Better citizen engagement isn’t only about tackling poverty and social justice issues; it is about listening to the people and carving out needs-based people-centred policies, asserts Syerleena Abdul Rashid.
One of the greatest struggles Malaysians face is the ongoing tug-of-war between democracy and elitism.
Despite the painstaking measures our founding fathers took to ensure independence, our nation never quite trusted the rakyat to govern themselves.
Interestingly enough, sometimes this mistrust reveals the complex political reasoning that acknowledges the ideologies of ancient Greek philosophers and political thinkers, which emphasise that the responsibilities of governance should only be carried out by “those who are specially educated or fit for it, or by those who claim to have a greater stake in the outcome”.
Unfortunately, this often leads to the exclusion of a majority of the rakyat from policy-making due to blatant discrimination based on gender, ethnic and religious biases.
As a result, democracy weakens and the rakyat suffers when right wing political parties and unscrupulous individuals are driven by their great lust for power and are able to acquire it by unfair means.
In June 2015, residents in Machang Bubok (an area within the parliamentary constituency of Bukit Mertajam, Penang) took part in a decision-making workshop aimed at encouraging communities to participate in the decision-making processes involving communal development.
This workshop was spearheaded by Bukit Mertajam MP Steven Sim as part of the Gender Responsive Participatory Budgeting (GRPB) project initiated by the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC). The project saw 17 village security and development committees (JKKK) within the Machang Bubok/Bukit Mertajam constituency come up with proposals on how each JKKK would spend RM100,000.
Sim stated that the budget was to be used as capital for various development projects and will be broken into four phases: surveys among the people, focus group discussions, voting on budget and needs, and planning and presentation.
To date, various GRBP projects in Penang have been carried out at several people’s housing projects (PPR) located on both sides of Penang and a project is currently carried out in the soon-to-be refurbished Campbell Street Market located in the heart of the George Town Heritage Zone.
Some time in 2012, the Penang state government launched a mobile app project “CAT (Citizen’s Action Technology) Better Penang” – a community-owned application which facilitates interactions with the two local authorities in Penang (MBPP and MPSP).
One of the special features of this app was the creation of an “idea bank”, where users could give suggestions on how to improve or develop Penang into the intelligent, sustainable and livable city it should be.
The idea came when Sim (who was then a councillor at the Seberang Perai Municipal Council) realised that a majority of citizens within his community were not aware of the avenues that existed for complaints and raising other issues.
The importance of “local champions” whose knowledge on local issues could be used to help create a more rewarding outcome drove him to design the app; hence, one of the main objectives of the project was to encourage wider citizen participation in decision-making processes to help improve their local communities.
The existing political structure in Malaysia has to an extent rendered a majority of citizens feeling somewhat powerless when faced with political issues.
“Communities expect the government to be in autopilot, leaving the decisions up to the governments,” Sim reiterated in a recent interview, “but the point (of this project) is to return democracy to a healthy, functional level, and this means participation from everyone at every level is crucial.”
An ordinary citizen’s complaint or opinion being regarded as important as those raised by elected representatives or local councillors was something that resonated with him throughout his years working at the local council level. In fact, even as an MP, he still thinks about ways to improve participatory governance in local communities.
Although developing a new model of leadership, one that encourages a ‘bottom-up’ approach, will take time to grow, numerous global initiatives have already begun to develop and institutionalise new forms of participatory governance as a method of resolving pressing community-level socio-economic problems.
Both local councils, Penang Island City Council (Majlis Bandaraya Pulau Pinang, MBPP) and Seberang Perai Municipal Council (Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai, MPSP) already have set up social media sites including Facebook as well as Sim’s mobile app project to enable citizens to lodge complaints and highlight any council-related matters with ease.
The core hypothesis is simply this: better citizen engagement isn’t only about addressing poverty and social justice; it is about dealing with the mounting democratic shortfalls that have befallen ‘mature’ and ’emerging’ democratic nations in a way that can benefit every single citizen regardless of economic status or background.
It is about taking ownership and getting rid of the ‘middle men’. It is about listening to the people, the voters, and carving out people-centred policies based on their needs.