Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Forum Report: Strengthen Local Democracy & Restore Local Government Elections

Forum organisers and panelists

A public forum titled “Strengthen Local Democracy and Restore Local Government Elections” organized by SUARAM and Penang Chinese Town Hall Youth Section was held at the Komtar Auditorium A on Saturday night 27 Feb 2010. The panelists were:

- YB Chow Kon Yeow: Penang State EXCO for Local Government and Traffic Management
- Mr Mark Ooi Swee Heng: Secretary of Political Bureau, Penang State Gerakan; former Political Secretary to Tan Sri Dr. Koh Tsu Koon
- Mr Jeffrey Phang: Vice President of Friends of Kota Damansara (FOKD), a coalition of 17 residents’ associations in Kota Damansara, Petaling Jaya.
- Ms Maria Chin Abdullah: Chairperson of Coalition for Good Governance (CGG), a coalition of 49 civil society organizations.

Panelists from left: Jeffrey Phang, Maria Chin, Ng Eng Kiat (moderator), YB Chow Kon Yeow, Mark Ooi

On strengthening local democracy:
Mr Jeffrey Phang gave some insights and shared his experiences on local democracy in his Kota Damansara area. The residents there tried for 8 years to get the State Government to gazette a nearby forest in the area to a forest reserve. Their tenacity finally paid off after protests and publicity by the residents. (Find out more on "Kota Damansara Forest Re-Gazetted" here.) On a separate issue, when the authorities blocked access of a public road going through their area, the residents protested and succeeded to stop the implementation. Phang stressed the need to build capacity amongst residents and NGOs as a third force. He said that there is a need to shift towards a sustainable development instead of ad hoc development. We cannot depend solely on politicians to fight for our cause.

YB Chow said that the State Government has learnt that it is better to work with NGOs and stakeholders whenever any issue arises. Problems will be solved faster this way than by confrontation.

Ms Maria Chin reported that the Coalition for Good Governance (CGG) is currently on a campaign and national roadshow to drive state governments for more Participation in local democracy, ensuring the rakyat’s right to Information and to bring back local council Elections (acronym P.I.E.). The Rakyat must have direct participation in decision making and that local government must ensure the rakyat’s concerns are met, including minority groups’ interests.

Several speakers from the floor gave their comments. Mr Ong Jin Cheng from SUARAM stresses the need for a Freedom of Information Act for a true democracy to succeed. Correct decisions can only be made when the right information is made available

Mr James Lochhead shared his views of the UK system of community development workers. Community development workers often act as a link between communities and local government and other statutory bodies. They work with particular communities to collectively bring about social change and improve quality of life. They work with individuals, families or whole communities to empower them to:

- identify their needs, opportunities, rights and responsibilities;
- plan what they want to achieve, and take appropriate action;
- develop activities and services to improve their lives.

Another speaker from the floor lamented his disappointment in working in one of the State’s task force committee for traffic. The working committee has made many recommendations and gave feedback to the State but none of these has been implemented. As a result, many of the members who volunteered their time in the task force have resigned out of frustration. He questioned the State’s sincerity in calling for the setting up of these task force.

YB Chow making a point

A section of the audience

On restoring local government elections:
YB Chow gave an update on the status of restoring local elections in Penang. He said that the state is still in the process of reviewing and studying the Local Government Act 1976. The State has also engaged the Bar Council to do the same and to give its proposals. He lamented that Federal laws need to be amended and this takes time.

Ms Maria Chin said that the Selangor State Government had appointed the CGG to conduct a research and give proposals to bring back local government elections. The CGG had recommended that this be done in three stages ie. long term (before the end of the 13th general election, short term (within the term of the legislature and executive) and immediate (within a year). The immediate recommendation is to conduct a “people-oriented selection process” (POSP). This will operate like an election whereby candidates are nominated by communities and a selection is held. Once selected, the state government will proceed to appoint those chosen as councilors for the constituency. Maria also stated that the PJ Municipal Council may be working on the possibility of testing out this process in a few selected constituencies. Perak was the first state to try this out by having elections for the JKKK. She also shared how some sections of the Local Government Act could be by-passed or opted out to have a local election.

Several speakers from the floor pointed out that Penang lags behind the other Pakatan Rakyat controlled states like Perak and Selangor in bringing back local elections. Penang is still stuck at the review and study stage after already 2 years into power. They do not see any political will of the Penang state government to move forward with this. One speaker pointed out that local democracy in Penang is in a stagnant stage. Municipal councilors are still mostly politically appointed. The state leadership is still very central and autonomous. Several speakers pointed out that the state’s decision to go ahead with the PICC despite many feedback and objections from the rakyat is one very clear example of the autonomy of the state leadership.

The final question from the floor was “Is the Penang state government REALLY serious about restoring back local government elections?” I think many in the audience went home that night with this question lingering in their minds.

(All pictures courtesy of Low Chia Ming)


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