Politics & government

[2680] Undemocratic Kuala Lumpur

Life in Kuala Lumpur in the past few weeks has been a constant reminder of our flawed democracy.

If you are in the city, look all around you. You will see banners and posters of political parties almost everywhere. Superficially, the colorful show of political flags is a sign of democracy. Now, look closer at those belonging to Barisan Nasional and especially those with Raja Nong Chik Raja Zainal Abidin on it. Be mindful of their messages.

Those messages celebrate the achievements of Raja Nong Chik as a minister. It highlights what he has done over the past few years, with him heading the Ministry of Federal Territories. It appears like the all too admirable democratic judge-my-record, thank-me politics. He even thanked himself in many of his political banners and posters for stuff he did in the city.

Yet underneath this veneer is acid corroding the pillars of our democratic institution.

The campaign narrative told by BN to the voters in the city makes one think that Raja Nong Chik is the mayor of Kuala Lumpur. This is all the more so in Bangsar where he is contesting in the general election. If those messages are to be believed, it would appear that he was both the mayor of Kuala Lumpur and the Member of Parliament for Lembah Pantai, the parliamentary seat which Bangsar is a part of.

If all those achievements highlighted for electioneering purposes are truly his, then he must have directed the very public resources belonging to the city to do what he did. He takes credit for things that are the normal function of City Hall, like the maintenance of drainage around the city, which is funded by taxpayers’ money.

There is a problem with this if one views it through a democratic lens.

The truth is that Raja Nong Chik is an unelected senator appointed as the minister for the Federal Territories. He is not the elected mayor of Kuala Lumpur and he is not the elected representative for Lembah Pantai.

The 2008 general election saw BN win only one out of 11 Parliamentary seats in Kuala Lumpur. While Parliamentary seats are an inadequate proxy to the will of the majority in the city, it is the best proxy we have got since there is no local election. Based on that proxy, the majority in the city conclusively rejected BN candidates and BN itself then in March 2008.

In spite of that, BN continued to control City Hall through the Ministry of Federal Territories as if they had the moral mandate to do so. With that, the party was the one that determined the development agenda of the city. Or perhaps, more importantly, BN controlled the spending priority of City Hall.

Add in the fact that the actual mayor of the city also is unelected, voters of Kuala Lumpur are quite simply unrepresented in the very authority that governs the affairs of their home. The elected representatives are dependent on the goodwill of City Hall and the ministry to execute the normal functions of an elected representative.

It is Putrajaya with its pretentious grandiose buildings that dictate the affairs of Kuala Lumpur. The city of millions is being governed from a desolate town erected in the middle of nowhere.

That is undemocratic. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly the premise that BN’s campaign messages rest upon.

How long more will the Kuala Lumpur electorates continue to be politically unrepresented in the running of the city?

There is no reason for BN to change the status quo because it is the beneficiary of things as it is. If BN continues to be in the minority in the city, it is in their favor to keep the whole undemocratic structure intact. Even if BN somehow miraculously wins a majority of Kuala Lumpur Parliamentary seats and by proxy, the will of the voters of Kuala Lumpur, the moral authority BN might gain through this democratic process is only a redundant bonus.

That begs a question. If Raja Nong Chik and BN do not require a win to do what he did in the next Parliamentary term, why vote him in at all?

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malaysian Insider on April 24 2013.

Politics & government Society

[2611] That contrast between public and private space

Walking out of the door of a nice little restaurant in Kuala Lumpur is very much like traversing between two worlds. It is a journey from a world of no worry to a world that almost qualifies as a dystopian science fiction.

There are plenty of nice restaurants which are not necessarily posh but are appropriately organized to fit certain appealing themes. It targets the relatively well-off middle class, especially the relatively well-paid young adults. That makes the crowd well-educated and armed with proper etiquette. Not too many speak too loudly over the cell phone, or leave their kids to run around unleashed. Everything accommodates for low-decibel conversations.

Being inside one of these restaurants makes me expect to come out to a grand boulevard of some great cities of the world. Yet the truth is that these restaurants are an oasis in the middle of an ugly suburb sprawl. The walls of the restaurant isolate patrons from the harsh reality of many parts of Kuala Lumpur. Inside, it is just nice. Outside, it is hot, humid, chaotic and dirty.

Sometimes the road barriers put up by the communities in these neighborhoods can remind you that it can be unsafe as well. Then news reports of snatch theft suddenly flash through in your mind. The effect of the blue pill you had as an entrée earlier is now gone after the goodbyes, hugs and kisses. You just had the red pill as dessert and now you instinctively walk faster, hands clutching your bag, all alone and scared for something that might or might not happen.

That reminds me of Robocop’s Detroit. That picture of Detroit is not one of hot and humid but it is still chaotic, dirty and unsafe. It is an almost believable dystopia—minus the cyborg of course—and it almost describes the commercial centers of Damansara, Bangsar, Hartamas, Subang Jaya, Petaling Jaya and who knows where else. It is one that many live in and others frequent.

Drawing parallel between the dystopian Detroit with these commercial centers is an exaggeration. Admittedly, it is a rhetorical device.

Nevertheless, even without the concerns for crime, there is a contrast between public and private spaces.

If money can really buy the good things in life, then surely these neighborhoods can afford and should have a better environment for themselves beyond the restrictive four walls of their homes or some restaurants. The contrast between the world inside and the world outside—between private and public spaces—should not be too great. But it is.

Perhaps this is a reflection of an overly individualistic community in the city. Most of us are so concerned with our small private space that most of us ignore the commons that we share. We jealously maintain our private space against nature but left the public space just beyond our private boundary at the mercy of nature. We use the commons almost daily, so we do care for the commons but none of us have enough incentive to take upon ourselves to make the commons as orderly, clean and safe as our private space.

Although I hold that the individual is the most basic unit of any society, I do find the individualism that I see proliferating in our society as too much for my liking. Besides, seeing a fat rat or two tip-toeing across the pavement in the evening in Bangsar and Damansara does not paint a great picture of a community that enjoys a kind of welfare that is well above the median. I think it is a damning symptom of the excessive individualistic attitude that we have. I think the excessive individualism is adversely affecting the viability of public space.

Individualism can be a force of good. A healthy dose of individualistic culture provides a bulwark to tyranny. It is also a fertile ground for creative thinking among others. A society cannot really progress far with a hive mind that will never challenge the status quo.

That, however, does not negate the fact that there are costs to excessive individualism. One of the costs can be the unviability of the commons.

Thankfully, the setup of our society and institutions are designed partly to address problems arising from individualism. We have our local authority funded by public resources to take care of the commons. The establishment of the local authority is in line with the liberal rationale for the establishment of the state: we establish the state to provide crucial services to us all which we cannot individually provide for ourselves. And the local authority is part of the state.

Yet, there is significant a contrast between private and public space. The private space is well taken care of by private individuals and firms while the commons—the commercial centers of Kuala Lumpur’s suburbs—are a dump.

I take this as a sign that the local authority is not doing its job well. If the viability of the commons is a benchmark to a working local authority, then the local authority is broken.

It is possible that the local authority is failing its job as the janitor of our commons because it is not responsive to the community it is supposed to serve. By that I mean to refer to the fact that most of us already know. Our local authority is unelected and so it is unaccountable to the beneficiaries of the commons, which is us.

The unelected and unaccountable local authority can afford to fail at its jobs without any real repercussions. That the commons are chaotic, dirty and arguably unsafe is linked directly to the unelected and the unaccountable nature of our local authority. The beneficiaries of the commons can complain but the local authority really has no incentive to take it seriously.

If we do care about the stark contrast between private and public space, if we do care for our commons, then we need to make local authority responsive. We need our local election back.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malaysian Insider on October 11 2012.

Politics & government

[2175] Of make way for local election

What a wonderful piece of news. That aptly describes my reaction upon learning the request of the Penang state government to the Election Commission to organize two local elections in the Pearl of the Orient this year. Selangor’s decision to follow suit makes it an all the more brilliant development.

There are obstacles to overcome and there is no guarantee that the return will happen for good. There will be challenges no doubt. The EC is already showing sign of reluctance to do as requested.

It is quite clear that not everybody is convinced of the necessity of local elections. Some fear losing their power. Others are caught up in legalese.

Let them lose their powers. It is not theirs to keep in the first place. Be gone with the legalese. We are in a new time where old threats have long past.

The actual push for it in Malaysia is long overdue. This right of ours has been robbed from us. It is only right to have it returned.

What I am most excited about the prospect of having local elections returned is the devolution of power. It is yet another tool to empower citizens at the expense of the state. For too long has power been concentrated in the hand of the state. The return of the third vote will chip away that focused power by distributing it more evenly across the landscape, as it should have been.

Do you remember how such power distribution felt?

The last time such significant redistribution happened was in March 2008.

Yes, it has been two years since that day. Since then, there have been many disappointments: the lies and hypocrisy regarding freedom of association, more slogans, disloyalty and generally broken promises. Yes, many of these disappointments have began to question the wisdom of many whom gave members or former members of what is now Pakatan Rakyat a chance.

That in no way changes the fact that the 2008 Malaysian general election demonstrated that individual citizens do have the power to change the course of the country. It is a reminder that the kind of confidence in individuals that seemed to exist only in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged does exist in the real world. It blew away the feeling of helplessness that nothing can be done. It proves that in the face of a titan, individuals can be as fearsome as the titan can.

My feeling as a first time voter in the early morning of March 9 was one of pure exhilaration. After all the disillusionment, the feeling that this country belonged only to the selected few forming a cabal, the election showed that I still do have stake in the country. More importantly, I can act on that ownership.

The devolution will further prove that I, along with many other Malaysians, do have ownership over not just the country, but also the street where I — we — live in. We are the ones that should take care of our own streets.

We pay for it after all.

With the third vote, we can stop pretending that those representatives we send to national and state assemblies are taking care of our local interests.

We do not need an MP or state assemblypersons to take care of our streets and everything else in our immediate neighborhood. We can do it ourselves.

Such absurd pretentions have caused Members of Parliament and state assemblies having to deal with local problems while they are supposed to debate on nation and statewide issues respectively. It is not the jobs of these representatives to worry about sewage and trash. Those are the responsibilities of local councilors.

Local elections will enhance the division of tasks and with the division of tasks comes the division of power. Less power in the hand of the few means less opportunity for abuse. If this is what those who oppose the reintroduction fear, then let them fear it.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider on March 9 2010.