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A Case for Independent Local

Government
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By S. Jamal Al-Idrus

Frequently, when we talk about governments and governance, the focus is on the top tier.
In the Malaysian context, that top tier would be the Federal Government. Occassionally,
state governments, too, get a bit of focus, but usually surrounding some scandal or
irregularity. Similarly, the focus on local governments are usually for all the wrong
reasons.

While Malaysia has a multi-tier system of government, the general perception is that the
Federal government exerts its influence throughout the tiers. Whether or not this is
merely a perception, or if there is some element of truth, is arguable.

The question remains, however, is what does make good governance? Related to that
question would be, in the case of the Federal government, how pervasive should be its
influence? At the same time, there is the question of public amenities, such as public
transportation, the road and highway network, utility supply (water, electricity, and gas).
Which level of government should be responsible for what? Although some ideas are
presented here, the reader should bear a few things in mind. Some may think of these as
disclaimers, and they would probably be right.

• This essay is not meant as a critique of the current state of governance in Malaysia.
Rather, it is one citizen’s view of what he thinks would be ideal. Inevitably, however,
where there are shortcomings in how the various tiers of government are run, these will
be highlighted.
• The ideas presented here are simply that – ideas. Some of these ideas may not be
feasible due to how the Federal Constitution, and various existing laws, are written.
• Ideas presented here assume that there is no undue political interference. In the real
world, however, such interference are the norm, rather than the exception. These ideas,
therefore, assume an ideal situation.

All Tiers of Government Must be Elected

Malaysia, as with many other countries around the world, has generally three tiers of
government – Federal, State, and District (or Local). While the first two tiers are formed
through citizen elections, local governments, as of 2006, have been appointed by the state
governments the respective districts lie within. In the case of Federal Territories (like
Kuala Lumpur), the local government is appointed by the Federal Government.

Personally, I think that the first step towards a local government that is fully accountable
to its constituents is the reinstatement of local elections. The biggest perceived drawback
to an appointed local government is the political patronage owed to the state government
that appointed it. Furthermore, it may be best that local government elections, should they
be reinstated, differ from parliamentary or state elections, in that the candidates are
independent individuals, and not candidates running on a political party platform. This
ensures that local governments are independent enough to be able to operate free from
any political leanings or interference.

Clear Demarcation of Responsibilities

In a three-tiered governmental system, as has been envisaged here, there must be clearly
defined demarcations of responsibilities. But how should these responsibilities be
demarcated? As simple as it may sound, I feel that there are only two main criteria:
Jurisdiction and Commonality of Purpose. Jurisdiction here refers to the physical
boundary of each tier of government, working from the bottom up.

Take, for example, the municipality of Ampang Jaya, which is physically located within
the state of Selangor. The responsibilities of the Ampang Jaya municipality council
(MPAJ) are quite clear-cut – they take care of the basic maintenance of their jurisdiction,
providing services such as refuse handling, business premise licensing, building code
compliance, building and maintenance of public amenities (such as community centers,
bus stops, etc.), and traffic management, among others.

An elected Ampang Jaya council, particularly using the election model indicated earlier,
would ensure that these tasks can be carried out without fear of political considerations
getting in the way. And if the council doesn’t perform up to the expectation of its
constituent residents, due process will make sure the same underperforming individuals
within the council don’t linger on. That way, accountability will be primarily to its
constituents.

But Ampang Jaya, with Petaling Jaya, Selayang, Shah Alam, and Klang, combined with
Kuala Lumpur, form what I hypothetically call the Klang Valley Metropolitan Area (or
KVMA, for lack of a better acronym). And in a world-class metropolitan area, certain
functions are shared across jurisdictions. This is where Commonality of Purpose comes
into the picture.

The easiest example to illustrate this would be a mass transit system to cater for our
hypothetical KVMA. In most real world metropolitan areas, mass transit is usually
operated and managed by one single agency, covering rail and road public transportation.
For the purpose of our example, let’s call that agency the KVMTA (Klang Valley Mass
Transit Authority).
The service that KVMTA would provide benefits all municipal areas within the Klang
Valley, and therefore would be jointly funded by all physical jurisdictions involved.
Other than that, KVMTA would be autonomous, or at the very least under the direct
purview of KL City Hall, in cooperation with the serviced municipalities.
Locally, the municipalities would provide infrastructrue, such as terminal stations, and
intermediate stops, on behalf of the KVMTA, and may, if needed, provide feeder services
to the larger (or terminal) stations. However what KVMTA provides should not be
duplicated by the local municipalities. Rather, they should complement what the
KVMTA has to offer.

Roles within a Tiered Government Structure

Thus far, we’ve discussed the lower two of the three tiers. What, then, would be the
responsibility of the Federal Government?

In a tiered structure as what has been mentioned here, the role of the Federal Government
(apart from running the country) is to set broad guidelines pertaining to various
functionalities, for instance, building codes, traffic signage standards, business laws, etc.
These would be enforced by the local government, with the state government playing an
advisory role, and perhaps adding to those guidelines certain clauses pertinent to a given
state.

In our hypothetical KVMTA example above, the roles and responsibilities of a


metropolitan transit authority would probably be defined at the federal level, but executed
locally, without interference from the federal government.

Another example we could look at is traffic signage. Ideally, there should be one national
standard applied consistently throughout the country. Although in theory this is true of
Malaysia, it is not uncommon to find signages unique to certain states or even districts,
particularly when it comes to color schemes.
Some might argue that the only way to have consistency is to have one national agency to
implement traffic signages, even at the local government level. I would counter, however,
by saying that this is true only in terms of developing and maintaining standards.

If the guidelines and standards are clear and well written, the implementation of these can
be carried out independently, at the local level, without interference from the national
agency, apart from the role of auditing and ensuring that the standards are followed.

This is another reason why local governments need to be independent of political party
pressures. Otherwise, established standards and codes will inevitably have to be bent to
appease the more politically connected individuals who happen to live within a particular
jurisdiction.

Overcoming Duplication and Inefficiency


The main aims behind a clearly demarcated boundary between federal, state and local
governments should be efficiency, and eliminating duplication of roles. When a higher
tier interferes too much with a lower one, there inevitably tends to be duplication of roles
and overlapping of jurisdiction. This in turn, causes inefficient implementation, delays
and wastage of resources.

But in setting up boundaries, each level of government must also be willing to let go of a
certain amount of power. Realizing this can only be achieved if the bigger aim of
governance is recognized: the efficient mangement of people and resources. Sadly, this
bigger aim is frequently tainted by personal interests. This is true everywhere and not
only in Malaysia.

What’s lacking in our current local government system? In my opinion, there are three
things: independence, accountability and oversight. And perhaps it is because of these
three things, citizens on the ground, the people most affected are of the opinion that the
“government” isn’t doing its job. Why are these three elements important?

Independence is required because ideally a local government knows best what its
jurisdiction needs, and how best to provide for those needs. Being able to best provide
these needs requires a certain amount of leaway, and without undue interference from the
state or federal government.

Being forthright in providing those needs is where Accountability comes in. Ultimately,
the constituents within a local government’s jurisdiction are the ones to best be able to
judge the efficiency and effectiveness of their local government, and power should be
give to these constituents to decide.

As a means of checks and balance, Oversight is required. In the case of local


governments, oversight by the state governments. But Oversight does not mean
interference – it merely means that what the local government does is on the up-and-up,
does not contravene any state law, nor deviates from the stated intentions of those
actions.

Challenges and the Way Forward

Is there a way forward? Absolutely. But it will not be easy. The first challenge will be to
reinstate local elections, which apparently, as the Pakatan states found out, requires an act
of Parliament to amend the Local Government Act of 1976, which institutionalized
appointment as the means of selecting a local government.

To state each and every aspect of what needs changing in how Malaysia is governed
would require a very long and detailed thesis. What I’ve discussed here is admittedly a
very broad, general overview.
Where we can start is from the bottom – at the local level – and it is there that we should
focus. Just like in a building, the most important aspect that will determine the building’s
sturdiness is its foundation. Local government, I believe, is that foundation. And as has
been pointed out, there are challenges even from the get-go. But these challenges are not
impossible to overcome, if there is a will to tackle them.
And as they say, where there’s a will, there will be a way.