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Local Government Act: Ours to make or break

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The test of democracy is not how law-abiding we are but how just are the laws we live by. We cannot forget that the Local Government Act was “man-made” in Parliament in 1976 and can therefore be equally “unmade”, says Tan Pek Leng.

Political apologists and lackeys in Malaysia have a way of turning logic on its head.

A case in point is the claim by the Elections Commission (EC) that it is prohibited by law to conduct local elections. The EC is technically correct, of course. But if we let the issue end there, it is to forget that the law was man-made (Parliament was almost entirely male in the 1970s) and could be equally “un-made”.

The test of democracy is not how law-abiding we are but how just are the laws we live by.

Let us recall the rather ironic circumstances under which local elections were abolished through the enactment of the Local Government Act (LGA) in 1976.

The Umno-MCA coalition’s first claim to fame was its victory in the Kuala Lumpur municipal elections in February 1952, when it won nine out of the 11 seats. However, the fortunes of the Alliance (the Umno-MCA-MIC coalition, precursor to BN) in local elections declined in subsequent years, with the opposition parties – especially the Socialist Front (SF) – mounting a formidable challenge.

On the face of it, the Alliance was still highly dominant – winning 426 seats to the Opposition’s 152 seats in the 1961 local elections and 411 seats to the Opposition’s 162 in 1963. But a look at the popular vote garnered tells an entirely different story. In 1961, the Alliance obtained 218,416 of the votes cast compared to 226,112 for the Opposition; in 1963, it was 252,160 votes for the Alliance versus 263,422 votes for the Opposition. In both cases, the Alliance had won less than half the popular vote but more than double the number of seats. Gerrymandering had a very early start in Malaysian politics.

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Just having the numbers in terms of seats was not good enough for the Alliance, though, as choice municipal councils like George Town, Seremban, Malacca, Johore Baru and Ipoh had come under the control of opposition parties – the first four under the SF and the last under the People’s Progressive Party (PPP). Even after suspending local elections in 1965 on the pretext of the Confrontation, the various Alliance-led state governments found excuses to take over the Johore Baru, George Town, Seremban and Malacca municipal councils between April and September 1966.

Although local elections were supposed to be suspended only “for the duration of the Confrontation”, there was no move on the part of the Alliance government to reinstitute the third vote after the official termination of the Confrontation in mid-1967 despite calls by the Opposition in Parliament. Neither was the government inclined to follow the advice of the Athi Nahappan Commission it had appointed to look into the administration of local governments. The commission’s report, released in 1968, had strongly supported the retention of local elections.

The Alliance realised that the Opposition found it easier to win control of local councils than state or parliamentary constituencies and was certainly not keen to hand these platforms back to them. The May 13 incident and the suspension of Parliament gave the Alliance government the perfect excuse to forget all discussions about the third vote. By 1976, the Opposition was so emasculated that the BN government could put a close to the debate by enacting the LGA.

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The LGA was a law created by the BN to subvert the power base of its challengers and in the process deny the citizenry their democratic rights at the most basic level.

Are we the rakyat to acquiesce in this subverting of our rights simply because the law exists?

Tan Pek Leng is an Aliran member.

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