Why local government should be elected

On 1st March 1965, the then Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, made a Ministerial Statement in the Dewan Rakyat announcing that the government had exercised Emergency powers to suspend local council elections which was to be held in May or June the same year, on the ground of Indonesian Confrontation.

The then Prime Minister made a solemn pledge to this House and nation, and I quote from the Hansards of 1.3.1965:

“As soon as this peace and quietness has returned we would make haste with all proper preparations for the local council elections, because we realise that these elections may generate heat and passion and advantage will be taken by evil forces to make the fullest use of the situation.”

At the end of his statement, the Tunku again made this solemn pledge:

“The very m oment peace is declared I can assure this House that the elections will be held.”

The Indonesian Confrontation ended in the latter part of 1966, but up to this date, local council elections had not been resumed.

The new excuse was that the government was waiting for the findings of the Athi Nahappan Report on the Workings of Local authorities, which took an inordinately long time to comple te its work, and’ which the government kept in cold storage for three years before releasing and tabling it in Parliament last December.

Between 1966 to 1971, the government also resorted to other delaying tactics and broke word after word. Thus in the March 1968 session of Parliament, the then Minister for Local Government, Mr. Khaw Khai Boh, told the House that the government would decide in one or two months time whether or not to hold further local council elections. Nothing of course came out of it.

In his Ministerial Statement on the Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government, the new Minister of Local Government told this House House last July that the Government had come to the conclusion that it was “unnecessary and redundant” to have another tier representative government at local authority level.

He said that the Central Government had decided to consult with the State Governments to abolish the system of elected local government.

In the December session of Parliament, the Minister in reply to me, hinted that the question of elective local government would be frozen further until the State Governments had ‘restructured’ the Local Authorities, and he did not know how long this restructuring’ would take.

Underlying the government’s delay and procrastination on the resumption of local council elections for the last seven years is the one aim to deny the people the restoration of their basic democratic right to run their own local affairs, as was solemnly promised by the Alliance Government of which the present Prime Minister was Deputy Prime Minister, in March 1965.

The three reasons which had been advanced to suspend local council elections are flimsy and do not stand up to examination: namely, the Indonesian Confrontation, the workings of the Athi Nahappan Report, and now the restructuring of the local authorities by the State Government.

Elected local authorities are the grass-roots of democracy, where the people are brought into direct contact with the workings of a democratic system, learn to run their own local affairs, and develop the life-style, habit and spirit of democracy which is essential if democracy is to strike deep and meaningful root in Malaysia.

No event, apart from actual war, can justify the seven-year suspension of local council elections.

The suspension of local council elections gives a dangerous precedent to the Federal Government, when it is so-minded, to engineer suspension of State and even Federal elections in future on some tenuous grounds – say, the incomplete workings of the Election Commission to delimit constituency boundaries.

The Royal Commission on the Workings of Local Authorities can proceed with its work, the State Government can work on its restructuring of the local authorities, but the local council elections must be held without any delay. If the restructurings cannot come into effect until some time, then the local council elections should be held on the basis of present delineations,and the next local council elections will then be held on the restructured boundaries.

The basic reason for the seven-year suspension of local council elections,and the continued stubborn refusal on the part of the government to lift the suspension despite the recommendation of the Royal Commission on the Workings of the Local Authorities for the continuation of the elective local government system, is not administrative but purely political. It is in the political field, therefore, that we must find the reasons for the government’s present attitude.

The real reason, I submit, is the refusal on the part of the ruling party, the Alliance, and its component parties, to accept the cardinal democratic principle that the ruling party should abide by the verdict of the electorate and be prepared to transfer power peacefully to an Opposition if this be the will of the voters as expressed in a general elections.

No one will vouch, that the Alliance is prepared to bow down to the verdict and wishes of the electorate and transfer Federal power peacefully Opposition if this be the judgement of the people at the polls. It is significant that not a single government leader, whether he be the Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister, despite their undying profession for democratic principles and practice, had ever said that the Alliance Party would accept this cardinal democratic principle of peaceful transfer of power to an Opposition if the people so wishes.

The reason for the suspension of the local council elections in 1965 was not Indonesian confrontation, but more petty. In 1965, the ruling party, the Alliance, and in particular the MCA which was mainly involved in contesting the local council elections, were convinced that the political conditions and atmosphere in the country were not conducive to the MCA in the event of local council elections.

MCA strategists wanted to have more time to recoup lost political ground and wait for a more propitious time when they can be assured of local council successes.

As it turned out, with every passing year, the stocks of the MCA fell lower and lower despite the unashamed massive use of the mass media, the radio and television to boost their fortunes, culminating in the debacle of the MCA and the Alliance on May 10, 1969 when the MCA and the Alliance were soundly trounced and strong-men like the Ministers Dr.Lim Swee Aun, Dr. Ng Kam Poh fell like nine pins before political unknowns like my colleague, Chan Fu King, now M.P. for Teluk Anson.

With the end of the 22-month NOC emergency rule, and the reconvening of a truncated Parliament, one would have expected the resumption of local council elections – especially as the Athi Nahapan Report had recommended it.

But no, the Alliance and MCA are still intent to kill and destroy elected local councils and grass-roots democracy. In fact, the MCA must bear the greatest responsibility for the government’s decision to refuse to resume local council elections. The MCA is the real murderer of grass-roots democracy in Malaysia.

After the 1969 General Elections, where the MCA candidates were to the decisively rejected by the electorate, the MCA realised that it had lost out Opposition because of its long history of political dishonesty, corruption and immorality.

The MCA leaders realised that if there are Municipal, town and local council elections, the MCA would suffer an even greater defeat than the 1969 general elections. They know that despite their boast of a new MCA image and leadership, and the unprincipled and unscrupulous use of the so-called Chinese Unity Movement to advance the political fortunes of a handful of ruthless politicians to catapult themselves to political influence and power, the common man cannot be misled by the MCA’s old wine in new bottles.

The MCA has three reasons why it wants to kill grass-roots democracy as represented by elected Municipal, town and local councils:

1. It wants to avoid an even worse de feat in the hands of the electorate than the one it su ffered during the 1969 General Elections;

2. The MCA realised that if the Opposition, in particular, the DAP, win the majority of the Municipal, town and local councils, they will be a power base on which the DAP will build to greater strength and power – leading to the Alliance and the MCA losing more Parliamentary and State seats in the next general elections.

3. The MCA leaders know that if MCA members and stooges are ever to get appointed onto Municipal, town and local councils, the only way is through the backdoor system of appointment, and not by elections. Thus in Malacca, Dato Tan Cheng Swee will never dare dream of becoming Malacca Municipal Commissioner if there are Malacca Municipal elections. He should consider himself lucky if he can win a Municipal seat. The most recent example of backdoor appointment is of course Dr. Lim Keng Yaik, the Minister of Special Functions on New Village.

It is for this reason that the MCA schemed with the other partner in the ruling Allian ce to kill grass-roots democracy, by proposing to abolish elected Municipal, town and local councils. This is why not a single MCA leader, whether old blood or young Turk, voiced opposition when the Minister of Local Government said that the Government had decided to abolish elected local government.

If the elected local councils are replaced by appointive ones, then the people will have to suffer inefficient, arrogant, corrupt, irresponsible and are no longer answerable to the people, and do not have to fear rejection unresponsive Municipal, town and local councils as the local councilors and repudiation at the polls.

We can expect disreputable and discredited Alliance political adventurers and opportunists back in positions of power in the Municipal, town and local coun cils to lord over the people – who would otherwise lose their deposits if they had to stand in local council elections.

The abolition of elected local government involves a fundamental issue, which goes to the very roots of democracy. If elected Municipal, town and local councils are abolished, it will not only be the death of grassroots democracy, it will be a grave blow to the democratic system in the country and will lead the way to authoritarian or totalitarian forms of government.

Democracy is a fragile plant in Malaysia, and if it is to take root, it must be nurtured into a sturdy and viable tree by encouraging the people to participate fully in the democratic process, and inculcating in them the democratic spirit and way of life, as involving the people in running local authorities.

This is the democratic way of life that the Rukunegara as so grandly enunciated by the Government claims to safeguard and uphold.

The fear by the MCA and the Alliance that they will lose the over-whelming number of local authorities to the Opposition is no justification for maiming and mutilating the democratic process in Malaysia.

Mr. Speaker, Sir, the question of elected local authorities should rise above partisan politics – because it will determine not only whether the people can democratically take part in the running of their own local affairs, but help decide the future and destiny of Malaysia.

The great issue at stake in Malaysia today, the battle that is being waged in the hearts and minds of the people, is whether we can survive as a nation.

I would submit that we are not even fighting for a battle of national survival – for national survival presupposes the existence of a nation, where the people have the united resolve and capacity to defend itself from internal and external threats.

Malaysia is not yet truly a nation. Legally we are a nation, a member of the United Nations, recognised by the international comity of nations. But we are not yet a nation of Malaysians.

The fundamental question in Malaysia, which will decide the destiny of all of us, is whether Malaysia can become a nation where her people of diverse races, religions and customs can develop a Malaysian consciousness and identity transcending their separate communal pulls and loyalties.

There are in our country powerful centrifugal forces threatening tear the country asunder. It is our task, as Malaysian citizens, who are born and bred here, and who will die here, to do all that we can to stand up against these centrifugal forces, and work for the attainment of a united to Malaysian nation.

A democratic way of life, we in the DAP are convinced, holds the key to build a nation of Malaysians. I am not so dogmatic as to say that democracy is the only political system for all countries. Thus, in China, no one can dispute the fact that the communist system there has caused China, phoenix-like, to rise from the ashes of national ruin, disunity and disgraca of centuries to national unity, economic progress and world respect.

Malaysia, being a plural society, cannot afford the authoritarianism possible in a largely homogeneous society. Any form of government which uses coercion rather than consent in Malaysia, will cause the divisive and fissiparous forces to overwhelm the unifying ones.

When the democratic outlets are closed off one by one, a plural society will be forced to resort to more and more violent means to resolve its internal contradictions, and when these contradic tions are compounded by racial, religious and class factors, then the whole country is ready for a very explosive and catastrophic era.

Those who had repressed democratic rights of the people had always done so in the name of the people and nation. So had Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan of Pakistan. But look at what has happened in Pakistan and Bangla Desh? I am not trying to draw a parallel between Pakistan and Bangla Desh with Malaysia, but let us learn from the mistakes of history for those who refuse to learn from the mistakes of others are condemned to repeat the mistakes themselves at greater sacrifice and price.

The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home affairs, when he toured the Tanah Hitam new village and other barbed-up new villages in Perak early October, said the country faced a grave challenge from the resurgences of armed communism.

He said there were three groups of people on the side of the communists:

1. those who were threatened or forced to help the communists;

2. those who sided the communists because they were disenchanted and discontented with the democratic process or certain ills of the government;

3. the die-hard communists

The abolition of elected local government will force an even vast number of Malaysians to be disillusioned and disenchanted with the democratic process, and view with greater favour an armed struggle to find outlet to their suppressed grievances.

Can the Government state with all confidence and authority the real state of mind of the people on the ground, following the passage of the 1971 Constitution Amendment Bill and the enlargement of Sedition Acts, causing many people to keep to themselves their grievances and discontents.

These grievances and discontents are not banished just because they are not expressed. Unless resolved, they must find outlet someday.

The abolition of elected local government will bring the country nearer to the day when coercion and not consent, violence and not argument, hand grenades and not parliamentary debate will be the order of the day in Malaysia.

We in the DAP do not want to see this sorry end to Malaysia. Whatever may be the feeling and attitude of the government front-benchers and back-benchers, we in the DAP love and cherish Malaysia, and we want Malaysia to avoid the blood-letting, the human cruelties and inhumanity of man to man that had been the cross of countries like Bangla Desh, Biafra, Ceylon, Northern Ireland.

I therefore move an amendment to the motion in the name of the Minister, to add to the words at the end of the Minister’s motion, “and support and endorse the recommendations of the Commission for the continuance of the elective local government system.”

This will be a great step to lead Malaysia away from the shoals of perdition and damnation.

(Speech by Ketua Pembangkang and DAP member of Parliament for Bandar Melaka, Lim Kit Siang, in the Dewan Rakyat when moving an amendment to a motion by the Minister of Technology, Research and Local Government, Dato Ong Kee Hui, thanking the Royal Commission on the Working of Local Authorities in West Malaysia for its Report on February 11, 1972)