The Struggle for Local Democracy in Malaysia: Challenges and Opportunities

Speech delivered by AnwarFazal at the National Convention of Citizens and Residents Association on Planning and Local Government Acts in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 19 December 1999.

The global community (including Malaysia) assembled at the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (popularly known as HABITAT 2) in Istanbul, Turkey in June 1996 adopted a remarkable set of goals and a plan of action “to make human settlements safer, healthier, more livable, equitable, sustainable and productive.”

Among its many principles, the Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements stated:

·         “Our cities must be places where human beings lead fulfilling lives in dignity, good health, safety, happiness and hope.”

·         “We adopt...the principles of partnership and participation as the most democratic and effective approach...”

·         “.....we must promote.....decentralisation through democratic local authorities.....while ensuring their transparency, accountability and responsiveness to the needs of the people.....”

For Malaysia these are not new challenges. There has been a history of local self government with Penang having elections (albeit with limited franchise) in 1857. Strangely, these were discontinued for a lack of public interest. In the early fifties, they were reintroduced and this time successfully with universal franchise with Penang leading again. There was much to be proud of - The 1952 Report of George Town stated: “The streets of George Town are swept everyday.....Our city is practically free of mosquitoes and flies and this is proof of the efficiency of our health department.”

Democracy and Development then both became joyously rampant. Even every new village had local elections and schools, roads, clinics were appearing in an unprecedented sweep (led by such innovations as the “Red Book” under the leadership of Tun Abdul Razak) that put Malaysia high on the scale of human development. Literacy, infant mortality and income levels saw dramatic and impressive gains. Local authorities were politically competitive and major towns and villages had, to some, an annoying tendency to vote in candidates from opposition parties. In fact, it seemed so exciting that it boiled over and Malaysia’s First Royal Commission to study the local government system was appointed in 1996. Headed by Dato’ Anthi Nahappan M.P. (who is originally from Penang but now has a road named after him in Taman Tun Dr. Ismail, one of the better designed housing estates in Kuala Lumpur) it conducted a comprehensive review, hearings and reached hundreds of memoranda. The Royal Commission made comprehensive sweeping recommendations which stated among other things:

·         Local Authorities should be elected, with District Councils having the additional provision to have 30 per cent being nominated from special interests such as trade, culture, trade unions, professions and even sports.

·         Party politics should be allowed despite its good and bad aspects and those who wish to stress their faith in non-conformism should have the right to stand as an “independent”.

·         A literacy test was recommended to ensure the candidate could at least read.

A government committee set up by the Malaysian Cabinet reviewed the final report and broadly supported the recommendations as being consistent with the tempo of the following requirements:

·         National Unity

·         Social and Economic Development

·         Efficiency

·         Democracy

·         Autonomy.

However, an accompanying study by the Development Administration Unit (DAU) of the Malaysian Government took a fundamentally different stance and challenged the Royal Commission report as having serious weakness from the point of view of “ecology structure and consequence”. It stated that the recommendations will not facilitate national unity, will have adverse effects on development, create inter-ethnic and “politico-economic disequilibrium”, contribute to instability and disunity, lead to control by oligarchic elites, facilitating the “haves” to dominate and exploit the “have-nots”. It would be subject to exploitation by “subversive” elements and “infiltrators”. In short it said that the recommended system was “structurally complicated and costly”, “over democratised” and represented “over government” and will not be a solution to “problems” of maladministration and malpractices. What an indictment!

The context of this rather astonishing set of views was “Confrontation with Indonesia”, the May 13 riots and alleged scandals of mal-administration and malpractice e.g., the City Council of George Town, lead for many years by the Socialist Front, was suspended and an inquiry instituted. George Town was the crown jewel of the Socialist Front, while Ipoh was led by the legendary Seenivasagam brothers and the Peoples Progressive Party.

So after six years of study, guess who the Malaysian Cabinet listened to? Elections at the local government were abolished and while appointed Councils came primarily from the dominant party at State/Federal level. Chief Ministers/Menteri Besars often doubled as “Mayors” of the State capitals. Kuala Lumpur had long remained “administratively” managed, with at one time a Minister of Federal Territory to oversee the mayor and city hall.

Today we have come to another turning point, arising from another political resurgence, a groundswell of interest in democracy and sustainable development where rapid growths and local dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement of various kinds seems again to generate deep and passionate concern. There are those who call for a paradigm shift in responsiveness to public concerns are as compelling as those articulated in the era of the struggle against colonisation.

So where do we go from here? I suggest the following 10 ideas to explore:

1.       A national awareness campaign be launched called the “Local  Democracy Project”. Its rallying cry could be “the Spirit of Community” or “Action for Better Cities (ABC)”. A charter outlining core principles and a plan of action could be developed. Endorsements could be obtained from hundreds, even thousands of key organisations and individuals. This could serve both as an awareness and advocacy tool with the aim of restoring popular participation in Local Authorities.

2.    A Citizen Commission called the Local Democracy Commission be set up to formulate principles and plans for local democracy drawing from the rich experiences from the previous Royal Commission, subsequent reports, the UN Habitat Declaration and plans of action and current realities. The Commission could be chaired perhaps by former supreme court judge Tan Sri Harun Hashim who had earlier chaired a Royal Commission on salaries and working conditions in local authorities. He is also an advocate of local democracy. The proposed commission could, in particular, address the issues of competitive partisan politics, money politics and professional management.

3. As an immediate measure, all state governments should ensure that

     i)   30 per cent of all local authority appointments go to women.

ii)     30 per cent of all appointments are from independent professional and other civil society organisations and which are not associated with party politics.


4.   All appointed councillors should be allocated neighbourhood zones for which they would be responsible and accountable.

5. Citizens Consultative Councils be appointed at the ward/neighbourhood basis with a direct role of liaison with the local authority. These councils can be elected on a non-party basis by the residents. Voting can be through new clean, efficient and effective systems where no posters, banners and other wasteful circus/carnival modalities will be allowed. Instead, the local authority could send out a circular giving the bio-data of the candidates. The candidates can supplement these by visits and handouts while the local authorities can systematically organise public meetings to know the contradictions at community centres and such places.

6.    Every local authority should develop Local Vision Statements, through popular participation of the resident. These could supplement and popularize the “clients charters” of local authorities.

7.    “Peoples Report Cards”, could be organised as regular “Peoples’ Audits” on the performance or lack of performance of the respective councillors and authorities and specific services.

8.    A systematic national Annual Dialogue could be undertaken by the Ministry of Local Government and housing and local authorities to get ideas and feedback before their budgets are planned. This procedure could benefit from the experience of the Ministry of Finance’s annual budget dialogues.

9. A comprehensive Website on Good Ideas and education about local democracy and management can be developed and cyberlinked to best practices globally. There are  internationally over a hundred excellent sites relevant to good governance and local authorities. There could also be a section on malpractices or what some would call “crimes against the people.” Such a systematic effort of recording such struggles is important for systematic structural change as people have short memories.

10.        A team from the conference should visit the new Minister of Local Government and Housing with a view to usher in a new era of Partnership and Participation in the spirit of the Istanbul Declaration and Plan of Action. The Ministry has recently declared its new policy to be “proactive.” I believe that it is one of those special times when change and ideas are most welcome.

It is a specially opportune time because Malaysia is currently involved in a number of innovative and promising initiatives that it can be proud of. These creative ventures include:

a) The Healthy Cities Project of the World Health Organisation and the Ministry of Health - Kuching is among the world leaders.

b) Local Agenda 21  is an idea inspired by the UN Environmental Conference in Rio - With the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Ministry of Local Government and Housing is launching pilot schemes in Petaling Jaya, Miri, Kemaman and Krian. This process has the potential for the most comprehensive bottoms-up planning on the local environment.

c) Kuantan has lead in an Asian Development Bank Scheme in benchmarking and also in ISO standards.

d) With help from the Canadian Institute of Governance, Penang has successfully put in place The Sustainable Penang Initiative, one of Asia’s first citizen initiatives on popular participation. A peoples report with community indicators has been launched.

e) Self Advocacy Training: With the help of United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP), Penang is developing a training centre for people with disability. The training in cross-disability and managed by the Groups themselves using self advocacy.

f) The Malaysian Children-Friendly Initiative: With help from UNICEF and UNDP, Malaysia is the first country in Asia to launch a framework and resource book on making our urban areas children-friendly.

g) Digital Cities: Ipoh is going into extensive use of new information technologies to move toward what is sometimes called a “digital city.” Subang Jaya, with assistance from MIMOS, is developing an initiative to become a model e-community.

h)  Heritage Maps: Penang, Malacca, Ipoh and Taiping have developed some excellent local heritage maps and trails. Every local authority should promote such mapping and discovery. Until the residents feel proud of their towns and cities and know its special history and identify with it, creating a sense of commitment and community is not going to be easy.

So there is hope and opportunity and it is one of those special times when change, even paradigm shifts are possible, and local governments given a new and more central place in the lives of our citizens. If we can together constructively, creatively, and systematically build and add to the many promising initiatives and if civic engagement leads an upsurge of citizens interest, we will surely see the emergence of an efficient, effective, equitable, democratic local government system in Malaysia that is socially, ecologically and economically sustainable and make a marked improvement in the quality of life of Malaysians.

Back to Speeches