Article by BERSIH Chair: Avoid Looking at Local Government Elections from a Racial Perspective
The issue of local government elections has always been racialised and made a sensitive topic.
Historically, local government elections have been linked with incidents of unrest related to the nation’s political stability, especially in the 1960s. This eventually led to the suspension of local government elections in the year 1965, and consequently its abolishment in 1976 as a result of the enactment of the Local Government Act 1976.
Concerns arise that there are urban areas whose populations are more dominated by those of Chinese ethnicity, leading to the suggestion that those of Malay ethnicity would lose political power in cities or urban areas.
In my view, in today’s context, urban demographics have changed considerably since the 1960s, where we had inherited the concept of divide and rule that was left behind by British colonialists who deliberately let the Chinese settle down in the cities, the Malays in the villages, and the Indians in the rubber plantations.
According to the Population Census 2020 released by the Department of Statistics Malaysia, those of Malay ethnicity make up 41.5% of the population in Kuala Lumpur, those of Chinese ethnicity make up 36.2%, those of Indian ethnicity make up 8.9% whilst those of other ethnicities make up 1.1% (the remaining 12.3% are non-citizens).
This data shows that there is ethnic diversity in the population of Kuala Lumpur, with the Malays forming the most populous ethnic group.
Looking forward, as the population of the Malays continue to grow, Malays are set to become more than 50% of the urban population.
With these statistics in mind, it is quite certain that whoever is interested in nominating a candidate for a local government election would be sure to consider prioritising a candidate who is of Malay ethnicity.
The increase in frequency of urbanisation projects has also seen developments of a similar nature in newer urban areas that are populated primarily by the Malays. Classic examples of this include urbanisation projects in newer cities like Shah Alam, Bangi and Putrajaya.
However, we cannot belittle the concerns that may be raised by other parties. In order to make local government elections a reality, we need to be considerate and open to hearing the voices of other parties and individuals.
Local government elections need to be re-implemented by stages through a ‘pilot project’, so that the benefits of a local government are better shared with and experienced by the people.
However, at this stage, having local government elections is not the only solution because the issues surrounding the people within each locality today are complex.
As an example, the people have the autonomy to resolve local issues through the Joint Management Body (JMB) for apartments which is different from the old system.
Yet, local government elections are still beneficial because they empower the people to voice out their concerns and hold relevant local authorities accountable.
Local government elections also ease the burdens of fellow Members of Parliament (MPs) or state assembly members (ADUNs) who have, till this day, been forced to deal with local problems and concerns that involve, for example, the littering of rubbish, clogged drains and so on. As lawmakers, MPs and ADUNs should be focused on their tasks of enacting laws and important national policies.
At the same time, local government elections are also beneficial to political parties that have strong roots especially in suburban areas and towns, if the scope of these local government elections are broadened.
The official Ministry of Local Government Development website records as many as 149 local governments including Kuala Lumpur, which includes 12 City Councils or City Halls, 39 Town Councils (MP) and 98 District Councils.
Local government elections will help to spread political awareness among society within a locality.
Through the vote of the people, the elected representative of a local government becomes fully responsible towards the people in that locality.
This is because the people will assess the ability of the elected representative to exercise his/her responsibilities within the duration of the representative’s term before the following election.
As such, political parties who wish to expand their influence in the urban areas will focus their attention on managing local town or district council affairs in order to build their influence as preparation for competing in the next General Elections. This will motivate and incentivise politicians to work harder to serve the people.
Muhammad Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz
The Coalition for Clean & Fair Elections (BERSIH)