The Penang State Government has announced the new list of city council members. However, this list has once again missed the opportunity to widen democracy, and even shows sign of backwards movement.
SUARAM condemns the Pakatan Rakyat government’s adoption of the practise of the previous Barisan Nasional government, in distributing so many places in the MPPP and MPSP to their own parties’ members. It is distressing that this distribution has actually increased.
Prior to the announcement, PKR’s president, Zahrain Mohamed Hashim, stated to Sin Chew Jit Poh that he would urge the state government to appoint Pakatan parties’ members as councilors, partly because he was of the opinion that District Officers were too busy to complete the task. Yet he never mentioned that Yeoh Soon Hin is both councillor and ADUN: isn’t there a contradiction here?
Indeed, SUARAM strongly criticises the state government in appointing Yeoh Soon Hin as a local councillor. His crossover of roles means there is too great a possibility of conflicts of interest, raising the possibility of corruption. The fact that the current system lacks independent overview also means that transparency is compromised.
MPPP 2009 2008
Parties 20 18
Chamber of Commerce 2 2
NGOs 2 2
District officer 0 2
Total 24 24
MPSP 2009 2008
Parties 21 18
Chamber of Commerce 3 3
NGOs 0 0
District officer 0 3
Total 24 24
SUARAM was hoping that the PR government would increase, not reduce, the participation of local, independent people and would implement a transparent system of appointment of councillors (until we get local elections again). However, not only has this opportunity been missed, but spokespeople like Chow Kon Yeow repeats the words of the BN government: that now thePR government is elected, it has the mandate to do as it likes.
This is very worrying. SUARAM would like to emphasize that if democracy is to mean anything, it must mean as full and transparent a participation by people as possible in decision-making processes. By keeping such decisions within a very narrow group of appointed party members, woefully lacking in accountability or transparency, the PR government has refused to acknowledge their own mantra: Time for a Change. There has been no change, despite the promises.
There are plenty of formulas available which would progress the composition of local councils. The 8-8-8 widely debated last year (meaning 8 NGO representatives (inc. from resident associations and community leaders), 8 independent professional representatives and 8 from party partisan backgrounds) would have been a step forward. But it apparently was not even considered this year.
Given the PR government’s unwillingness to open up local government, SUARAM is also wondering about the sincerity of the PR government in promising to restore local elections. What is the timeline and where is the discussion?
SUARAM would like to emphasise that local elections are a very important democratic process, and there is no way the PR government should sacrifice the basic and important values of democracy just to strengthen its own control and influence. This is why the people of Penang voted out the last state government, and we can only hope that this new government will wake up and realize that if it is to protect the aspirations of Penangites, it needs to institutionalise open and democratic systems in local government quickly and determinedly. Otherwise we are back to Square One.