Malaysians! Know your governments

It’s important to know what the MP, ADUN, and local councillor roles and responsibilities are, or you end up getting them all confused. This is the problem when we don’t really know the structures, much less what our reps are supposed to do. This was first published in Penang Monthly in February 2012.

Malaysians! Know your governments

Standfirst: The complexity that is Malaysia not only made it necessary for the country to have a federal structure, it made its citizens rather confused about how the different levels of power overlap and how they contest with each other. Much inefficiency and other maladies can be reduced, if we only knew how our tiers of government relate to each other.

With 2012 being a possible election year, Malaysians will hear endless speculation about possible poll dates and outcomes. In making a decision on who to vote for, it is important for Malaysians to understand the different tiers of government and the roles and responsibilities of elected representatives at each layer.

Presently, they vote only for two out of the three tiers, namely their Members of Parliament (MPs) and state assemblypersons. Local councillors are appointed by the state government, although there has been an ongoing campaign to reintroduce local council elections, an issue which has been taken up by the Pakatan Rakyat (Pakatan)-led states of Selangor and Penang.

Most recently, the Penang state government announced it would go ahead with local elections by issuing a gazette notification exempting local authorities in the state from Section 15 of the Local Government Act 1976. This would pave the way for local elections, although some opposition may come from federal authorities.

With such a mechanism in place, it is possible – depending on when the actual 13th General Elections take place – that Penang residents will actually have the opportunity of voting in their local councillors. Selangor has also made the commitment to conduct a pilot local election within its Petaling Jaya constituency, and the government is currently working with a local civil society coalition on its administrative details and schedule. Both states have taken positive steps toward empowering local participation.

But back to the issue of what jurisdiction each level of government has: an issue Malaysians tend to be quite ignorant of. Because of the confusion over which official is responsible for precisely which area, all problems with, for example, holes in roads, clogged drains and so on, tend to be brought to all three representatives: MPs, state assemblymen and local councillors. This defeats the purpose of having three tiers of government.

MPs are members of the federal legislative body, given the noble task of making and shaping laws for the country. Their role is to examine thoroughly laws and regulations that affect the nation, by representing the views and needs of their respective constituencies. Parliamentary Select Committees (PSC) are formed to discuss and debate in more detail policies and accompanying matters, for example the recent PSC on electoral reform that was formed under social pressure following the Bersih 2.0 rally in July 2011.

State assemblypersons play a similar role as that of MPs, but within the legislative body of their state governments. They, too, form and shape laws pertaining to their states. However, state legislation does not cover as much ground and jurisdiction as that at the federal level. This is due to increasing centralisation of power over the years. What states govern are issues pertaining to land, religion, natural resources, their own state budgets, local councils, and state and local roads, amongst other matters.

Finally, local councillors, although often viewed as the least prestigious of the three levels, are at times the most relevant in servicing the needs and demands of locals. This is because they preside over everyday affairs that affect the lives of people – rubbish collection, caring for roads, drains, lighting, regulations related to building and planning, and other neighbourhood concerns.

Penang has 13 MPs and 40 state assemblypersons. There are instances in which the MPs and state assemblypersons are not from the same political coalition, and at times these cause coordination difficulties. It is up to the professionalism and bi-partisanship of each of these representatives if things are to work out well for their constituents. The same is true in Selangor, which has 22 MPs and 56 state assemblypersons. Penang has two local councils, whereas Selangor has 12 local or municipal councils. A full council is made up of 24 councillors; so on average Penang would have 48 councillors whilst Selangor would have 288 councillors.

There are two major issues that state governments face when handling the varying roles of each level of representation. First is when there are opposing coalition parties handling the same geographical area. How exactly do state governments deal with the opposing sides, especially since there are two different development bodies? (I have written about this previously, concerning the case of the federal government having its own State Development Unit setup under the Prime Minister’s Department receiving separate funding, and operating in isolation from the administration or knowledge of the Pakatan-led state governments.)

The second major issue is that because of the three tiers of government, the states have to decide which level is to be responsible for newly emerging problems.

In addressing the first issue, both states have their respective systems of handling geographical servicing. In Penang, in areas in which the state assemblypersons are not from the Pakatan government coalition, either the local councillors or the members of the local village committees would be responsible for servicing local residents. The councillors and village committee members would decide amongst themselves which individual is responsible for which area. In Selangor, selected state assemblypersons are given additional allocated duties to also service constituencies of the areas where there are no Pakatan elected representatives. There are therefore “adopted areas” for the “ADUN Angkat” in a certain area. Local councillors and village committee members in Selangor, like in Penang, are also responsible for these areas.

The second issue is slightly trickier, in that the constituents themselves are less educated as to which complaint ought to be forwarded to which representative. Any problem is therefore channelled to all possible levels, in the belief that this will increase the chances of it being immediately solved.

The Selangor government allocates an annual amount of RM100,000 to its Selangor MPs from the Pakatan coalition. This is meant to assist their own constituents in a number of matters including welfare, events and other legitimate matters. This is not a practice of the Penang state government. The role of MPs within state matters is sometimes a sensitive matter, since theoretically at least, MPs have their roles outlined at the Parliament level, and strictly speaking do not have a purview over state matters.

Nevertheless, given that constituents do seek their attention in solving state affairs, it is fair for the MPs to be concerned and be given a certain role to play within state government affairs on selected occasions. Those with the right mix of expertise and experience can surely lend their skills in contributing to the state government’s development.

The overlap between state assemblypersons and local councillors is a lot more obscure, since both levels handle matters quite similar in nature. Again in theory, the former has to deal with the policy side, whereas the latter is concerned with its implementation and execution at the council. Again here there are conflicting points of view, where councils tend to guard their jurisdictions carefully, and sometimes have found either the state assemblypersons or state government executive councillors to be interfering in their affairs. The other perspective is that in order to facilitate more efficient planning and execution, such relationships between state and local government should be fostered.

This is a classic case of how separation of powers in theory may not necessarily work in reality. In the final analysis, although the best case scenario is where all three levels of government are kept quite distinct in terms of responsibilities and jurisdiction (this would also allow for greater freedom to carry out tasks without undue interference), the reality is Malaysians still expect every “Yang Berhormat”to entertain their demands. In such a situation, the best solution is a healthy working relationship between local councillors and state assemblypersons, as well as between state assemblypersons and the MPs for the area.

In the long run, it will be necessary to educate the electorate on the roles and responsibilities of the separate levels of government; failing which, MPs will continue having to tend to minor matters, such as the fixing of lamp posts and drains, which take away valuable time needed for the scrutiny of national macro issues and debates on legislation. Voters who are knowledgeable of these affairs will be able to choose wisely when they decide on their MP, state assemblyperson and hopefully sometime soon – their local councillor.

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