Only elected local councils can prevent environmental scandals
COMMENT | Malaysians have become totally fed up with the performance of their local authorities all these years. Our daily newspapers abound with complaints about the many aspects of local councils’ irresponsibility and questionable activities.
The inertia and non-accountability of local councils have resulted in bottlenecks, discontentment and environmental disasters which are holding back our development.
Looking at examples of successful councils in the developed countries, we find that their most distinguishing features are the fact that they are elected.
Council meetings are open and transparent; accountability is demanded, there is participation by ratepayers, and there are established mechanisms to manage change.
Only a complacent, unelected local government can get away with having allowed the lax conditions in which toxic pollution of the air and water in Pasir Gudang has recently occurred not once, but twice, and elsewhere in Malaysia.
Just three months after the Sungai Kim Kim incident where toxic fumes from illegally-dumped chemical waste affected some 6,000 residents, we witness another case of toxic pollution in Pasir Gudang, where at least 75 schoolchildren have fallen ill due to suspected air pollution.
To date, the source of the air pollution has yet to be identified. Any elected local government would have been forced to resign over such a scandal by an empowered electorate.
Today, we find that Malaysians are no longer prepared to put up with negligence or irresponsibility.
Residents are demanding that their voices be heard at the local council. In this sense, we can see why local authorities are considered the primary units of government.
Many services, including environmental protection, education, housing, health and transportation, require local knowledge and can be better coordinated and more efficiently implemented through the local authority.
In the modern state, many social groups such as women and manual workers, and marginalised communities such as the Orang Asli, are grossly under-represented, and local government can provide them with the channels to air their concerns.
Generally speaking, at this local level, it is easier for voters to influence decisions.
Not rocket science
Tracing the source of environmental pollution is, after all, not rocket science nor is it a case for Sherlock Holmes to solve.
Our police and enforcement agencies are supposed to be able to combat international terrorists.
Here we are merely dealing with illegal factories, illegal dumping and illegal toxic emissions. Can you imagine the scenario if there was an Ebola outbreak in the area?
It is clear that the authorities have not bothered to enforce the regulations concerning the dumping of toxic waste by factories located in the area.
Throughout Malaysia, disruptions in water supply often bring to light the fact that there are illegal factories operating close to the sources of our water supply and that regulating authorities have allowed developers to build new housing close to such polluting factories.
Such a 'profits before people' pattern has been going on for decades because of corruption and the lack of political will to enforce the law to ensure our health and safety simply because local government authorities are appointed by the state governments.
Appointed local authorities are not accountable to their local communities and thus not motivated to take the necessary steps, such as the creation of a buffer zone and the regulation of waste emissions.
Has the MACC even bothered to investigate if the local authorities are in the pockets of these illegal factory operators? If not, how could such enterprises have got away with their illegal activities for so long?
What has the Environment Department been doing with regard to monitoring such polluting industries to identify the culprits and in taking preventive actions?
We see the same repetition of disasters involving landslides in Penang and elsewhere with unresponsive local governments accountable to nobody except their state governments, while migrant workers pay for such negligence with their lives. Developers seem to hold sway everywhere in Malaysia.
It was clear that the Alliance and later the BN and now Pakatan Harapan prefer the convenience of appointing their own political party cronies as councillors rather than risk the uncertainties of democratic elections.
Political party appointments provide the convenience of perpetuating patterns of patronage. The periodic outbursts of discontent by those party leaders and NGO activists who were overlooked are symptoms of this unhealthy party appointment system.
The new Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin has said that local council elections might be implemented within three years.
She said the Harapan federal government had arrived at this three-year target as it needed to give priority to other important matters such as ensuring the country was in a stable financial position.
This justification for putting off holding local council elections is laughable when we bear in mind that even before we became independent, we had our very first democratic election – the Kuala Lumpur municipal election of 1952.
It was the first step we took on the way to self-government. At independence, we continued this commitment to local government elections because appointments to political office were seen as a colonial practice.
This is remarkable considering how economically poor we were at independence compared to our economy today. At Independence, our GNP per capita was around US$800. Our GDP per capita is now US$10,000 and we are supposed to be almost a high-income society but we can’t afford local government elections!
One would expect that as our society becomes more mature in the 'new Malaysia', democratic principles of accountability at the local community level would be considered the highest of priorities and the minimum new standard of normal.
In the democratic tradition, taxation cannot be justified without representation. Ratepayers must be represented on the governing body which determines how that money is to be spent.
This is a fundamental precept of parliamentary governance which is critically applicable at local government. It is to satisfy the requirement in a democratic society for greater pluralism, participation and responsiveness.
At this time of an environmental crisis, it is even more urgent that Malaysians be no longer prepared to put up with negligence and irresponsibility.
Residents are demanding that their voices be heard at the local council level. In this sense, we can see why local authorities are considered the primary units of government.
The civil society of Malaysia got together to form Bersih in order to fight for free and fair elections. Elections in Malaysia are intended to be held at federal, state and local levels, which only then make up the three tiers of government.
We marched in all the Bersih rallies to bring about this fundamental concept of democracy that we expect in 'new Malaysia'. We did not take part in Bersih to bring about another government that reneges on their promise to have elected local council elections.
Since Harapan continues to drag its feet on bringing back elected local government, it is expected of Bersih to continue the fight for this third tier of democracy.
KUA KIA SOONG is a Suaram adviser.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.