Local democracy or local comedy?


Few of us are aware that our country had a thriving system of elections to local councils in the 1950s and 1960s.

Back then, we had 373 local authorities – 40 town councils, 37 town boards, 289 local councils and 7 district councils. Out of some 4,200 local councillors (not including those in the Kuala Lumpur municipality), more than 3,000 were elected. George Town, Ipoh and Malacca were the most prominent of these councils and Penang itself had fully elective councils throughout the state, including the mainland. In fact, the first elections in Malaya were held in George Town in 1951 to elect nine councillors.

The government later abolished local government elections. The deathblow came with the enactment of the Local Government Act of 1976, which effectively killed off local council elections and replaced them with a system of appointments that rewards ruling coalition politicians and supporters with positions in local councils.

This is an extract from a piece I wrote for the Malaysian Herald:

I once watched a hilarious comedy performance by Comedy Court’s Indi Nadarajah and Allan Perera, in which one of them played the part of an elected representative chastising a colleague for not coming up with more ‘creative’ ways of justifying junkets abroad. With these creative justifications, there would be no need to worry about being caught for wasting taxpayers’ money on tours that include, say, belly dancing performances along the Nile. Our two comedians concluded that such foreign junkets could easily be explained away by euphemisms such as “understanding cultural practices” (belly dancing!), “studying the landscape” (a golfing holiday), and “examining consumer spending patterns” (a shopping/sightseeing tour)!

Now you might wonder what local council elections have to do with Christianity. Actually, a lot. Grassroots, bottom-up democracy at the local level is very much in line with Catholic Social Teaching (CST). One of the most constant and characteristic directives of CST is the principle of ‘subsidiarity’, which has been present since the first great social encyclical Rerum Novarum. This principle, which implies participation, means that responsibility for decisions should be as close as possible to the grassroots. This would allow people or communities who are most directly affected by decisions or policies to participate in the decision-making process.

“Participation in community life is not only one of the greatest aspirations of the citizen, called to exercise freely and responsibly his civic role with and for others, but is also one of the pillars of all democratic orders and one of the major guarantees of the permanence of the democratic system” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 190 ‘Participation and democracy’).

Do we have such participation in community life as part of our democratic system? The only time we have a say is once every five years during the general election, during which there is an intense media and PR campaign to get people to vote in a certain way. But these elections do not cover town councils.

Surely, democracy is more than that. Authentic democracy means public and popular participation in the decision-making process at all levels. Reviving elections to local councils would go a long way in restoring genuine democracy at the local level….

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