Democracy shouldn’t be expensive

DECEMBER 8 — A group of Taman Desa residents said that filing a judicial review against one of the many unwanted condominium projects in their neighbourhood would cost RM75,000.

They had previously filed two lawsuits against other high-rise projects in the suburban neighbourhood, raising over RM90,000 and RM120,000 respectively.

That is a lot of money. 

Residents are opposing 13 high-density projects in Taman Desa that they claim will double the number of households and residents to 16,000 and 60,000 respectively over the next five years.

Over in Taman Tun where I live, we residents have also filed for a judicial review against a condominium project of over 2,000 units located in the Rimba Kiara park (I am one of the plaintiffs).

What makes the case particularly galling is that despite Taman Rimba Kiara being designated as a public open space in the Draft KL City Plan 2020, a part of the land — where the project site is located — was inexplicably given to Yayasan Wilayah Persekutuan in 2014, which Kuala Lumpur Mayor Datuk Seri Mhd Amin Abd Aziz and Federal Territories Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor now claim to be “private land”.

Like Taman Desa, the Taman Tun lawsuit also runs into tens of thousands of ringgit.

Ordinary citizens should not have to spend so much money just to protect their interests.

What if a neighbourhood is poor with mostly working class residents who cannot afford to hire good lawyers (or any lawyer at all)? Such a neighbourhood arguably needs public parks and open spaces even more than rich ones because its residents cannot afford to spend on leisure or entertainment.  

Democracy should not be expensive.

While the judiciary is an avenue of justice, we shouldn’t have to resort to the courts all the time to defend our civil rights because this costs a lot of money. At the end of the day, only lawyers will benefit.

Malaysia’s democracy needs to be far more robust so that public officials are held accountable throughout their five-year term, and not only during the months ahead of a general election.

One way to strengthen democracy is to hold local council elections so that the mayor and local councillors, who have power over issues that affect our daily lives, will be forced to take residents’ interests into account in their decisions, whether it is to approve a condominium project or to raise parking rates in a neighbourhood. It would be even better if voters had the power to recall elected officials like mayors from office before their term is up, like in the United States.

“Politicking” isn’t necessarily bad. All lawmakers must have the threat of losing office constantly hanging over their heads. Otherwise, they are liable to be complacent at best and corrupt at worst.

A change of government, of course, is crucial to a robust democracy because political parties will learn not to take voters for granted. Malaysia, however, has had the same federal government since independence and the same state governments almost everywhere in the country except for Sabah and Kelantan, as well as Penang and Selangor since 2008 (plus Kedah and Perak for a single term and a brief spell).

The inertia of Malaysian democracy, however, seems to have made Pakatan Harapan parties — namely DAP and PKR — reluctant to further empower the people, through local council elections for example. They seem to be happy holding power over mayors and local councils simply by virtue of winning the state government, though they initially wanted to push for the third vote

But two terms on, there are still no local council elections in Selangor or Penang (though Penang did try to go to the courts to introduce them). Pakatan Harapan also appears unlikely to promise local council elections in its manifesto for the 14th general elections.

The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) is even worse, with Kuala Lumpur City Hall described as an “agency under Ministry of Federal Territories” on its website, as if the local council of the capital city is merely a government department with no authority of its own. Local councils are not “agencies.” Give City Hall some damn respect.

But since local council elections look like they won’t be introduced in the near future by whichever coalition forms the next government in GE14, we citizens are forced to use expensive lawyers to fight for our rights. And this battle is ours alone because both BN and Pakatan are not interested in structural democratic reforms.

We citizens must also break out of the mindset that we cannot go against the “government” or that the “government” always acts in our interests. They don’t.

It doesn’t matter which party is in power. Political parties and politicians are all alike in the sense that they will do whatever they want for their own benefit, like errant children, unless citizens keep watch over them like responsible parents and force them to “behave.” We must hold them accountable 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This is a joint effort. We can’t be lazy.

Some of my neighbours may have their own reasons for staying away from public protests to save Taman Rimba Kiara. Maybe they feel like they have to support “the government” in everything.

Politics doesn’t have to be black and white. We may like some things about a particular party, but also dislike other aspects. Some issues may be more important to us and hold more weight in our decision on which MP to elect in GE14.

But we are extremely selfish if we let our fellow citizens and neighbours do all the work to fight for all of us while we do nothing. In this country especially, where political parties on both sides of the divide hoard power for the few, every single person matters in the struggle to reclaim our rights.

Sitting out is not an option.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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