Popular Participation - the Root of Democracy

News Straits Times, n.d

Kampung Selut (Slimy Village) was located at the mouth of Sungai Pinang in the city of George Town on - Penang Island. A muddy mess of hamlets occupied largely by the Malay community, it was in the 1950’s a festering reminder of the disempowerment of a minority community in a thriving colonial entry port bustling with British Trading Houses, Chinese merchants and Indian stevedores and sprinklings of a rich tapestry of hundreds of traders and sub-cultures.

Then came democracy, election and independence and people’s lives reverberated with a new dynamic of anticipation and expectation of a new and better life sooner than later.

Penang saw their first municipal elections in the early ‘50s and tasted elective politics ahead of the rest of the country with all the excitement of ballot boxes, political parties and the promises that go with those.

Soon after the country’s independence, the Socialist Front, a coalition of the Labour Party and the Party Rakyat, won a decisive victory and took control of the City Council under the leadership of Mayor D. S. Ramanathan, a former president of the Teachers Union. During elections the Socialist Front promised the residents of Kampung Selut new homes and a new village.

Now the Party had to deliver. Quickly the land was acquired (from a distinguished Malay family), transit quarters (better than the long house now often provided), were built, and the people told to move. Something dramatic then happened. The people refused to move!

They said no moving until they were consulted on the design of the house, the layout of the village and the long term plans.

They wanted to shape their own homes and their destiny. And they did not want any government consultants and committees to decide for them. They want to elect their own representatives through formal elections and they wanted this group of over a dozen to meet all the fully-elected council (of fifteen) to meet face to face regularly to work together to build the new community.

And they did.

The elected council of the village of Kampung Selut and the City Council of George Town over many months discussed, debated, disagreed and in the end, developed together the house plans and layout of the new village.

And the new village was appropriately renamed Kampung Makbul (The village whose prayers were answered!). It is now a bustling and thriving community at the end of one journey, beginning its next.

Such an intensive popular participatory exercise was unprecedented in Malaysia, and has many lessons about caring, community and inclusiveness.

One generation later, in 1999 Penang was to see again another unprecedented exercise in popular participation - the Sustainable Penang Initiative (SPI), supported by the Institute On Governance (lOG), Canadian International Development Agency and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). An innovative two year series of roundtables were held around five core themes:

·                        Economic Productivity

·                        Ecological Sustainability

·                        Social Justice

·                        Cultural Vibrancy

·                        Political Participation.

It saw the launch of some  40 community based indicators developed through creative and constructive discussion and debate. Comprehensive vision statements were developed for each of the themes and actions.

Out of that, new community networks emerged - Water Watch Penang, Sustainable Transport Environment Penang (STEP) and SILA (Sustainability, Independent Living Access) which brought together persons with disabilities. A “Peoples’ Report” was presented by five children to the state government.

The response from the government was a triumph for popular participation. The Chief Minister of Penang, Tan Sri Dr. Koh Tsu Koon and the State Exco Member of Economic Planning, Dato’ Dr. Toh Kin Woon, engaged the groups in a spirit of critical dialogue. They were so impressed with the process that they announced that the products and process of the Sustainable Penang Initiative will form the core of the new Penang Strategic Plan for 2001 to 2010. They also agreed that ‘Sustainability’ and ‘Good Governance’ will be among the pillars of the new strategic plan.

The experience of Kampung Makbul and ‘The Sustainable Penang Initiative’ demonstrate that a more daring, sophisticated, interactive process is possible between civil society and the government.

Unfortunately, far too often, schemes for consultation and participation are created for the purpose of manipulation, decoration and tokenism. Sometimes, government’s own ideas about participation are based on ignorance, a paternalistic tradition and even down right arrogance. Eight kinds of participation modes have been identified (see chart). The challenge is to develop genuine ‘public interest partnerships’ and it can be done, and must be done.

New Frontiers

Malaysia has seen massive and rapid urbanisation which has led to a shattering of ‘community’ as we have known it. Many towns people of today not just don’t know their neighbour, they often don’t care and even don’t want to know them.

The cities and towns are going to the frontiers for building a new Malaysia, yet our local authorities are often hopelessly stressed and hardly meet the new challenges of congestion, garbage, public transport, recreation, even cemeteries. They need to become more responsive and involve the citizens in new ways.

I like to suggest five generic challenges for all of us to address:

·         Firstly, the challenge of Vision -We need a Local Vision for the 21st Century. What do our villages, towns and cities want to be in the long run? We can use vision 2020 as the start, but we need to add a 10th challenge to it -the environmental challenge. It is now unfortunately a ‘blind spot’.

·         Secondly, the challenge of Professionalism - We need to have in place a local government service of a very much higher capacity if we are going to cope with the challenges of urbanisation.


·         Thirdly, the challenge of Transparency and Integrity - Planning decisions, development and especially infrastructure projects have not only to be done with due process, but seen to be done. There is deep public concern about the nature and direction of privatisation in our country.


·         Fourthly, the challenge of Popular Participation - There is a need for more participatory system of involvement by citizens.


·         Fifthly, the challenge of the Community Spirit - Everywhere there is a terrible destruction of community. Where new buildings and housing estates are built, there is little pro-active effort and building a sense of community and cooperation among residents. Apart from the frenzy during elections and a crisis, there is too little systematic dialogue.



Let me also offer five specific ideas for action:


·         Let us revisit the report of the 1st Royal Commission after Independence which was on Local Government. It was popularly called the Athi Nahappan report and has many valuable ideas on participation. We need to put local government back on the agenda of the nation.


·         Let us begin a new urban community movement in urban areas building on Residents Association and Rukun Tetangga based on neighbourhoods and rebuild a sense of community and popular participation.


·         Let us build a world-class website on urban issues that connects every major city and town in Malaysia. Let’s get people to connect with the best practices everywhere. The United Nations (UN) has an excellent web site for this and will be happy to make the connection.


·         Let us develop a Centre for Urban Studies which can lead in serious and current Research and Development on urban issues.


·         Let us develop a centre of excellence in the training of local government officials.

Local government, instead of being the lowest level of government, should become the highest in terms of community needs and services.

Local government should be the heartbeat and bedrock of a living democracy.

The future is an urban future. If we do not get our towns and cities right, we will have no future. And if we don’t involve the people through genuine popular participation, then development will have no soul.

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