SPEECH BY CHIEF MINISTER OF PENANG AT THE FORUM ON LOCAL GOVERNMENT ELECTIONS AT THE TOWN HALL, ESPLANADE, 6 MAY 2012
Local government elections are a feature of practically every democratic country in the world. Even countries which are not democracies such as communist China hold local elections of one kind or another. Malaysia finds itself in a most peculiar position in that the Federal Government considers elections to be suitable for the Federal and State levels, but refuses to allow elections to be held at the local level.
In the 19th century, the French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville, in his seminal work, Democracy in America, referred to local democracy as a “fertile germ of free institutions”. He wrote:
The strength of free peoples resides in the local community. Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people’s reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it.
In our country, the first partially-elected local council was established by the British colonial authorities here in George Town in 1857, but were discontinued due to colonial apathy. After the Second World War, with the increasing public demand for independence and self-government that led to Merdeka, local elections were then introduced in local councils across our country, with the first local elections held again here in George Town, in 1951.
In 1956, the Municipal Council of George Town became the first local council in Malaya to be fully elected, and the following year was elevated to the status of a City Council as a mark of royal and official esteem. Subsequently, Penang became the first and only State in Malaysia to have the whole territory of the State under the government of five local councils that were 100% elected.
Unfortunately, those in power in the Federal Government were not so pleased by the successes of local councils run by opposition parties at the local level. In 1961, the Federal Government abolished the elected Kuala Lumpur Municipal Council, and in 1965 issued an Emergency Regulation suspending local government elections throughout the States of Malaysia, using the excuse of the Confrontation with Indonesia.
The Prime Minister at the time, Tunku Abdul Rahman, promised the Dewan Rakyat that local government elections would be restored once the Confrontation was over. He said:
As soon as this peace and quietness has returned we would make haste with all proper preparations for the local council elections … The very moment peace is declared I can assure this House that the elections will be held.
However, although the Confrontation with Indonesia ended in 1966, local government elections were not restored as promised by the Alliance Government. In 1968, a Royal Commission on Local Government headed by Senator Athi Nahappan recommended that local government elections be restored, but this was rejected by the Federal Government.
Although the existing Proclamations of Emergency in Malaysia have now all been revoked, sections 10 & 15 of the Local Government Act 1976 prevent the holding of local government elections under Federal law. To-date BN cannot give any reasonable explanation why Malaysians can elect their State and Federal governments or can select their Prime Minister and Chief Minister, but is denied to elect their own Councillor or Council President.
Restoring the “third vote” has long been a fundamental demand and commitment of the DAP, and in 2008, the Pakatan Rakyat Penang State Government was elected on manifesto commitments to implement local government elections, in order “to ensure accountability and efficiency” and “to create greater accountability at every level of government”.
On 14 July 2009, YB Chow Kon Yeow, the Penang State Exco for Local Government and Traffic Management, wrote to the Federal Government to ask for local government elections to be put on the agenda of the National Council of Local Government, but this request was refused.
Subsequently, on 11 August 2009, the Penang State Assembly passed a resolution calling upon the Federal authorities to take action to reinstate local government elections, but this resolution was again met with refusal.
A three-man legal panel consisting of Dato’ Yeo Yang Poh, Mr Tommy Thomas and Mr Malik Imtiaz was then retained by the State Government, and it advised that the reintroduction of local government elections was within the powers of the State.
On 4 March 2010, I wrote to the Election Commission asking it to conduct local government elections to the MPPP and MPSP, but the Election Commission refused. On 12 March 2010, I also wrote to the Prime Minister offering to meet with him to discuss the State Government’s position but again received no response.
The State Government has been advised that local government is a State matter under the Federal Constitution, and the State Authority has the power under section 1(4) of the Local Government Act 1976 to exempt any local government area from any or all of the provisions of the Act.
On 18 January 2012, the State Government therefore decided, 45 years after the end of the Confrontation, to exercise its powers to exempt both the MPPP and the MPSP from section 15 of the Local Government Act 1976, which had rendered inoperative all legal provisions relating to local government elections. This was gazetted on 12 April 2012.
The State Government has now tabled a bill in the State Assembly, entitled the Local Government Elections (Penang Island and Province Wellesley) Bill 2012, which will provide for the Election Commission to hold local government elections to the MPPP and MPSP under State law. The text of this bill is now open for your comments at this forum, and we intend to pass this bill in this sitting of the State Assembly.
At the same time, we do not expect that the Federal Government and the Election Commission will give up on their obstruction and refusal to conduct local government elections so easily. It is the intention of the State Government, once this bill is passed into law, to refer this dispute with the Election Commission to the Courts, so that the Election Commission will be compelled to conduct local government elections in Penang.
The State Government’s desire to restore local government elections is based on our belief in democracy, in a system of government of the people, by the people, for the people. We believe in particular that the past 18 years of neglect and even financial scandals in MPSP suffered by Penang can be blamed in part on the system of political appointment of councillors by the BN State Government whose abilities were always secondary to their political loyalties to BN.
A clear case of financial wrongdoing by BN was the extraordinary loss of RM230 million by MPSP in 7 years causing MPSP, or Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Prai, to be practically bankrupt when PR took over in 2008. Adapting stringent rules and severe cost-cutting measures, PR managed to turnaround MPSP in the first year of government, reversing years of deep deficits and losses with the first profit in 2008. Ever since MPSP has recorded surpluses every year. There is a distinct possibility that Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang would have met the same fate if BN had continued in power in 2008.
Under the present Pakatan Rakyat State Government through appointing competent councillors who were willing to defer to the authority of the Council President, who is a government civil servant, many of these misdeeds are now being unravelled, and both local councils have been restored to financial health. By stressing on CAT governance of competency and accountability, we have managed to turn around both local councils that are now providing better public services together with growing financial surpluses.
With growing financial surpluses,both MPPP and MPSP have been able to provide better infrastructure in terms of cleanliness, better roads and drainage system. At a time when many cities in Malaysia faces flash floods, the well-administered MPPP and MPSP see significantly reduced flooding as compared to before.
This is part of the real political transformation of Penang. Where people can live with dignity by enjoying basic freedoms – Freedom of speech, Freedom of information, Freedom of peaceful assembly, Freedom to worship, Freedom from corruption, and Freedom to choose their own Local Government.
We are the first State to have passed a comprehensive Freedom of Information Act. We have made Penang relatively corruption free with open tenders, full disclosure of contracts and public declaration of assets by EXCO members and Chief Minister. Today, we take another milestone by passing the Penang Local Government Enactment. If BN is genuine about political transformation, can they not do what Penang has done.
Although we currently have full powers to appoint all 48 local councillors in the MPPP and the MPSP, this is a power which the Pakatan Rakyat State Government will willingly return to the people of Penang to be elected by them in the interests of the aspirations of the people of Penang.
On Merdeka Day, Malaysians had 3 votes to exercise the right to elect their Federal govt, State govt and local councils. Let us therefore restore the 3rd vote.
——-Mandarin Version —–
“只要和平与宁静的时刻到来，我们会即刻筹备地方政府选举… ..一旦和平到来，我向国会保证，我们将重新举行地方政府选举… …”