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REFSA Quarterly Issue 1, 2015: Local authorities are fertile grounds for innovation policy solutions

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Prime Ministers give speeches, mayors solve problems, as someone once said. Perhaps this is too simplistic, but the fact is a mayor or rather local authority is the level of government most proximate to the people. It has to deal with issues of immediate concern, from garbage collection to ensuring drains are not clogged, from issuing business licenses, to managing hawkers, from approving development of a township to the renovation of a private home.

But for some reason, local authority is rarely discussed – except perhaps in the context of problems. Yet throughout Malaysia and the world, local authorities have been the bastion of innovation in governance.

The first ever public housing in the country was the creation of the Labour Party-led George Town City Council in 1961. And of course, the country was literally schooled in the idea of electoral democracy first at the local authority level through local government elections, the first of which again was the George Town Municipal Council in 1951, followed by the Kuala Lumpur Municipal Council in 1952 which saw the first partnership of the Alliance (the predecessor to the current ruling regime).

Today, Penang local councils, for example, introduced the first ever smartphone app system in the country, for public-government interaction and consultation. The Seberang Perai Municipal Council reviewed its cleaning contracts and as a result, not only improved efficiency but also created over 2,000 new job opportunities for locals which pay above the minimum wage instead of the previous arrangement of hiring lowly-paid migrant workers who were performing below par.

Councils all over Malaysia are becoming a hotbed of innovative policy solutions that affect the daily lives of the people. The Petaling Jaya City Council developed new best practices to engage the wider community when it came to physical development submission. The current, outdated, federal law only requires consultation with narrowly defined interest groups. The Subang Jaya Municipal Council used to have a parking rotation system in the Taipan commercial area to help resolve the terrible congestion in the area. All these are innovations which directly and immediately impacted the lives of the people.

Diminished prominence of local authorities Yet, most unfortunately, these initiatives were rarely, if at all, publicised. Mostly because, with the loss of local elections in 1965, the local authorities lost their identity so to speak. Somehow, instead of three layers of government, the local authorities – being the third tier – were subsumed into the other two tiers of government. Local authorities are now seen merely as a part of government, like a government department instead of being a government per se. As such, local authorities rarely get highlighted.

Local councillors rarely get the publicity now so lavishly conferred on politicians at the state and federal level. Local initiatives are not as glamourous as “big picture plans” tabled at the state or federal level. With the demise of local elections, local authorities were relegated to a tiny corner of public life only to come into focus whenever there is a garbage problem, as if they are a government department which only deals with garbage, negating its other roles in licensing, public health, development planning and control, provision and management of public amenities such as recreational facilities, street lights, paved roads, community halls and others, traffic managements etc.

Local democracy will curb racial politics Racial politics is a disease which has plagued us for decades now as a nation. How do we get rid of the disease? A more vibrant local democracy today in Malaysia will eventually help to move our country beyond racial politics.

This is because, firstly, local democracy focuses on practical issues – on the management of cities and towns. These issues, such as solid waste management, maintenance of public amenities, town planning, traffic management etc., transcend racial rhetoric. These are also service-oriented issues where policy makers and administrators will be evaluated based on a more objective criteria of capacity rather than mere populist rhetoric.

Secondly, national politics can easily fan group sentiment by creating a false sense of uniformity across different communities over different geographical settings, through projecting the insecurity of one part as a problem of the whole. At the national level, due to the distance, where it is harder for people to exchange notes on certain matters, identity markers are more abstract and fluid, and are easily manipulated.

Local democracy on the other hand, is very much limited to a relatively smaller area with an objective boundary whether geographical or political. Thus in the current situation where 70% of Malaysians live in urban areas and 70% of our local authorities cover areas where no one single race composes more than two third the population, hence some sort of plurality in the community, extremist politics and ideologies will find it hard to take root. Thus for example, a candidate for local election cannot afford to take hardliner stance in such a multiracial setting, especially when his or her performance will be easily measured objectively.

Local democracy is fundamental to our maturity as a democracy Finally by way of conclusion, REFSA would like to offer an important perspective on local authorities abstracted from the historic Athi Nahappan Report, which will be discussed in further details in this Quarterly:

“Local government…is the kindergarten of democracy. It is the Government nearest to the people. Grassroot democracy is cultivated here. If democracy is understood by the people at this level and if they participate in its exercise they will understand it better at the state and central level” (Para 524 (iii), p. 99)

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Click here to read REFSA Quarterly Issue 1, 2015

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