Malaysia's Next General Election Front Line

Malaysian society has been preoccupied with political discussion since the electoral tsunami of GE-12 in March 2008. The result of the GE-13 election left many feeling that the system, or the distortion of the system, had cheated them out of the chance of changing the political landscape.

Political aspirations, expectations and debate have been primarily limited to the formal federal and state political arenas, however. The federal and state legislatures are not the only levels of government. Both the Penang and Selangor governments have been toying with the idea of direct local government elections. These initiatives have been blocked by both the federal government and the Election Commission on various grounds.

There is yet another level within the system government that has been ignored and almost forgotten about within the public domain, although it has been a battle front in the fight for influence within Pakatan-held states since 2008. These are the Village Security and Development Committees, which exist in all Malaysian states except Perlis. Originally designed to assist in poverty eradication, they have been turned into political machines devised to perpetuate local governments in power.

Consultative Village Security and Development Committees were established under the Tun Razak era to assist in poverty eradication. They were at the time very top down in their approach, where village heads or ketua kampung were believed by the government to be able to articulate the needs and aspirations of kampung, or rural village people to the district officers around the country, who were the prime implementers of rural development policy.

Most of the planning and implementation of major resettlement schemes during this period involved the local participation of the JKKKs, as they were known in the local vernacular.

The committees were the eyes and ears of government. The village head was responsible to the district officer and district councils charged with carrying out various government programs at the local level. This included economic and infrastructure development, poverty eradication, and other general assistance programs involving various government agencies. Consequently the village head was seen as a representative of the state under the authority of the district officer, rather than a representative of the village.

The system was overhauled in 2009 by Premier Najib Tun Razak to develop more active participation of village committees in the rural planning and implementation processes. The aim of these reforms was to develop a more bottom-up approach at the local level to empower the committees to develop their own project proposals and programs, and also oversee the implementation, under the supervision of both the Housing and Local Government, and Rural Development Ministries.

However it was soon found there was a deep lack of manpower and available skills at village level to achieve anything substantial. The Institut kemajuan Desa or Village Development Institute (INFRA) subsequently developed a series of programs to develop capacities of village residents. However it was found that these courses were too standardized, formal, and theoretical to provide any real positive benefits. Moreover key JKKK people and those who had the interests of the community in mind did not attend the courses.

This caused to whole program to be reviewed once again. An announcement of further changes is due later this year.

The Barisan-Pakatan Battlefield

Although the JKKK committees are based on state legislation, they have become centers of political conflict between the Barisan Nasional and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat. In Pakatan run states like Penang and Kelantan, the federal government created a parallel JKKKP system without any supporting legislative basis.

The importance of the committees could be clearly seen in the role they played in the recent Kuala Besut by-election in Terengganu. The JKKK system is very capable of harnessing kinship ties in rural areas as an election tool that can garner votes for the BN. This is the major reason why the JKKKP was formed by the federal government after the 2008 election.

A close relationship between politicians and village communities has maintained the status quo for the BN in rural Malaysia.

The Pakatan Government is also now very heavily reliant on the committees to look after 'their voters' in Penang.

The JKKK has been seen by both sides of politics as a political tool to attack their political adversaries at the community level rather as a community empowerment mechanism. Consequently it could be easily assumed that the system is now managed to reach people at village level for political influence rather than with any major intentions of gathering bottom up information and consultation to aid rural planning and development process.

The Current Troubles with the JKKK(P) Systems

The current JKKK(P) process hosts many problems which need to be resolved if there are to be any real benefits to rural communities.

Primarily those selected as village heads are usually those who herald political ambition. They often hold party positions within UMNO. This leads to a highly politicized system, where rather than focusing on bringing new farming methods to their areas, looking after village security, tackling social issues, and strengthening livelihoods through making available more entrepreneurial opportunities, many use their position to obtain financial benefits.

There have been cases of village heads leasing out communal lands to corporations without any benefits being derived by their communities. In places like Sabah, many village heads have benefited personally through logging contracts, which have actually caused flooding within local communities due to lack of any land management. In many cases village heads have become brokers and patrons rather than representatives, focusing on intra-party affairs rather than rural development.

In addition, a number of village heads actually don't live in their areas of responsibility. In places like Rantau Panjang Kelantan, villagers must travel great distances to find their federally appointed village heads who are required to sign school enrollment forms.

Through government appointed village heads, the ruling party is able to force its will upon the village population, where a minority can become more powerful than an unorganized majority. The village head's access to funds and services aids their ability to control many aspects of village life.

The JKKK(P) structure ensures the exercise of state authority into the most remote communities of the country, and this is not assisting in any empowerment to these communities. Village heads are political appointees, who along with district officers are too often seen as beneficiaries of development policies. In Malaysia today, the JKKK(P) is just used as another means to reward supporters.

The current community consultative process has taken on some of the worst feudal characteristics of Malaysian political institutions. The system has failed to provide policymakers with true feedback on community needs, enable efficient implementation and delivery of services, nor assist in creating any sustainable well-being of rural communities. The government has been forced to reform the system a number of times.

If the village consultative process was structured in a more embracing way to attract more village cooperation, this process would have a major role to play in Malaysian rural life. Not only could this very grassroots political institution assist in the policy making and delivery process, but also act as a major medium of community empowerment that can possibly change the lives of many rural people.

If communities were allowed to select their own representatives, coordinators, and leaders, and able to scrutinize them in a transparent, accountable, and responsible manner, the level of trust, respect, and acceptance of village leaders would drastically rise with far reaching impacts on the mainstream political process.

Village consultative committees should carry the hallmark of democratic accountability rather than be an extension tool of governments on both sides of the political spectrum. The village consultative system cannot be an extension of any political party or grouping. The leaders of community consultative committees must be those who are generally concerned with the well-being of their villages, where committee management must be along the lines of the people, for the people, and by the people living in each locality. Absentee leadership should be seen for what it is; a past relic of feudalism.

Village consultative committees must be primarily concerned with the development of a sustainable community lifestyle that also respects cultural integrity. To achieve this, special efforts must be put into finding and developing the necessary capacities for the youth to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities that can be a source of both value as an enterprise and within the community. The current system has miserably failed on this premise.

Many people involved in Malaysian rural development will be looking closely at the new scheduled reforms that will be announced by Premier Najib Razak later in the year.

However any change of government in the next general election requires political support from the rural heartland. One of the keys to this will be control of the JKKK(P) system and the influence these committees can bring upon rural voters. This is where the frontlines will be drawn for GE-14. Village Consultative Committees are most likely to remain subservient to ruling interests for this purpose.