Apex court withholds decision on Penang bid for third vote

(From left) DAP's Chow Kon Yeow, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, former president of Aliran P. Ramakrishnan and lawyer Tommy Thomas wait outside the Federal Court in Putrajaya. — Picture by Zurairi AR
(From left) DAP's Chow Kon Yeow, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, former president of Aliran P. Ramakrishnan and lawyer Tommy Thomas wait outside the Federal Court in Putrajaya. — Picture by Zurairi AR

PUTRAJAYA, April 9 — The Federal Court reserved its ruling on the Penang government’s petition to restore local government elections, after hearing the submissions of both sides today.

According to Justice Tan Sri Md Raus Sharif, who headed the five-man panel, a written judgment will be delivered later but he did not state its exact date.

Lawyer Tommy Thomas represented the applicants, the Penang state government and P. Ramakrishnan, a former president of the non-governmental organisation Aliran.

The respondents, the government of Malaysia and the Election Commission (EC), was represented by senior federal counsel Alice Loke.

In March last year, the applicants had filed the application for leave to petition the Federal Court to declare that the Penang state legislature has a right to hold local government elections in accordance with the Local Government Elections (Penang Island and Province Wellesley) Enactment 2012 which was passed by the state assembly in May 2012.

The petition challenged section 15 of the Local Government Act 1976, which prevents the holding of local government elections.

Thomas argued today that “local government” and “local government elections” are two distinct concepts, with the former encompassing mostly land issues.

While the federal government has the power to pass any laws on the former under Article 76(4) of the Federal Constitution, only the states have jurisdiction on the latter, Thomas added.

“We say that local government elections are only the matter of the state … solely and exclusively,” Thomas told the judges.

In addition, Thomas pointed out Putrajaya only has the power to ensure uniformity of laws and policies, and not abolish local government elections altogether.

On behalf of Ramakrishnan, Thomas argued that by abolishing the third vote, section 15 denies a citizen of his constitutional guarantees, including depriving his liberty (under Article 5), equality (Article 8), and freedom of speech (Article 10).

The respondents replied by saying that both concepts are the same, with “local government” being wide enough to include “local government elections”.

When met by reporters outside the court, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng expressed his confidence with the petition.

“We got a strong case, and we hope the Federal Court creates history that is 50 years in the making, and 50 years in waiting,” Lim said.

The Penang Pakatan Rakyat government has been taking steps to try to restore local government elections in the state to return the third vote to the people.

Local council elections used to be held in the country where Malaysians get to elect their local councillors between the 1951 and 1965.

The local council elections were suspended in 1965 because of the Indonesian Confrontation and the then-prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman had promised the Dewan Rakyat that local elections would be restored once the Confrontation was over.

The Confrontation ended in 1966 but local government elections were not restored.