Who governs city hall?

(First published in theSun on 7th November 2013, and can be accessed here).

AT a #BetterCities event I spoke at recently on sustainable public transportation, questions were raised as to what initiatives are taking place in Kuala Lumpur to improve access for cyclists, given the lack of cycle ways in the city.

Although there is some information within the Greater KL Plan under Pemandu on its initiatives to improve the bus, taxi and rail systems, and increase pedestrian walkways, it is only by contacting someone personally within government that I was able to find out that KL City Hall will soon introduce bicycle lanes in parts of KL.

Despite being the nation’s capital, very little is known about KL’s planning policy, how money is spent on this city with an estimated 1.6 million people, and most importantly, how the decision-makers are kept accountable by the public, if at all.

Kuala Lumpur is classified as a Federal Territory (together with Labuan and Putrajaya), making it fall outside the jurisdiction of any state government, although the area was originally part of Selangor before it was created in 1974, which one could say was for primarily political purposes.

The result of this is the unique situation of having KL governed entirely by its local council, in this case the Kuala Lumpur City Hall. Like all other local and municipal councils in Malaysia, the City Hall is run by its civil servants with numerous departments. But there is one significant different, where for instance City Hall does not have councillors, who would ideally act as policy-makers separate from the civil servants who implement policy.

Instead, it has a 15-member Advisory Board, chaired by the mayor, all of whom are appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong on the prime minister’s recommendation. The Federal Capital Act 1960 requires for one member each to come from the Federal Territories Ministry, Finance Ministry, Economic Planning Unit and two members nominated by the Selangor state government.

But it is not just the City Hall that governs what takes place in KL. There is also the Federal Territories Ministry dedicated to the three Federal Territories. For instance, the 2014 budget allocates funds to the City Hall through this ministry. Next year, City Hall is given a total of RM76 million directly, but Kuala Lumpur is also given an additional RM71 million or more, on “new policies” and “one-off” budget items. Some of these are items that fall under the watch of Pemandu, the unit under the Prime Minister’s Department, in the National Key Economic Area’s Greater KL Plan.

In fact, that isn’t its total budget, since additional funds are derived from assessment fees, public housing rental, licences and so on. For instance, the 2013 budget was a whopping RM2 billion. This is even more than the total annual funds given to some ministries in 2014, including the Ministry of Youth and Sports (RM754 million), Foreign Affairs Ministry (RM847 million) and the Human Resources Ministry (RM1.4 billion). This therefore begs the question of financial accountability.

There are three main stakeholders when it comes to issues pertaining to KL: the City Hall, the Federal Territories Ministry, and Pemandu. One pertinent question is which of these three would be the ultimate decision-maker for KL, and more importantly, whose responsibility is it to transparently make budgets accessible? A preliminary search on the City Hall’s website reveals practically no information on its annual budgets, how allocated funds are spent, and for what purposes.

There has been debate in the past on introducing local council elections, an issue which both the opposition-led states in Selangor and Penang have explored but in vain, given the negative response by the federal government. It is certainly time to advocate perhaps for a pilot local elections to take place, perhaps at one of the zones within Petaling Jaya to begin with.

However, even if local council elections take place – which is a long shot – this would not solve the lack of accountability problems in KL since it does not even have councillors to elect in. Under such circumstances, perhaps it is time to raise the possibility of having mayoral elections.

The mayor is currently appointed by the federal territories minister for three-year terms.

If KL residents were able to vote in their mayor of choice in City Hall, they would be able to hold this person accountable to funds paid, demand access to all sorts of information, and fully participate in the city’s policy-making process. This is not the case currently, where the RM2 billion or so is spent practically without public scrutiny.

As we respond to the national budget that was unveiled two weeks ago, it is equally imperative that citizens take cognizance of how the numbers work for those of us who are rate-payers in the city. City budgets are what eventually contribute to making our daily lives better through what is spent on roads, public transport and infrastructure. Without a detailed budget breakdown from the City Hall, keeping government in check is almost an impossible task.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *