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Democratic polls needed at all local levels and Senate for genuine people’s representation

DR WONG SOAK KOON/ALIRAN

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We, the 16 undersigned groups and organisations, call for democratically elected people’s chosen representatives in local communities, in local governments (local councils) and the Senate in Malaysia.

Currently, in Malaysia, we only democratically elect members of Parliament (MPs) and state legislative assembly members once every five years.

Malaysians do not democratically elect the representatives of the other structures of governance – the local government and the Senate. They also do not democratically elect their local community leaders.

The state or federal government chooses and appoints members of the local government and the Senate and even the local community leaders.

These state or federally appointed representatives are not freely chosen people’s representatives, and as such this is an abuse of power and a violation of human rights that affects or denies the people’s ability to effectively participate in the governance of their individual local communities, their local government, the Senate and Malaysia.

Article 21(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives”.

Freely chosen representatives are chosen by the people themselves, and they are not state selected or appointed.

Article 21(3) states: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

This indicates that it is by elections that people choose their “freely chosen representatives”.

The state or the federal government generally tends to appoint party members or supporters as people’s representatives in these other structures of governance – but if there was an election, these appointed persons may never even be chosen by the people.

State appointments undermine the people’s right to participation in government, when the views or positions of the people can easily be ignored by these state-appointed representatives who listen more to the appointing authority, and not the people they are supposed to represent.

Laws and policies that require the people to be consulted are undermined when support or views are given by these state-appointed representatives, allegedly on behalf of the people, when the people to be consulted may often be kept in the dark about what they were supposed to be consulted on and, worse, what was even communicated by these so-called leaders or representatives allegedly on their behalf to the relevant authorities directly or indirectly as the views, positions and decisions of the community.

Hence, the views of the people may be misrepresented.For example, the people in fact may be opposed to logging or a particular development, only to be later informed that their ‘appointed’ village or community ‘head’ or ‘representatives’ had already issued letters of support. Yes, such state-appointed community leaders may have given consent for logging and maybe even environment or health-threatening economic endeavours without even the people’s knowledge or informed consent.

State appointed-‘leaders’ or ‘representatives’ compared to democratically elected representatives through periodic elections may simply have no loyalty or even fear of the people they are supposed to represent, as their position ultimately is not in the hands of the people, but the state authority with the power to appoint them or renew their term of office. They are thus merely state representatives – not true people’s representatives.

Would the people, if truly consulted, even have consented to the building of factories like Lynas, for the logging of nearby forests or even health and environmentally threatening incinerators or other development projects?

The government must have faith in its people and restore the people’s right to democratically elect their own leaders or representatives at all levels of government, right from the micro communities they live in, the local government (council) of their area, and even senators. The current state of affairs is simply undemocratic.

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Local elections

In Malaysia, even in the smallest communities like villages or kampongs, new villages and residential neighbourhoods (tamans), the leadership continues to be state-appointed rather than being democratically elected. For some apartments or condominiums, after the handover, there are democratically elected management committees of all the residents. But for other small communities, the leadership or representatives are generally not elected by all residents or the people in the respective communities, and instead they are appointed by the government.

In some communities, there are registered societies that claim to be residents associations, but the reality is that they are limited to ‘selected’ individuals – not all the residents, and it may even be impossible for other residents to join them, as membership is governed by the society or association that has a right to reject any new members.

As such, it is best that all local communities like kampongs and residential areas (tamans) have democratically elected ‘mini’-governments, whereby the elections can be conducted by the Election Commission or a relevant government authority, where the term of office may be fixed.

Having such a democratically elected structure helps in the communication between people and the relevant authorities over matters concerning development and related matters.

In Thailand, like in many other democratic nations, for example, every community has elections carried out at the level of these micro communities by the state once every two or three years. Having such a democratic structure ensures more effective participation by every person in government, where the elected leadership’s loyalty shall be first to the people residing in that particular community not to some other appointing authority.

In Malaysia, during the reign of Pakatan Rakyat in Perak, the then chief minister (menteri besar) Nizar Jamaluddin did conduct democratic elections in kampongs and some new villages where the people could finally democratically elect their own local community leaders.

Sadly, there was opposition by some who preferred to still appoint ‘their’ people rather than allow the people to democratically choose their own leaders or representatives. After all, the people’s elected leaders may not be simply yes men and will sometime oppose the plans of the governments for their area.

The local government effectively governs the area that falls within its jurisdiction, including the deciding or participating in the decision-making process on development projects in their area, the plans and businesses permitted within the area of the local council, the determining of the rates payable for different types of buildings, the building and maintenance of roads (other than state and federal roads), signboards, parks and even drainage or irrigation within the area, parking rates, public transport and even flood mitigation.

A local government can even prevent the building of dangerous or unhealthy factories, businesses and incinerators. The local government’s primary concern is the best interest of the people within the jurisdiction of the particular local government.

A local government has the power to make laws and even enforce its own laws.

Local government elections, which started in 1952 with the Kuala Lumpur municipal elections, continued after the independence of Malaya in 1957 until it was ‘stopped temporarily’ by the Umno-MCA-MIC (Alliance) government in 1965. The reason (for the suspension) given then was the “Indonesian confrontation” against the formation of Malaysia in 1963′, and this was done by means of an emergency law namely the Emergency (Suspension of Local Government Elections) Regulations 1965.

A royal commission of inquiry into the workings of local authorities in West Malaysia led by Senator Athi Nahappan in December 1968 stated that if a local government is not elected, it is non-representative.

If we hold fast to the time-honoured concept of “no taxation without representation”, a nominated local government undermines the legitimacy of local authorities to collect assessment rates, which are the most important source of income of the local authorities.

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That is why the royal commission’s report concluded that the merits of elected local government, with all its inherent weaknesses, outweigh those of the nominated ones.

But after this ’emergency’ had passed and despite the recommendation of the royal commission, the then Barisan Nasional government chose to do away with local government elections in 1976, when Parliament passed the Local Government Act.

To restore local government elections, this federal act(s) needs to be repealed or amended. Until this happens, local councillors will continue to be appointed by state or federal governments and not democratically elected by the people.

Some believed that the real reason for withholding elections was because the Alliance (later BN) government feared losing more local authorities to opposition parties and independent persons.

People generally are smart and do want to simply give power at all levels to any particular party or coalition. This was one of the reasons the BN government preferred having both state and federal parliamentary elections at the same time.

All this has now changed as many states now have their elections at a different time from the federal elections. So, some people may vote for one party at one level, and another at the other level to serve provide checks and balances against authoritarianism.

The states of Selangor and Penang, under the rule of Pakatan Rakyat (PKR-DAP-Pas), fought for the restoration of local government elections – but they could not do so then because a federal law prevented local council elections.

This and other federal acts need to be repealed or amended first to restore local council elections, which now can be easily done as Pakatan Harapan’s Anwar Ibrahim is finally Prime Minister, and he claims he has the support of an overwhelming maybe even more than two-thirds majority support of all MPs. The amendment of laws requires a simple majority, while the amendment of the Federal Constitution needs a two-thirds majority.

After the 2018 general election, when Pakatan Harapan (PH) managed to form the Federal government, assurance was given to amend several laws in Parliament as early as the end of 2020 to reinstate local government elections, and it pledged “to restore the voting system for local councils in three years”. Then, the government was ousted after about 22 months in power.

Now, that Anwar Ibrahim, who had always been seen as the leader of Pakatan Harapan, is Prime Minister, he has the capacity to retore local council elections. The worry is whether the opposition too would also use similar reasons, as the then BN government did when they decided to continue with appointments rather than democratic elections for fear that the opposition and others may win local council elections.

Some politicians have even advanced the fear that Chinese Malaysians may “dominate” as they are in greater numbers in urban areas – a foolish argument as the jurisdiction of local governments goes way beyond towns and includes rural areas. And naturally, local governments can be broken up into constituencies and the outcome will be reflective of the national demography.

Such race-based views may come from race-specific political parties of old, but Anwar’s own party, PKR, and the other principal Pakatan Harapan parties are all multi-ethnic parties that allow for membership of all Malaysians irrespective of race or religion.

At the very least, the federal laws could be amended to give freedom to individual states to decide whether they will have local council elections – rather that keeping the federal laws as it is, which prevents local council elections in the whole of the country.

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Senate

The Federal Constitution acknowledges the possibility that members of the Senate could be elected by the people, and no more be subject to political appointments by the federal and state governments.

Article 45(4) of the Federal Constitution states: “Parliament may by law—…(b) provide that the members to be elected for each State shall be so elected by the direct vote of the electors of that State.…”

Yes, what it means is that the people can directly and democratically vote in our senators. Currently, the people’s right to choose senators has been ‘stolen’ by the state legislative assembly.

Article 45(4)(c) even says that Parliament by law can even “decrease the number of appointed members or abolish appointed members”.

This means also the practice of the fgederal government appointed Senators can be ended – possibly in favour of direct elections by the people.

Today in Malaysia, 40 senators are appointed by the federal government, two senators are appointed from each of the 13 states, and four other senators are appointed by the federal government for the three federal territories.

In other words, the one who governs the federal government can ‘control’ the majority in the Senate, being able to appoint 43 senators, while all states can appoint only a total of 26 senators.

As such, is there really any need for the Senate (the upper house of Parliament), when it is filled with pro-government senators who are unlikely to disapprove laws proposed by the government and supported by the lower house, the House of Representatives.

The power of appointment of senators has been used or ‘abused’ to reward even those rejected by the people in parliamentary elections. Those who lose in the parliamentary elections after being rejected by the people may end up being appointed as senators, an example of this being the current home affairs minister.

The federal government uses Senate appointments also to be able to appoint them as cabinet members.

Can the primary role of the Senate (the upper house of Parliament) to independently review the decisions of the Lower House and scrutinise the government be achieved if Senators continue to be appointed, and not democratically elected by the people?

Therefore, we call for:

  • the democratic rights of the Malaysian people to be fully restored so that they can effectively exercise their right to take part in the government of this country at all levels, directly or through freely chosen representatives, by way of democratic elections at all levels including from their basic local communities (villages, kampung baru or new villages and housing estates), the local government (local councils) and the Senate
  • an end to the political appointments of people’s representatives in favour of democratically elected people’s representatives
  • an end to the federal and state governments’ theft of people’s democratic right to freely choose their own people’s representatives
  • the speedy repeal or amendment of the Local Government Act 1976 and other laws that prevent local government democratic elections in Malaysia
  • the abolition of the Malaysian Senate, if the right is not restored to the people to directly elect their senators
  • call for the Malaysian government to trust the people and restore full democratic rights

Charles Hector and Rohana Ariffin issued this statement on behalf of the 16 groups listed below:

  1. Aliran
  2. Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (Madept)
  3. Black Women for Wages for Housework
  4. Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC)
  5. Environmental Protection Society Malaysia (EPSM)
  6. Gagasan Insan Progresif (GIP)
  7. Global Women’s Strike
  8. Haiti Action Committee
  9. Legal Action for Women, UK
  10. North South Initiative (NSI)
  11. Payday Men’s Network, UK/US
  12. Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (Sadia)
  13. Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM)
  14. Teoh Beng Hock Association for Democratic Advancement
  15. Workers Hub For Change (WH4C)
  16. Women of Color Global Women’s Strike
The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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