Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Little Napoleons in Local Government

Written by johnleemk on 10:01:35 am Mar 9, 2007.

I read in Time not too long ago about a fact that initially shocked me quite a bit. Although China is ironically more democratic than Malaysia in the sense that it holds local council elections, the central government there has been unable to enforce successful transitions of power.

Typically, what happens after a new council is elected is that the old council refuse to leave office, and use violent tactics to maintain their power. Many elected councilmen have reportedly been jailed, tortured and even murdered for fighting to claim the office that is rightfully theirs.

And yet, China's own "little Napoleons", as Malaysian petty government officials have been named, merrily continue on their way. It is bad enough already that the central Chinese government is quite authoritarian in its actions, but the effects of whatever reforms they come up with are usually stymied very heavily by the local governments.

It's actually come to the point where the central government has been unable to do much more than condemn local governments in the state-owned press. Whatever laws the central government may pass, they are totally ineffective and unenforceable.

Making matters worse is that the local authorities in China are probably the most corrupt political institutions there. The Chinese situation actually has a lot of parallels to how things are run in Malaysia.

The obvious first similarity is that in both countries, local government is totally unaccountable to the people (in practice, at least; in theory, the Chinese government is actually more accountable because they at least have elections!).

This unaccountability in turn encourages irresponsibility and corruption among the ranks of local government officials. Many tragedies and travesties we hear about in China, and many more we don't hear about, are not caused by a lack of effort on the central government's part, but by the local governments' recalcitrance.

In China, local governments often have closed tenders where they award contracts to their cronies. The local party officials are usually extremely powerful, influential, and of course, wealthy.

Exactly the same thing goes on in Malaysia. Our completely unaccountable local authorities hold "lawatan sambil belajar" junkets that don't involve any actual pelajaran, and a lot of lawatan. They award contracts to tear up kerbs simply because a crony of their's wants some money, and not because the kerbs need any actual maintenance. Gaudy plastic palm trees go up and palms are greased — not thanks to our already horrid federal government, but thanks to our even worse local government.

Meanwhile, being an UMNO member already gives you a lot of clout in winning contracts from the federal government. The same applies to local government contracts, surely.

And if you do run foul of the law, it seems you have carte blanche to violate it as long as you're from the right party. Remember the case of the container office of the UMNO branch in Bandar Bukit Puchong?

If we want an effective government, if we want an actual improvement in the quality of our lives, we need to start change from the bottom up. We need to change our local governments before we can change state and federal governments. We need the restoration of local council elections.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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