The Athi Nahappan Report revisited Part 2: Local elections are part of a larger reform agenda

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Last month, Penang Monthly ran the first part of the series on the Athi Nahappan Report, arguing for its central importance to substantive democracy in Malaysia. This second and final part discusses basic issues such as the literacy of councillors and fair pay.

The most cited recommendation of the Athi Nahappan Royal Commission of Enquiry must be the restoration of local government elections. Today, half a century later, with mounting demand for such a restoration, the Royal Commission’s Report has become an important document of reference. The intellectual weight of it is undisputable and has, over the years, been winning commendation from all sides. Rare is a Malaysian government report that cites Plato, Aristotle, Leonardo Da Vinci, Hegel, Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mills. It explored key historical situations like the French Revolution alongside the Soviet Constitution.

It must be noted, however, that the strength of the report consists not only in the technical enactment of a voting process to select local decision-makers; it also called for a thorough reform of local authorities in our country. Nonetheless, it was a context-specific recommendation, as the Commission’s Report itself clearly noted. Hence, in formulating its proposal for reform, the Commission noted the order of priority as:

i) National Unity;
ii) Social and Economic Development;
iii) Efficiency of the Administration;
v) Democracy; and vi) Autonomy.

Smiles for the camera. The historical context of a nascent nation called for a weighted emphasis on national unity.

It maintained that “the above order of priorities are not intended to be static… (and) may change from time to time and in accordance with the change circumstances.” The historical context of a nascent nation at that time called for a weighted emphasis on national unity.

The restoration of local elections

Yet, those who claim that holding local elections today will jeopardise racial and national unity will be thoroughly deprived of their arguments by the analysis of this half-a-century-old report. Even though it came at a precarious time in our nation’s history, the Athi Nahappan Royal Commission defended the need for local elections after considering all factors affecting a newborn country.

One key obstacle to national unity was the fact that in the 1960s, local authorities were polarised into clearly urbanbased and rural-based ones, with most constituencies having a large presence of a single race.

One key obstacle to national unity was the fact that in the 1960s, local authorities were polarised into clearly urban-based and rural-based ones, with most constituencies having a large presence of a single race. This was clearly the result of the colonial divideand- rule policy still felt in young Malaysia at that time. As such, a key theme for reform evidenced throughout the report was for local authorities to be sufficiently “large”, encompassing both urban and rural areas so that there would be a multiracial representation.

Such a condition has largely been achieved today with the amalgamation of 373 local authorities into 149 relatively large local authorities (including district councils). The territories they cover are therefore much more heterogeneous than before.

Picking from the research of Dr Ong Kian Ming, the MP for Serdang, almost 70% of our local authorities (excluding district councils) today cover areas where no one single race composed of more than two-thirds of the population1. As such, if half a century ago, when this situation of diversity and plurality barely existed in our local authorities and the Athi Nahappan Royal Commission found it expedient to recommend local elections, how much more would the need be today?

In the highly assertive words of the Royal Commission, “weighing both the processes in a dispassionate manner we cannot but take cognisance of the fact that the merits of the elective process with all its inherent and attendant weaknesses outweigh those of the nominative process. In the long run, a healthy, vibrant participation of the citizens at all levels of public administration is more desirable, both as an objective and as a process, than the immediate short-range objective of efficiency” (para 542, pg. 102).

The spirit of the report

The Athi Nahappan Report did not recommend the restoration of local elections in isolation from legal and structural reforms of local authorities. Early into its report, the Royal Commission had decided to set the record straight on the “competence” of local governments in Malaysia. In other words, how is the power of a local government derived?

Dr Ong Kian Ming. His research reveals that almost 70% of our local authorities (excluding district councils) today cover areas where no one single race composed of more than two-thirds of the population.

The Commission made it clear that in Malaysia, following Anglo-Saxon tradition, local governments are decentralised units. In other words, they are not merely a federal or state government department, but are quasiautonomous units in themselves – a far cry from the actual situation today. Although in principle, local governments today are still decentralised units, due to the gradual surrendering of autonomy and authority to the federal and state governments, people view local governments as merely deconcentrated units of the two superior governments.

A thorough reform carried out today in the spirit of the report should therefore include the return of not only the third vote through democratic election, but also the third tier of government through decentralisation. Otherwise, at best, we will simply be electing local councillors to run a powerless council that constantly has to answer to the federal and state governments. Surely that runs counter to the idea of having local elections in the first place.

The spirit of the Athi Nahappan Report is evident throughout its pages: the third tier of government should be democratic and decentralised local authorities that enjoy financial autonomy, covering every inch of the land (para 676, pg. 133). This was so important to the Commission that its report even suggested the abolishment of the position of district officer (DO) whose role was to be replaced by the secretary of the local authority, who was to be “the chief executive as well as the chief administrator” of the local authority (para 781, pg. 162).

One of the proposals was for “a single composite local authority to be established coterminous with each of the administrative districts…” (para 670 (i), pg. 132). This in effect means that the office of the DO would be superfluous. While the secretary of the local authority would take over the key administrative, development and welfare functions of the DO, a separate fulltime collector answerable to the state government would be appointed to deal with land revenue matters (para 789-790, pg. 164).

The situation today is rather different. Because mayors and presidents are career civil servants appointed by the state government, the role of the chief executives is often confused, falling as it does between them and their respective secretaries. This is despite the Local Government Act 1976 defining the secretary as “the chief administrative officer”.

A mayor or president in the Athi Nahappan Report is “the ceremonial head of the local authority and plays the role of first citizen in the district…” (para 715 (iii), pg. 145). The mayor and president would be elected from among the councillors elected in local elections, and should hold office for one year. Although the mayor and president would preside over Council meetings, they were not to be the executive heads of their authorities; that final function would fall to the secretary (para 712-713, pg. 144). To elucidate using a weak analogy closer to home, the mayor would play the role of the governor of Penang rather than the chief minister.

Morning market scene at the urban Chowrasta Market, George Town. A key theme for reform evidenced throughout the report was for local authorities to be sufficiently “large”, encompassing both urban and rural areas so that there would be a multiracial representation.

The qualification of councillors

A substantial part of the Athi Nahappan Report was dedicated to relooking the key positions behind a local authority, from councillors to mayor to the secretary and principal officers. One significant concern was the qualification of the councillor. The report recommended that candidates of local election should require a certain level of education.

In the Local Government Act 1976 which governs local authority throughout Malaysia today, Section 10(2) states that education is not a prerequisite, but councillors should “have wide experience in local government affairs or who have achieved distinction in any profession, commerce or industry, or are otherwise capable of representing the interests of their communities in the local authority area”. This criterion, although criticised by some for being too general and ambiguous, in our opinion, better fits the role of a councillor who deals with day-today local issues of concern to the people.

Councillors Lee Chun Kit (middle) and Dr Tan Kim Hooi (right) on their rounds. Work and successes at the local authority level are rarely highlighted in the media.

Although rare today, yet due to the lack of specific criteria on education, there are still cases of persons who are illiterate being appointed to a councillorship. This sometimes raises the frustration of critics who opine that an illiterate councillor will not be able to execute his duty effectively. For example, how is he to deal with financial statements and development proposals or any of the council’s documents presented to him for deliberation? Yet there are others who think that for a councillor, educational level is not as important as a heart of service.

This is not a new contestation. The Athi Nahappan Report ruminated over these arguments in its short segment on the issue. In the end, the report chose to include education as the main criterion given that “in a developing country like Malaysia, it is very important that those who play leading roles must have some literate education. Democracy can only be well fertilised by knowledge and understanding for which education is the tool” (para 627, p. 121).

How much do our councillors earn?

When we consider the recommendations of the Athi Nahappan Report, it is necessary that we note the stature of local authority then and now. To illustrate our point, let us consider money matters. Finance is, after all, a good measure of importance though not the only one.

Even at the time of the Athi Nahappan Report, it was already acknowledged that “the workload of a councillor was considerably more than that of an MP or state assemblyman.

Even at the time of the Athi Nahappan Report, it was already acknowledged that “the workload of a councillor was considerably more than that of an MP or state assemblyman. A councillor had more meetings to attend than either of them and he was more involved with deliberative and administrative roles than an MP or state assemblyman... a councillor had more work to do than a senator in that he was required to attend more meetings than a senator and had to serve an electorate unlike a senator” (para 876, pp. 192-193).

Four years ago, one of the authors, Sim, was appointed a local councillor at the MPSP. As a councillor, he was given a monthly fixed allowance of RM700 as well as a meeting allowance of RM100 claimable for up to six meetings attended (the seventh meeting onwards was not claimable). Thus, a local councillor at that time would be given a maximum remuneration of RM1,300 a month.

Compare this to the minimum wage for councillors set by the federal government in 2014 at RM900 per month.

Today, after a recent review of their remuneration, a local councillor in Penang receives a monthly fixed allowance of RM1,500 plus an RM300 phone allowance. A councillor is allowed to claim RM100 meeting allowance for up to 12 meetings. The maximum remuneration has gone up to RM3,000 a month.

While this is hardly an attractive package, it is still way above the sub-minimum wage allowance given during Sim’s term as councillor. Compare this to the fixed allowances of MPs, including senators and state assemblymen, in Malaysia, which range from RM6,000-RM12,000 a month.

If remuneration is a measure of preeminence, in the 1960s, both councillors and state assemblymen were almost equal in stature. However, today, state assemblymen receive an allowance that is at least four times higher than that received by councillors in Penang. This is excluding additional allowances that state assemblymen may receive, apart from a lifetime pension to which councillors are not entitled.

As the report stated 50 years ago, without a decent remuneration, it “occasioned undue hardships to councillors with lesser means” (para 875, pg 192). This may even alienate those “with lesser means” from taking part meaningfully in this process of local democracy. The report’s recommendation was to make uniform the remunerations to mayors and councillors in all the local authorities in the country. It also attempted to narrow the gap between the allowance given to councillors and state assemblymen.

Local authority’s prestige reduced

The pattern is obvious: there is a major reversal in the prominence of local authority. The attention and investment given it is not commensurate with its import. This is perhaps a consequence of there being no local elections; the local authority is now viewed as merely a government department instead of a government in itself. Its power has been eroded through a systematic usurpation by the federal and state governments.

In the heyday of local governments in our country, notably in the 1950s and early 1960s, local authorities such as the Penang City Council were at the forefront in advancing progressive policies such as social housing and major public infrastructure projects.

In the heyday of local governments in our country, notably in the 1950s and early 1960s, local authorities such as the Penang City Council were at the forefront in advancing progressive policies such as social housing and major public infrastructure projects such as drainage, public toilets (a novel idea at that time), mobile clinics and even a dam (Air Itam Dam). The first social housing in our country, People’s Court at Lebuh Cintra, built in 1961 and standing to this day, was the result of a joint effort between the Labour Party-controlled Penang City Council and the Alliance federal government. The fact that they were opposing political parties did not stop them from working together.

Innovations at the local authority level did not disappear with the abolishment of local elections. For example, local authorities in Penang were the first ever in Malaysia to successfully introduce a mobile complaint app equivalent to the so-called “3-1-1 app” in the US. Both the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) and the MPSP were also at the forefront of adopting gender responsive and participatory budgeting in their budgeting process – something which the federal government had been trying to do since 2003 but failed to this day.

Yet, work and successes at the local authority level are rarely highlighted in the media. Councillors who work tirelessly to serve the daily grouses of taxpayers and advocate and implement policy innovations remain anonymous, giving way to the “big players”: the Najibs and the Anwars at the national level.

The MBPP office at Komtar. Today, local authorities are effectively subjected to the control of state governments.

Federal-state-local relations

The report lamented “the multifarious legislation governing local authorities”, how “it is like breaking through a veritable legal jungle to lay one’s hand on a specific point” and “there is no doubt that this is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs. In any event, the need for uniformity of the local government law cannot be overstated” (para 684, pg. 134).

As such, the Royal Commission recommended the enactment of one composite law that would supersede all existing laws to govern local authorities throughout the country. The law was to be named “Local Government Act” and was eventually created in 1976. What this sought to do was not so much to usurp the power of local authorities, but to synchronise the workings of local authorities in the whole country.

However, the Royal Commission had further recommended the creation of both state and federal commissioners to exercise control over local authorities. Local authorities were also to be subjected to “the directives issued by the state governments on matters of national or state importance” (para 559 (iv), pg. 106). Additionally, the report also recommended that “the state government should have legislative, administrative and financial control over the local authority” (para 831 (i), pg. 177).

As the call for democratisation and decentralisation gains momentum, it is apt that the report be subjected to a modern-day review and then be updated to provide a blueprint for the local authorities of our future.

The report sought an extreme harmonisation of the federal-state-local relationship based on three primary factors: 1) the contradictions between local authorities and state governments controlled by different political parties; 2) the unchecked abuses of local authorities; and 3) the imbalance of strength and unequal distribution of resources among the different local authorities.

Now, besides having more control over local authorities, the federal and state governments had a duty to assist local authorities in matters ranging from staffing to grants and loan and advisory services. For example, the report recommended the formation of a “Local Authorities Credit Fund” with a start-up capital of $50mil. The purpose of this fund was to provide loans at reasonable interest to assist local authorities finance major capital projects as well as provide expert financial and technical advice on such matters (para 1034, pg. 240).

Today, local authorities are effectively subjected to the control of state governments, from the appointment of councillors and mayors to the hiring of staff and the approval of budget as well as other policy and proposals. There is obviously a deviation from the spirit of the report which envisioned democratic, decentralised and autonomous local authorities. Obviously, more participatory space and stronger autonomy need to be returned to our local authorities. It is not merely about having local elections, but it is also about greater consultation and transparency in our local authorities.

The ideas revisited

Fifty years have passed since the suspension of local elections on March 1, 1965 by the federal government. The Athi Nahappan Report remains a testament to an unfinished task – the continual improvement of our local authorities. Although we clearly have a different context from that in Senator Athi Nahappan’s time, the Commission’s Report provides an important fundamental as well as historic understanding of the workings of local authorities in our country.

As the call for democratisation and decentralisation gains momentum, it is apt that the report be subjected to a modern-day review and then be updated to provide a blueprint for the local authorities of our future.

References

1http://ongkianming.com/2015/01/25/press-statement-restore-local-elections-to-increase-accountability-to-better-reflect-local-representation-and-to-increase-transparency/

Steven Sim is the MP for Bukit Mertajam.
Koay Su Lyn is a research analyst at the Penang Institute who believes that one cannot truly comprehend the present without proper reference to the past.



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