overdue demand for elected local government was in neither the BN nor PR's election manifestoes doesn't say much for the priority of this much needed reform in both coalitions' reform agendas.

It has been observed that both coalitions are jealously guarding their "privilege" in appointing the councilors they have coopted and awarding contracts to contractors who support them in the states under their control.

The scramble among certain NGO activists and Residential Association office bearers to be "appointed local councilors" has been in the news recently. Here I would like to reaffirm the Concerned Malaysian NGOs' (Comangos) long tradition of struggle for elected local government. As democrats, we do not accept such feudal practices. The Government NGOs (Gongos), on the other hand, have always been in a different league…

It is all the more urgent now for NGOs to take a stand against this feudal system of appointments to the third tier of government and to put "elected local government" back on the reform agenda of the day.

The people are totally fed up with the performance of non-elected local authorities all these years. Our daily newspapers abound with complaints about the many aspects of local councils' irresponsibility and questionable activities.

The inertia and non-accountability of local councils have resulted in bottlenecks, discontentment and environmental disasters which are holding back our development. When we realise that many local councils are being upgraded into municipalities, this is a daunting prospect given their inability to find twenty first century solutions to waste and infrastructural management; to efficiently plan, maintain and monitor projects, and to mobilise participation of ratepayers.


Elected, open, transparent, participatory

Looking at examples of successful councils in the developed countries, we find that their most distinguishing features are the fact that they are elected; council meetings are open and transparent; accountability is demanded; there is participation by ratepayers, and there are established mechanisms to manage change.

To assume as some have done, that elected local government is only a futuristic hope is to forget our history and to undermine our democratic heritage. In fact, the Kuala Lumpur Municipal Elections of 1952 was the first step we took on the way to self-government. At Independence, we continued this commitment to local government elections because appointments to political office were seen as a colonial practice.

However, local elections were suspended in 1965 during the Confrontation crisis with the assurance that they would be restored as soon as peace was declared and the Emergency regulations were withdrawn. The Royal Commission which was formed to report on the local governments recommended that while the management of local authorities needed reform, the elective principle should be retained and restored.

It is clear that the democratic trend in Malaysia even during those early Independence years forty years ago was toward decentralisation and devolution. As our society becomes more mature, one would expect democratic principles of accountability at the local community level to be even more necessary.


No taxation without representation

In the democratic tradition, taxation cannot be justified without representation. Ratepayers must be represented on the governing body which determines how that money should be spent. This is a fundamental precept of parliamentary government which is equally applicable at local-level government. It is to satisfy the requirement in a democratic society for greater pluralism, participation and responsiveness.   

Today, we find that Malaysians are no longer prepared to put up with negligence or irresponsibility. Residents are demanding that their voices be heard at the local council. In this sense we can see why local authorities are considered the primary units of government.


Services should be decentralised

Many services including education, housing, health, transportation and even community policing require local knowledge and can be better coordinated and more efficiently implemented through the local authority. Few Malaysians have noticed, for example, that the all-important role of local education authorities in the Education Act 1961 is no longer mentioned in the new Education Act 1996. Local education authorities serve to allocate funds and other facilities to needy sectors and can serve to dissipate the politicisation of education.


NGOs should sponsor the under-represented NOT themselves

Finally, we find that in the modern state, many social groups such as urban settlers, farmers, indigenous peoples and manual workers are grossly under-represented and local government can provide them with the opportunity to air their concerns. Generally speaking, at this local level it is easier for voters to influence decisions.

The role of Congos has always been to empower the disempowered such as these under-represented groups that NGOs exist to serve. NGO activists should therefore have the integrity not to recommend themselves as "appointed councilors" or advertise themselves as "professional councilors" but instead, recommend the people they are pledged to empower.


Time to push elected local government to top of national agenda

The urgent task of the concerned Malaysian NGOs today is to push this agenda for elected local government to the very top of the national agenda. To emphasise the seriousness of this agenda, the least that principled NGO activists can do is to BOYCOTT ALL COUNCIL APPOINTMENTS.


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