Monday, August 17, 2009

Popular Participation - the Root of Democracy

Old article written by Anwar Fazal. Has some early history involving Kampung Selut and their land struggle.

Popular Participation - the Root of Democracy

News Straits Times, (date unknown)

Kampung Selut (Slimy Village) was located at the mouth of Sungai Pinang in the city of George Town on - Penang Island. A muddy mess of hamlets occupied largely by the Malay community, it was in the 1950’s a festering reminder of the disempowerment of a minority community in a thriving colonial entry port bustling with British Trading Houses, Chinese merchants and Indian stevedores and sprinklings of a rich tapestry of hundreds of traders and sub-cultures.

Then came democracy, election and independence and people’s lives reverberated with a new dynamic of anticipation and expectation of a new and better life sooner than later.

Penang saw their first municipal elections in the early ‘50s and tasted elective politics ahead of the rest of the country with all the excitement of ballot boxes, political parties and the promises that go with those.

Soon after the country’s independence, the Socialist Front, a coalition of the Labour Party and the Party Rakyat, won a decisive victory and took control of the City Council under the leadership of Mayor D. S. Ramanathan, a former president of the Teachers Union. During elections the Socialist Front promised the residents of Kampung Selut new homes and a new village.

Now the Party had to deliver. Quickly the land was acquired (from a distinguished Malay family), transit quarters (better than the long house now often provided), were built, and the people told to move. Something dramatic then happened. The people refused to move!

They said no moving until they were consulted on the design of the house, the layout of the village and the long term plans.

They wanted to shape their own homes and their destiny. And they did not want any government consultants and committees to decide for them. They want to elect their own representatives through formal elections and they wanted this group of over a dozen to meet all the fully-elected council (of fifteen) to meet face to face regularly to work together to build the new community.

And they did.

The elected council of the village of Kampung Selut and the City Council of George Town over many months discussed, debated, disagreed and in the end, developed together the house plans and layout of the new village.

And the new village was appropriately renamed Kampung Makbul (The village whose prayers were answered!). It is now a bustling and thriving community at the end of one journey, beginning its next.

Such an intensive popular participatory exercise was unprecedented in Malaysia, and has many lessons about caring, community and inclusiveness.

One generation later, in 1999 Penang was to see again another unprecedented exercise in popular participation - the Sustainable Penang Initiative (SPI), supported by the Institute On Governance (lOG), Canadian International Development Agency and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). An innovative two year series of roundtables were held around five core themes:

· Economic Productivity

· Ecological Sustainability

· Social Justice

· Cultural Vibrancy

· Political Participation.

It saw the launch of some 40 community based indicators developed through creative and constructive discussion and debate. Comprehensive vision statements were developed for each of the themes and actions.

Out of that, new community networks emerged - Water Watch Penang, Sustainable Transport Environment Penang (STEP) and SILA (Sustainability, Independent Living Access) which brought together persons with disabilities. A “Peoples’ Report” was presented by five children to the state government.

The response from the government was a triumph for popular participation. The Chief Minister of Penang, Tan Sri Dr. Koh Tsu Koon and the State Exco Member of Economic Planning, Dato’ Dr. Toh Kin Woon, engaged the groups in a spirit of critical dialogue. They were so impressed with the process that they announced that the products and process of the Sustainable Penang Initiative will form the core of the new Penang Strategic Plan for 2001 to 2010. They also agreed that ‘Sustainability’ and ‘Good Governance’ will be among the pillars of the new strategic plan.

The experience of Kampung Makbul and ‘The Sustainable Penang Initiative’ demonstrate that a more daring, sophisticated, interactive process is possible between civil society and the government.

Unfortunately, far too often, schemes for consultation and participation are created for the purpose of manipulation, decoration and tokenism. Sometimes, government’s own ideas about participation are based on ignorance, a paternalistic tradition and even down right arrogance.

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