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Ensuring our ‘access’ rights


THE last two years have been tumultuous for Petaling Jaya. Never before had the confrontation between the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) and the people been more obvious.

There was a high level of mistrust from the public in the manner which development projects were pushed through.

The fight against the elevated highway project Kidex had been long and fierce and the town hall meetings were confrontational.

The DASH highway was also believed to have been aligned with total disregard to established residential areas.

Both highways seemed to mutilate the city ironically to help relieve traffic congestion.

Together with the one-way loop, such projects are turning Petaling Jaya from a people-centric city to one that is vehicle-centric.

Soon after the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) was announced, proposals were already in the pipeline to increase the plot ratio of the buildings around the vicinity of the MRT.

In nearly every project, the public had to fight hard to protect from over-development and, with less than 10% ofopen green space, Petaling Jaya is turning into a crowded, congested and unliveable city.

It seems like residents want sustainable development that guides a city to become safe, liveable, elderly and disabled friendly, green and sustainable, while MBPJ and developers are scouring the city for the last remaining spaces to develop.

Recent targets include the PKNS field in Kelana Jaya, school land in Kota Damansara, dangerous hillslopes, and other vacant plots of land.

Agenda 21 and, in particular, the Rio Declaration made at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992 promotes Principle 10, which, in essence, says that for sustainable development to happen, there must be access to:

• Public Participation

• Information

• Justice

In many of the recent controversial projects, it is evident that some or all three factors are missing. If they had been present, the interaction of the residents and the local authority would have been friendlier and more constructive.

The Partnership for Principle 10, an initiative developed as an outcome of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002 provides a way for governments, civil society and international organisations to work together to implement practical solutions to provide the public with access to information, participation, and justice for environmentally sustainable decisions.

With the appointment of a new mayor and deputy mayor, Petaling Jaya can return to the direction of sustainable development. We can avoid the problems of the last two years with more open and transparent processes.

This will entail institutionalising the following processes:

Public Participation

i) Budget Planning — Reform the budget planning process to make it more participatory. Move away from incremental budgeting and use zero-base budgeting to ensure that all budgets are allocated for specific identified projects. Replace half-day with full-day public budget consultations. Always provide full budget summaries to residents a week before the public consultation.

ii) Budget Monitoring — Implement the budget monitoring committee which includes the public for better transparency. This will help avoid the underspending by the council seen for more than three years.

iii) Public Consultation — MBPJ needs to publicise its public consultation process following the recommendations by Malaysia Productivity Corporation. This process should be adopted for all new projects.

Information

i) Awareness courses should be conducted for all residents on access rights to information so they are aware of their rights to information and familiar with the process of obtaining information.

ii) A list of essential information should be available from the website, such as Standard Operating Procedures, Customer Charters and response time commitments.

iii) Summaries of complaints and time taken to solve it should also be provided.

Justice

i) Appointment of an independent ombudsman for the city council. The ombudsman will be charged with representing the interests of the public by investigating and addressing complaints of maladministration or a violation of rights.

This is also in line with Selangor Mentri Besar Azmin Ali’s promise of setting up an ombudsman and integrity office at the start of his term.

On April 23, at the Asean Civil Society Conference, the Access Initiative-Malaysia (TAI-M) Chapter was launched. TAI is the largest civil society network in the world dedicated to ensuring that citizens have the right and ability to influence decisions about the natural resources that sustain their communities.

Access to information, access to public participation, and access to justice (the three “access” rights) are practical means of ensuring that decisions by governments consider sustainable development concerns and the interests of the poor.

  • Jeffrey FK Phang is an assistant professor at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman and serves as a cluster research head for ‘Sustainable Township’ in the Centre for Sustainable Development and Corporate Social Responsibility.
  • The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.


   

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