THERE are three levels of government in most countries – a federal government, state government and local authorities.
Although Malaysia is generally seen as a democratic country, only the federal government and the state governments are elected.
In other words, members of parliament are elected and they elect the prime minister. State assemblymen are also elected and they in turn elect the mentris besar or chief ministers.
However, the local authorities are not elected. The mayors or presidents and councillors are appointed by the state government.
It is time to bring back elected local governments.
There were elected local governments in the past. As early as 1951, when Malaya was a colony of England, elections were held to elect councillors in George Town.
For example, Goh Guan Hoe, more popularly known as G. H. Goh, a lawyer and an MCA leader, was chosen as the president of George Town in 1956. Although he was often addressed as “mayor”, technically, he was the president of the municipality.
George Town was declared a city by Queen Elizabeth II on Jan 1, 1957. By that time, the Labour Party was in control of the municipality and D. S. Ramanathan, a leader of the Labour Party, was elected as the first mayor of George Town.
Since then, local government in Penang Island has gone through considerable changes. Local government elections were suspended in the 1960s. The reason given by the federal government was Indonesia’s declaration of “Ganyang Malaysia”.
The City Council of George Town was amalgamated with the rest of the island to form a municipality of Penang Island. The local authority of the island became a municipality.
Since then, the president and councillors have been appointed by the state government. It is fair to believe that the appointments were the prerogative of the chief minister of Penang.
There has been a tendency to appoint government officers as mayors or presidents of the local authorities. For example, the mayor and president of Penang Island and Seberang Perai were government officers.
There are good reasons for appointing senior government officers largely because they have the experience and expertise in the working of the local authorities.
On the other hand, this practice is not ideal. Senior government officers have been trained to abide by the General Orders and are expected to look to the chief minister or mentri besar as their superior.
Hence they tend to implement what their superior officers want. Since they have been appointed by the chief minister or mentri besar, it is difficult for them to ignore his preferences.
There were days when presidents of local councils were appointed from among the politicians of the ruling party. For example, the president of Penang Island Municipal Council, Tan Gim Hua, was a leader of Gerakan.
Unfortunately, there have been no books written about the days of Penang Island Municipal Council when Tan was the president of the Penang Island Municipality.
It is not necessary to appoint only government officers as mayors or presidents of the local authorities. Hopefully, in the near future, chief ministers or mentris besar will take the trouble to appoint other prominent personalities to be local council presidents or mayors.
Better still, the federal government should review the Local Government Act. It has been long overdue to bring back local government elections.
Meanwhile, it may be interesting if the Penang state government appoints non-government officers to be the heads of local councils.
For instance, Dr Lim Mah Hui is a good example. He has just announced that he would resign as a councillor of the Penang Island City Council. He is a suitable person to be appointed a mayor of Penang Island.
He is familiar with Penang Island as he was a lecturer in Universiti Sains Malaysia and was a local councillor in Penang Island for six years. He spent a considerable amount of time in the disbursement of funds at international level.
Although he is rich enough to buy an expensive car to go around Penang Island, he has made good use of a bicycle as a mode of transport.
Being vocal and full of ideas, it will be interesting and good for the residents of the city to appoint Dr Lim as the mayor of the island.
By Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee who is interested in urban planning, housing and urban governance. He is also a friend of Dr Lim. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
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