NOVEMBER 29, 2013
|Tunku 'Abidin Muhriz is founding president of the |
Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas).
NOV 29 — Two weeks ago, it was reported that Kuala Lumpur City Hall would be revaluing property in the capital, causing increases in assessment rates for the first time in 21 years, effective Jan 1 next year.
Of course there was an immediate outcry from property owners, particularly since some of the half million residents who received notices reported increases of 250 per cent. Two former mayors critiqued the idea, too, with the immediate past mayor pointing out that he left the city RM3 billion in reserves.
Some opposition supporters characterised the decision as a punishment on the city’s voters for voting Pakatan Rakyat, and yet another burden on the people after the Goods and Services Tax (GST). (The comparison is disingenuous: while GST was in the Barisan Nasional manifesto and part of a wider reform of taxation, the rate hike announcement came out of the blue.
The recent admonition that “not paying tax is treason” left a bad taste, though. If government spending is profligate, unaccountable and contrary to promises made to the people, then it is much more patriotic to spend on efficient businesses and worthy charities instead.)
In a stunning volte-face (as I write this), it seems the sustained campaign for property owners to protest and submit letters of complaint to City Hall has worked. The implementation of the rate hike has been postponed, and now legitimate questions will be asked about how this policy was ever decided upon in the first place. It also reignites questions about how our capital city is governed.
Most of the great cities of the world have a directly elected mayor and a city legislature to perform wide-ranging executive and legislative functions at a decentralised level.
Some mayors have the authority to bring in foreign direct investment and even have powers over police (in countries where police forces themselves are decentralised). The democratic legitimacy and powers of KL’s institutions pale by comparison, and the battlecry coined by British colonists in America and repeated in Washington DC today, “no taxation without representation”, is gaining currency here too.
I have seen our current mayor at cultural events, and he is an affable ambassador of our capital. But wouldn’t it be great if our mayors had real authority to champion their cities and have the power to compete with other cities in the country? And to do so with the legitimacy of people who voted them into office, instead of depending on the patronage of the federal or state government?
Dynamic mayors can do much for the identity of the city, and some become celebrities in their own right, like Michael Bloomberg and Boris Johnson (and now Rob Ford of Toronto, for perhaps less good reasons).
And greater decentralisation could lead to entirely new concepts in government, like participatory budgeting so local communities could decide whether they want more street lights instead of CCTVs, or an urban farm instead of another futsal court. Then people might have a different attitude towards property taxes.
So how do we move towards such possibilities?
Personally, I would first correct a historical anomaly by returning KL to the Sultanate of Selangor, as the 1974 separation was a political fix outshone only by the federal government’s two additional annexations. I accept that this will be almost impossible: there is zero political will and uncertain popular support for this, and the federal territories already have so many symbols of identity — flag, anthem, honours, even senators — that would be difficult to erase.
Other proponents of decentralisation argue that the federal territories might as well be turned into a full state: the benefit being that residents would get representation in a state legislative assembly and have a state government. But that would set an alarming precedent.
So far, every state has predated the federation as a kingdom or colony and independently lent their sovereignty to the Federation of Malaya and Malaysia (and before that, the Federated Malay States, drawing inspiration from an old federation called Negri Sembilan).
If we allow the federal government to carve up existing states to create new states, it would undermine the foundational logic of our country. Furthermore, even if an “FT state” were to be created, it would not enjoy much autonomy in the current context anyway: for example, city councillors could not be elected as local government elections are still banned nationwide.
While the two above scenarios may help in the process of decentralisation, neither is really necessary in granting our capital city a more local and accountable democratic framework. With the appropriate federal legislation, KL could still have an elected mayor and an elected city hall: and they, rather than appointees of the prime minister, could decide whether to revalue property or determine how to assess rates.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.