JUNE 15 — Suntex Market at 10am on any Saturday is buzzing. Inside the action among sellers and buyers, compounded by frenzied patrons filing vehicles in and out, and roadside peddlers and illegal parkers impeding access to the ever-frequented lottery offices blocks apart.
Spare a thought for the commuters passing through to and away from the adjacent MRT station, which celebrates its sixth birthday next month.
A busy, busy day at this end of Cheras.
However, few knew — on this particular Saturday, June 10, 2023 — above the loud wet market, a session of major significance to the community was underway.
In the multipurpose hall, Majlis Perbandaran Kajang (MPKj) [Kajang Municipality] was conducting its business with the people of Zon 2 (Two).
A townhall, they called it.
Under 40 individuals seated in plastic chairs in a venue meant for 200. Empty was the feeling despite the masses just outside the door. Empty is a euphemism for many things related to MPKj.
The low attendance is intended. The purported townhall allocated a maximum two slots for each resident association (RA) and village committee.
There are 20,000 annual complaints, disclosed by MPKj — a body shy to meet residents outside its headquarters. So, in the rare instance council officers show up, expect an army of people — pitchforks, optional — showing up.
Unfortunately, the masses are barred from this townhall, and other meetings.
To be fair, which is far more than what MPKj affords its ratepayers, all 12 councils in Selangor prefer not to engage directly with the people who pay their salary, the rakyat.
The officers, including the president (Yang DiPertua) or Mayor, are happy to attend, officiate and be honoured at events. They just do not like to be questioned. True to their senior civil servant instincts.
They loathe direct questions because they necessitate answers, hopefully to the very questions.
Naturally, they avoid discourse like the plague.
They prefer orchestrated functions where they look good.
To add insult to the situation, at this townhall, in the absence of a built-in PA system, the council set up two portable speakers and four microphones, with no consideration for the hall’s acoustics.
The result? Neither speakers nor attendees could hear each other’s presentations properly.
Even the veiled attempt at interactivity was dysfunctional.
After sitting through an absolute waste of time on a Saturday, listening to officers waxing lyrical about their own heroics on behalf of the thankless people of Kajang and Cheras, I am filled with rage. But there were illuminations, too.
Two sides of a bureaucratic mess
For the uninitiated, while the real power is in Putrajaya under the PM’s thumb, actual governing happens at the local councils.
Because every issue that really matters to regular voters is decided and managed at the local council. Council decides dengue deaths, propensity for floods, sanitation, waste management and deserted malls.
It’s expected to coordinate our lakes, streams, playgrounds, lights and local programmes to raise our quality of life — a complex proposition grounded on community engagement and input.
So close to the people — in theory — it intervenes where drug abuse, youth detachment and homelessness pervades.
Presumably proactive about housing, joblessness, entrepreneurship and building commercial and social hubs.
Think of a thing which matters, and it is under a local council.
But in 1965 Malaysia, the feudal federal government decided urban activists — also their political opponents — destabilise cities via elections so it nixed local council elections.
Instead, opaque bureaucracies run our cities, towns and districts.
The racial excuse ignores the long-term ramifications of arrested development at local government.
Countries developed, developing or under-developed, nurture grassroots politics at local councils via elections.
The absence of local council elections is akin to attending secondary school without a primary education — the foundation goes missing.
Democracy has been denied at the most central part of service delivery to the rakyat for nearly 60 years.
Even the efforts in the last 15 years in my home state of Selangor to reverse the trend have failed due to a lack of conviction and an unwillingness to go the distance.
Pakatan Harapan, in those years, increased exponentially the number of councillors from six or seven to 24 for each council. But they are still appointed by the state, not elected by the residents of those councils.
While councillors oversee zones — the town is divided into 24 to match the members’ numbers — they have the burden to deliver without truly the power to do so.
Power remains with the 200-800 civil servants at each council — from mayor to enforcement officer. They in turn supervise the hundreds of contractors or approve businesses from pasar malam to nightclubs.
The councillors are part-timers required to work fulltime to meet residents’ needs without the power to control the civil servants, who report to the ministry of local government.
Twenty-two — have to exclude the mayor and Orang Besar (the sultan’s representative — with limited staff have to force up to 800 civil servants to comply.
It’s designed to frustrate councillors, just as the townhall disappoints residents. Only the civil servants are satisfied in their protected space far from the rakyat and criticism.
Which is why my ire is not directed to MPKj Zone Two Councillor Farhan Haziq Mohamed but rather at rigid and impervious senior civil servants.
Here are some highlights from that Saturday:
• Taman Alam Jaya’s RA wants a posted schedule since they allege Myanmarese UNCHR refugees and Africans monopolise the football pitch.
• KDEB Waste Management, the master contractor for Selangor said challenges such as trash overload and under-capacity due to lorry breakdowns or vehicle inspection can be mitigated if assessment rates were increased. Nice to have contractors show up and tell residents that if they got paid more, they’d do a better job.
• Residents are curious about areas converted to gated communities blocking traffic. Councillor’s response was inconclusive.
• The Director for Corporate Planning and Public Relations Unit (Maybe reduce to Think & Share Unit — simplifying government, eh?) prided in the multiple contact points — e-complaint, email, phone number, normal hotline and 24-7 hotline. Yet all attendees had longstanding problems. Which contact point did they miss using?
• Cuepacs Cheras RA accused civil servants of being unavailable even though Councillor Farhan always is. Work cannot be done without directors and officers, according to them.
• Taman Kemacahaya RA wants traffic lights at their Hulu Langat exit.
The last one is perfect to illustrate how a townhall when done right, helps.
If Kemacahaya RA’s demand seems reasonable on the surface then MPKj can call all stakeholders affected by this traffic lights proposal. The other RAs using the trunk road, the business on the strip, town planners and engineers, JKR, police and others.
A whole meeting with all those related to the issue presenting the multi-facets of the issue.
That’s what the townhall can do. Shine more light, a more inclusive and balanced light on the request and use that to decide thereafter.
This suggested use of a townhall underlines the larger theme of a great working local council. At this level, the issues are relatable, common and personal.
Unlike at Parliament deciding maritime borders, territorial rights, financial regulations and the rest, at the local level, the issues here are plainer but demand broader participation.
A townhall reflects the microcosm of the local council’s myriad of tasks. They are about conversations, communications and persuasions at the grassroots level. Done, many, many times.
Which is why local council work spots talent. Former US president Barack Obama was a city organiser in Chicago before he served in the state, Senate before the Oval Office.
Which is why expecting the civil servants who are more committed to the minister and state administration to run the local council for the locals is an anathema. It is against their nature. Their credo.
The whole thing is messed up. Local councils only work if leaders are elected, and the staff report to the locals via the leaders.
If elected councillors cannot sack or hire the council staff, then no amount of townhalls, e-counters, booklets or pictures of civil servants in mis-sized suits can solve problems. Often, they exacerbate problems.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.