We’ve always heard the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and its partners as well as civil society calling for local council elections, even from way before 2008. And all the arguments for it do make a lot of sense, from accountability of councillors, to the people, to an improvement in the overall performance of local councils — sounds good enough for any man on the street to desire local government elections.
We know the Barisan Nasional (BN) strongly opposes, and most probably fears, local government elections. One may suspect that they fear losing the cities, as seen in the 2008 general elections and the subsequent 16 by-elections. The Sarawak state elections have shown that the Pakatan Rakyat has a much stronger appeal in cities. If local government elections were to be held today, it is likely that nearly all state capitals, and the capital Kuala Lumpur, will fall into opposition hands, which will be embarrassing for BN. More than that, it would also be a loss of control over lucrative regulatory powers of the local council in development orders and business licences.
Personally, I am for good governance. I like the two arguments for local council elections; first for accountability purposes and secondly for improvement in performance. I look forward to the day that mayors and councillors pay strong attention to the desires of the people, and that their agenda in office will not be linked towards climbing the political ladder in their respective parties, but rather the true desires of the local community.
For example, if we had elected councillors in the last few years, the Majlis Bandaraya Petaling Jaya (MBPJ)’s three strikes rule on restaurant hygiene will be in place, and residents will have cleaner and more hygienic restaurants. The reason this policy didn’t work out is because the local council bowed to pressure from the State, which wouldn’t be the case if there were elections instead of direct appointments by the State.
So recently, when it was announced that MBPJ will undergo an “experiment” in local government elections, it was good to hear, but at the same time a little worrying. This is because while we want local government elections, the present “system” is flawed and not ready to accept clean elected officials (short of super noble candidates, which I think is rare to come by).
MBPJ, a city of about 700,000 residents, is a relatively big city. Not many city councils in the world are that big. Two overseas examples for comparison are Boston, a city of about 600,000 residents and Portland, Oregon, which has about the same population. But first, let’s analyse the job of the councillor, and who will be motivated to apply.
A councillor in MBPJ today gets a base allowance of RM1,000, and meeting allowances, which may bring a monthly total to around RM2,000 (once again, depending on the number of meetings attended). This is hardly enough for a full time salary of any executive, let alone someone with the capacity and capability to lead the city and deal with its numerous problems.
So, one has to accept that anyone earning RM2,000 a month is going to need supplement income, be it from a full time job, a business, or corruption. Add to this mix, the need to finance campaigns, which seem like a regular thing, as indications show that the councillor is probably going to stand for election every year. That is a costly exercise. Let’s say he/she doesn’t have deep pockets, and thus, will need to spend a considerable amount of time fund-raising. Being elected also means that he needs to constantly attend public events, weddings, funerals in his constituency, for the lack of that personal touch in Malaysia is bound to spell political suicide, as he will be deemed an arrogant politician.
Putting all this together, I wonder how many clean and sane people can actually afford to put aside their careers and stand for election? At the same time, due to the lucrativeness of the powers that a council has, a lot of bad hats are going to join the race (probably for the same reason you see them lobbying away at state governments today). It doesn’t matter to these Lexus-driving councillors that they only get RM2,000 a month in allowances. Entertainment licences, high rise condo development orders, the dishing out of contracts — these are lucrative if one intends to abuse his position.
So, I hope that in moving forward with local council elections, Selangor can consider learning from first world democracies, that you need to have a system that works. One direction is to split the 12 councils in Selangor in many smaller councils, where the lucrativeness of power is diminished, as well, as councillors can truly be part time. For comparison, the state of Victoria, Australia, with a population of 5.5mil has 81 local councils, and another state of 5.5mil, Missouri, USA, has over 150.
Another way to fix the system is that we pay our elected officials real full time pay. Boston councillors get USD7,250/month, and Portland is even higher at USD8,200. With these salaries, you’d definitely be able to attract real talent into the race, giving real options to the people of MBPJ.
I fear if we don’t fix it, local council elections may make things worse off — we’ll have self centred tyrants holding on to the positions with little ability from the state to control them. Worse, people will lose faith in elections, and chances are, all the options on the ballot will be equally useless.