Community, Featured, General, Govt, Politics

Local democracy is more than just local election

Opening speech at the George Town Roundtable on Local Democracy

On the evening of 1 December 1951, there were flash floods in several areas in George Town. The rain started with a drizzle at about 6.30pm and then within one hour, it was pouring heavily. It was an evening not unlike some of the evenings we are seeing this recently.

However, that evening, George Town was filled with excitement. Even at midnight the town hall in Padang Kota Lama was still packed with eager crowd, although the rain was pouring. When the clock struck twelve, Nancy Yeap, a lawyer and a candidate of the Radical Party came out of the town hall to announce that all three Radicals won a clean sweep in the Kelawei constituency, one of the three wards contested in the historic George Town municipal election. The Radicals led by Dr. Lim Chong Eu won 6 out of 9 seats contested in the three wards of Tanjong, Kelawei and Jelutong.

Over 10,000 Penangites came out to vote despite the heavy Saturday downpour, that is, 72% of the total electorate. This was beyond the expectation of pundits who predicted that Penang would not be interested in local election and therefore turnout would be below 60%.

That was the first ever universal adult suffrage election in our country, 65 years ago.

All politics are local, but local politics are less glamourous

Someone said, all politics are local. But in this age of big ideas, local politics seems less glamourous, less interesting, and thus less desirable by both aspiring politicians as well as the electorate. Just look at the news – they are more likely to focus on national politics with all its scandals and sensationalism. And we conveniently forget about the day-to-day almost mundane jobs which our local councillors do. We forget until of course something bad happens. Like uncollected garbage, or flash flood, or simply traffic congestion. It is clear from here that our councillors and localgovernment play a very important role: they keep the day-to-day system running.

I do not for a second underestimate the crisis caused by national-level scandals such as 1MDB. But the impact of such crisis is not immediate nor proximate to ordinary Malaysians. The people do not feel it immediately or directly. Which is why it takes such a long time for many to even react to this global scale scandal. But imagine uncollected garbage for one single day and then one whole week. You get what I mean.

The local government is very, very important.

Which is why here in Penang, the state government enacted the Local Government Elections (Penang Island and Province Wellesley) Enactment in 2012 and attempted to call the Elections Commission to organise local council election in the state.

Which is why here in Penang, the state government spends a lot of attention and resources on local government.

The sum of projected spending in both MBPP and MPSP is more than 60% of the state budget for 2017.

Which is why here in Penang, we have so many talks and forums and festivals on local democracy.

And which is why we are here today – in conjunction with the 65th anniversary of the first municipal election in this country, the Penang Institute is hosting this George Town Roundtable on Local Democracy.

Where to begin?

It is often very intimidating and even frustrating at times to scour through the immensely vast literatures on local government and local democracy.

Which is why we hope that a roundtable such as this can tie together people, experts, practitioners who have both experience and ideas about doing local government and improving local democracy.

But really, where do we even begin?

I usually start with the 1968 Athi Nahappan Report. The report is oft-cited by proponents to support the restoration of local government election. Today, after half a century, with a renewed demand for such restoration, the Report becomes a very important reference.

It must however be noted that the merits of the report consist not only in its proposal to elect local councillors but also for its call to thoroughly reform the local governments in Malaysia. The underlying principle for such reform is really to go back to the spirit of federalism with proper decentralisation of power and resources to the local government. In its own words, the report proposed that, “democratic and decentralised local authorities with financial autonomy should be the third tier of government in this country covering every inch of the land.” (Athi Nahappan Report, para 676, pg. 133)

Compare to the situation in our country today: there is no third vote, no third tier of government but only in name with little financial resources.

I think it is a mistake to only talk about electing councillors without talking also about decentralisation and financial autonomy. Otherwise what will happen is we will be electing councillors with neither power nor means to effectively run the local government.

To give an example, when I was a councillor sitting in the One-Stop Centre OSC Committee, we have the power to approve development of all scales big and small, but curiously, we cannot decide on matters like bus routes. That power belongs to Putrajaya, not even under the Ministry of Transport but under the Prime Minister.

Or think about the role and prestige of a councillor today.

Even at the time of Athi Nahappan Report, it was already acknowledged that “the workload of a councillor was considerably more than that of a Member of Parliament or State Assemblyman.”


Because, “a councillor had more meetings than MPs and ADUNs and he was more involved in policy and administrative roles compared to them.” (para 876, pp 192-193)

That was in the 60s. It is still true to a large extend today.

But compare the remuneration of councillors to MPs and ADUNs.

When I was a councillor in MPSP, my fixed monthly allowance was RM700 with meeting allowance claimable upto RM600. Thus at that time, a localcouncillor was given a maximum remuneration of RM1,300 a month.

Councillors were paid just a little above today’s minimum wage of RM1,000.

After a recent review of their remuneration, a local councillor in Penang will receive upto RM4000 a month. This is a very good move by the state government. In many other jurisdictions in Malaysia, councillors are still getting paid below the minimum wage.

Compare this to the fixed allowances of MPs and ADUNs throughout the country which range from RM6,000 to RM16,000 monthly.

In the 60s, a Penang State Assembly earned about $250 a month while a George Town municipal councillor drew about $300 a month.

If remuneration is a measure of preeminence, in the 60s, both councillors and State Assemblymen were almost equal in stature. In other words, there were proper decentralisation of different spheres of authorities with each given equal honour and respect.

I have spoken to councillors in several different states in Malaysia today, and one significant pattern I observe is, they felt helpless in face of the state and federal authorites. In such environment, it is difficult to imagine a flourishing local democracy.

However, due commendation must be given to the Penang state government because councillors here are given ample space to expand their policy ideas and actions. And I speak from my own experience.

When I was councillor in MPSP, I was able to introduce new policy on government contracting and thus MPSP generated 2500 new jobs for locals. I was able to initiate gender and participatory budgeting which continues to this day. I was given the opportunity to create a municipal complaint app which is still in use.

I think this kind of empowerment is an important first step towards strengthening local democracy.

On the evening of 1 December 1951, Mrs. ASM Hawkins, the elections supervisor commented that “Penang should be proud” that the electors turned up full force in the first universal adult suffrage election in our country. Three days later, commenting on the election, the Straits Echo and Times of Malaya said that it has “given this generation a foretaste of how the machinery of democracy works and of the future pattern of government in this country – a government of the people by the people themselves…[because] the arts of self-government cannot be learnt and mastered by those who aspire to be the leaders of the people and by the inhabitants themselves without constant practice and training.”

Local democracy, like democracy in general will not come rolling to us. We have to pursue it with all our mights. I hope that today will add up to the sum of all our efforts so far to see the real expansion of local democracy and democracy in general in this country.

3 December 2016
George Town, Penang

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