Locals know best

Azmyl Yunor

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is among the many national leaders who rose to prominence via local elections. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, December 22, 2023.

LET me ask you a simple question: Who is the current mayor of Kuala Lumpur?

Don’t know? Neither do I. Who cares?

Heck, try even asking the locals in the capital cities of all the Malaysian states, and I bet my hard-earned 10 Pound that not many would know their mayors (or as we call them here, Datuk Bandar) by name or even recognise them if they weren’t paraded in some official event or ceremony.

I’m excited that the issue of local council elections cropped up in news this week, with certain quarters arguing against it with the usual (yawn) racial tint, while more pragmatic supporters contend that it would bring about good governance and accountability.

Me? I’m all for it. I’ve always been an advocate for local council elections as a private citizen because I believe that it’s both a litmus test and a good training ground for local leaders for the bigger stage.

A good example of this in the region is Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who first came to prominence in local council elections. He was elected mayor of Solo. He raised the profile of the city, which led to his eventual governorship of Jakarta and then the presidency.

While our parliamentary system might not be so direct, local council elections will at least give the opportunity to local leaders to shine and possibly not be tied down along political party lines (although I feel it eventually will).

We can, for once, elect a leader directly and not because they are the leader of a party with the majority support.

Here’s my three sens on why it will be great to finally get to elect our own mayors.

Local leaders know local issues

While one might argue that this is already the case with present Members of Parliament and State Assembly Representatives, a mayor will have a more direct impact on the community that falls within the local council jurisdiction, even more so if he or she is a local personality with no direct political party links.

This is an opportunity for the public to see local politics operate outside of the usual party-based allegiances.

Don’t ask me how the elected mayors would operate—I’m commenting here as a private citizen—but I can imagine how more focused the campaigns would be because when the stakes are localised, the local economy will be the major focus.

I’m also making the assumption that unlike federal or state politics, the local voters would be more sceptical of a candidate who is parachuted in from the outside. Hence, a local figure will be considered the best candidate.

More direct accountability

With a directly elected mayor, there is no more hiding behind the bigger “council”.

All the present mayors, the way I see it in my everyday man eyes, are promoted to the post as some form of “reward” either for their outstanding track record, seniority, loyalty, or all of the above.

We, the rakyat, never had a say in who or when someone can be our mayor.

This may also explain why most current mayors are so out of step with the times and are sometimes arbitrarily transferred to another city council without considering the rakyat’s opinions.

In other words, the current mayors are all just government servants who are at the beck and call of the state government.

As the motto goes in Malay “Yang Menjalankan Tugas.” Autonomy should permit more accountability, although I am sure this will take some time even if local council elections are reintroduced.

I recently visited the rather maudlin Petaling Jaya Museum - you should go check it out - and I saw the display of the previous mayors of Petaling Jaya, and naturally, I had no idea who they were.

They could have been fellows who served me behind the counter when I renewed my licence at the post office for all I know.

Incubator for future national leaders

There are many national leaders who rose to prominence by being mayors in countries around the world.

Local council elections would, for once, create a kind of leadership stepping stone for those whose ambition is to become a national leader.

The quarters who are against local elections are well known to follow the “warlord” system, so naturally, they don’t like the idea of having other people decide their upward trajectory, but that system is really a cheat and, as we have seen again and again, one of the many roots of money politics and corruption.

I’d like to see, for once, a leader who really is a leader of the people who rose from among the people.

* Azmyl Yunor is a touring underground recording artiste, and an academic in media and cultural studies. He has published articles on pop culture, subcultures and Malaysian cultural politics. He adheres to the three-chords-and-the-truth school of songwriting, and Woody Guthrie’s maxim “All you can write is what you see”. He is @azmyl on Twitter.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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