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The Importance of Local Government

On how the Malaysian democracy is worse than Saudi Arabian totalitarianism, and the importance of changing this.

Written by johnleemk on 3:08:16 pm Jul 2, 2007.

I firmly believe in the importance of a federal democracy — I believe the two go hand-in-hand. Malaysia is a federation in theory, but it really is a centralised unitary state.

The importance of a federation is that it devolves the responsibility for running the day-to-day affairs of a country to those best placed to manage them — the state and local governments. (Unfortunately many federalists focus only on the state governments, forgetting that in large states the state government is only slightly better than the central government.)

In Malaysia, the state governments operate as they would under a unitary system — they are nothing more than functionaries of the central government, by and large following orders from the top.

Likewise, the members of local governments are not given any autonomy — they are appointed by the state government, and as a result also act as nothing more than functionaries of the functionaries.

If you are inclined to compare Malaysia to other countries, bear in mind that this makes us worse than many totalitarian countries, including Saudi Arabia and China (although the Chinese have had problems with enforcing the legitimacy of local elections).

Local and to a lesser extent state governments are crucial to the life of a country because often politicians at the local and state levels are the most sincere.

At the federal level, you are going to run into career politicians — people who run for office because that's their job description.

At the local and state levels, politicians are often those who entered politics out of a desire to give back to their communities; they are community members first and politicians second.

When you do not permit the citizens to run for local and state offices without first getting the approval of someone on stop, you stymie the development of civil institutions on the ground level.

How are you going to have proper garbage collection, roads without potholes, unless you allow the election of officials who run because they want a better life for their community?

The problem with Malaysia at the moment is that even if I have an idea for improving how my community is run, I have no way of implementing it or even getting a chance to bring it up, because the political process completely stymies citizen involvement in the system.

This has to change if we want to truly call ourselves a developed country — I challenge my home state of Selangor in particular, since the Chief Minister had the gall to proclaim us a "developed state". A developed country allows its citizens to run for office at a level where only those who want to improve the community would bother to run — it does not abolish local elections for the sake of appointing more corrupt officials.