Just got a text message from an unhappy political scientist friend, who forwarded to me an sms that he had sent to a DAP rep in Penang:
People not happy with councillors appoint & list. old wine in new bottle. expect you guys to deliver your promises during election.
Also received another email from a concerned Penangite. Interesting that he also describes it as “old wine in new bottle”:
There is a certain degree of dissatisfaction on the ground on this issue of appointments of councillors – although many are prepared to give the DAP-PKR a bit more time to get their act together and work towards local democracy. But that patience could wear thin if no progress is made in this direction – and the honeymoon period could end sooner than we think.
There can be no compromise on this issue. The Pakatan leaders have to get cracking and give us a quick timeline or roadmap of their path towards local council elections. After all, it was a major campaign pledge in Penang. And the longer it is delayed, the more disenchantment will brew among those who voted for PR.
We don’t want to be stuck with the same system of rewarding party loyalists by appointing them to local councils. That’s the BN style, and people expect the Pakatan to be different and to restore local democracy – pronto. They have to start finding ways and means of overcoming the legal hurdles and move in that direction quickly.
When the DAP mentioned that 10 NGO representatives would be included in the two municipals, many thought this would be a hugely significant interim step towards broader elected representation. Few thought that the term “NGOs” would encompass representatives from the various Chambers of Commerces.
Many were therefore taken aback when they realised that the corporate/business reps would outnumber the traditional “civil society” types. Out of the seven “NGO” reps actually appointed to the councils on the island and on the mainland, five represent corporate interests. In the Seberang Perai council, all three “NGO” reps are from commerce and industry: the Chinese and Indian Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers. Over on the island, the Malay and Chinese Chambers of Commerce have a rep each.
These Chamber reps represent powerful business and corporate interests and not the interests of the ordinary person on the street. One single rep from a Chamber of Commerce carries the weight of not just a single company but a whole battalion of business and corporate interests.
Many of the battles that the local councils will have to engage in are likely to pit them against corporate interests (including property developers) infringing on the rights of ordinary people or degrading the environment. Local councillors will also have to grapple with promoting accountability in the awarding of contracts and alienation of state land and gauge whether these deals would really be in the people’s interest. How can they do this easily when they have vested interests within their own ranks? Wouldn’t this give rise to cases of conflict of interest?
We have already witnessed the terrible degradation of the environment and the land scams in Penang – largely as a result of those with vested business interests cosying up to ruling politicians.
Now that these business reps have penetrated the councils, whose interests will they uphold during council meetings – corporate interests or the people’s interests? No prizes for guessing.
If they can include so many corporate reps, where are the reps from consumer groups, trade unions, community organisations, residents associations and senior citizens? What about those championing the cause of workers?
That said, I am pleased to see Lim Kah Cheng and Prof Francis Loh – the only non-party, non-business reps – among the ranks of the councillors. I’m sure they will want to push through some meaningful reforms, and I wish them well.
The clock is ticking for the Pakatan Rakyat state and local government. True, the people tolerated the BN’s nonsense (appointments of party loyalists to local councils) for decades. But the PR pledged to restore local government elections – and so they have a much shorter time frame to prove that they can do just that. They have to show they are working fast – and not wait until just before the next general election to make the appropriate noises.
Give the councils back to the people – not to corporate interests and not to political appointees.