Can Sarawak lead the way for local elections?

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  • Saturday, 15 Dec 2018

THIS week, Pakatan Harapan opened itself to new accusations of making a U-turn when Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said no to local council elections.

While Pakatan's manifesto did not explicitly promise to restore local elections, this was something that its politicians, along with civil society groups, had been advocating even before GE14.

What was even more disappointing was the reason given by the Prime Minister. Apparently local elections can cause racial conflict and accentuate the urban-rural divide by producing the "wrong results".

But on a positive note, the Housing and Local Government Ministry responded that it would continue to study the implementation of local elections as a way to make government administration more democratic.

The Prime Minister's remarks have understandably been met with concern by civil society organisations. For opposition politicians, including those from the ruling Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) coalition in Sarawak, this presented another opportunity to paint the Federal Government as being unreliable and going back on its word, never mind that they might not have supported the idea of local elections when it was first mooted.

Interestingly, Sarawak's Local Government and Housing Minister Datuk Dr Sim Kui Hian, when asked for his reaction, said the state has its own local government ordinance and can decide its own destiny.

Picking up on this, the Sarawak chapter of Bersih noted that the state retains autonomy over local government, including the power to run local elections, as local government comes under the State List of the Federal Constitution.

"Sarawak has the necessary experience in conducting elections to elect councillors to the local authorities going back to 1948, based on the Local Government Elections Ordinance 1948 and Local Authorities Ordinance 1948.

"We should have continued holding these elections as we have been holding the elections to the State Legislative Assembly and Parliament regularly.

"Lest we forget, the first chief minister of Sarawak, Stephen Kalong Ningkan, was elected a district councillor, then a divisional councillor, and finally a member of the state legislature and the Supreme Council in 1963," Sarawak Bersih said in a statement.

The NGO argued that local government elections would strengthen grassroots democracy while providing a good starting point for those aspiring to become assemblymen or MPs.

It also pointed out that local elections would benefit rate-payers and citizens by making councillors accountable to voters and empowering local councils to address issues and services like low-cost housing, town planning and public amenities. This in turn would allow assemblymen and MPs to focus on making policies and laws, rather than dealing with complaints and issues within the jurisdiction of local councils.

In view of this, Sarawak Bersih called on the state and minister in charge to "show the right way" and bring back local elections in Sarawak, with the caveat that consultation and dialogues be held first with stakeholders and civil society groups on the merits of restoring these elections.

This is food for thought and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. If the Federal ministry is going ahead with its study on local elections, why can't we have one of our own to look into the feasibility of holding local elections in Sarawak? At the least, as Sarawak Bersih proposed, let's be open to discussing the merits of local government elections before going into the nuts and bolts of implementation.

It would be a bold step, but one in line with the state government's autonomy agenda. If indeed Sarawak can decide its destiny, as the minister said, why not take up the challenge and lead the way in restoring local elections after proper consultation and consideration.

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