Power, not participation

Power redistribution: Planning that requires intimate and intricate details of district knowledge should be put in the hands of people who have knowledge and intimate relationship with the neighbourhood and the people living in it.

“DON’T give me that participation nonsense. We want power.”

Those were the words from a disgruntled resident towards the housing management, during a town hall meeting in New York City. Having been in many of these sessions myself, both locally and abroad, I have often heard these sorts of expressions.

As I sit in my flat in Kuala Lumpur, struggling to do work with noise coming in from a massive construction site right in front of my doorstep, with their piling, drilling, knocking and smashing and all kinds of other destructive activities, feeling powerless to do anything about it, those words ring in my ears. Don’t give me that participation nonsense, I want power.

I’ve received an email from a senior gentleman recently, a resident of this city, and in the email, he had kindly shared with me his letter to the Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur on feedback to the city’s draft 2040 Structure Plan.

The gentleman has been without a car by choice, and dependent entirely on public transport for the past ten years. So naturally, his feedback to the city’s plan was filled with suggestions to improve public transportation as well as the safety of pedestrians. His suggestions are sound indeed. As to whether the city authority will take these suggestions into consideration is unbeknownst to me. But what I would like to focus on is the weakness in the mechanism of participation in which this Structure Plan, or any other plan, is being developed.

Many moons ago, I had written a piece on participatory planning. I argued that real participation is about the redistribution of power, and enhancing the ability of citizens to influence outcomes. That would mean the redistribution of power among city dwellers to allow them to influence the decision making of planning and policy making processes. Specifically, the redistribution of power should enable the “have-not citizens” – those who are excluded from political and economic processes – to be included, through information sharing, goals and policy setting, resource allocations, as well as distribution of benefits.

It is important for us to be able to differentiate between “Empty ritual participation”, and having real power that is needed to influence the outcome of the process.

Real participation is more than allowing the have-nots to hear and to have a voice, which is a process that is being practiced here through “consultation” and “feedback.” These are mere tokenistic rituals used to give false legitimacy to any planning process. Citizens still do not have any decision-making ability. Real participation only occurs where the citizens would enter into a “partnership” with the authorities, with negotiation power.

Opponents of this type of power distribution, where citizens have equal footing with authorities and planners, would always play the efficiency card. According to them, it is more practical and evidently more efficient, to allow a small group of people to decide on behalf of the rest of the people. It is not important that this small group of people tend to be members of a specific class of the society, mostly the upper class, and it is also not important that the same small group of people often do not even live in the area where the plannings are executed. Things can be done faster, and easier. But it’ll be faster and easier for them – authorities and planners – not for the people whose lives are affected by their decisions.

Another way of redistributing power is to scale down governance and planning to a district or neighbourhood level.

Cities consist of diverse neighbourhoods, each unique in their own way, with different sets of problems and challenges. In Kuala Lumpur, for example, Lembah Pantai is different from Cheras, Bukit Bintang is different from Bandar Tun Razak, and so forth. Hence, when it comes to planning, decisions need to be tailored towards the needs of specific places, instead of generalising planning and policies for the entire city, let alone state or national level.

Instead of having planning and governance organised in a vertical fashion, meaning having the entire planning coming from top command – in the context of Malaysia, Putrajaya — states and cities would be better planned if the planning and coordination of different services are localised at the district or neighbourhood level. As we can see now with the current governance system that is practised in this country, the over-centralisation of decision-making power has caused highly unequal development. Infrastructural developments are concentrated in specific areas while others are neglected.

Planning that requires intimate and intricate details of district knowledge, such as commercial block redevelopment, building a local library or locating neighbourhood houses of worship, should be put in the hands of people who have knowledge and intimate relationship with the neighbourhood and the people living in it. On top of that, economic growth will be enhanced because local governments understand the growth barriers in their local economies better than the Federal level. the end goal is to reach neighbourhood sovereignty, where each neighborhood will be self-sufficient and autonomous.

This is even more true as we are dealing with the current conditional movement control order (CMCO) due to the Covid-19 pandemic, where residents of KL, Selangor and Sabah are stuck in their own districts. If each neighbourhood within a city is self-sufficient, having enough infrastructure such as workplaces, schools, hospitals and markets, providing utilities, goods, and basic needs, lockdowns and movement control initiatives can be easier to implement.

Residents would not need to worry because whatever they need would be available within walking or cycling distance. In order to achieve all this, power needs to be redistributed, from the hands of a select few, to the majority whose lives are affected. Power needs to be redistributed from Putrajaya to local governments, and from authorities to regular citizens. No other way around it.

A lot of the argument against this sort of power redistribution which promotes planning and governing on a smaller scale, as well as opening up for more diverse group of people to enter the decision making process, say that it renders the city, state and country to become inefficient, that the planning process will take too long, or worse, nothing will ever materialise. But as Sherry Arnstein, the author of Ladder of Citizen Participation aptly puts it, every other means to govern a diverse city without victimising certain groups of people, mostly the have-nots, have failed. Therefore, until we figure out a different way of ensuring that everyone’s needs are fulfilled, this is the best course of action that we need to take.

There have been efforts and advocacies from many Malaysian organisations, Members of Parliaments and individuals to decentralise and strengthen local government. These efforts need to be continued and supported.

Authorities need to do more than just providing feedback forms for residents to fill in to open up participation and give more power to regular citizens in decision making processes.

Policies that will ensure citizens are included in the beginning of all planning processes need to be put in place. This will require a lot of effort and exertion from citizens and activists, a long process that needs to start now.

So that the senior gentleman can get his improved public transport and pedestrian pathways, and I can get quiet and peace in my home.

Badrul Hisham Ismail is the director of programmes at IMAN Research. The views expressed here are solely his own.

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