Malaysian society has been preoccupied with political discussion since the electoral 'tsunami' in of GE-12 back in March 2008. The result of the last election GE-13 left many feeling that the system, or distortion of the system, cheated them out of the chance of changing the political landscape of the country. However political aspirations, expectations, and debate have been primarily limited to the formal federal and state political arenas.
The Federal and State legislatures are not the only levels of government in Malaysia. Both the Penang and Selangor State governments have been toying with the idea of direct local government elections. However these initiatives have been blocked by both the federal Government and Election Commission (EC) 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 'winning voter hearts and minds' within Pakatan held states since 2008. These are the Village Security and Development Committees (JKKK), which exist in all Malaysian states except Perlis.
The first participatory approach to rural planning occurred during the British colonial period where rural resettlement schemes to create 'new villages' were enacted as a major strategy to stem communist insurgent influence among rural inhabitants. These programs at the time were under British military control. After independence, consultative Village Security and Development Committees (JKKK) were established under the Tun Razak era to assist in poverty eradication.
The Village Security and Development Committees are the 'eyes and ears' of government. The village head is responsible to the district officer and district councils charged with carrying out various government programs at the local level. This includes economic and infrastructure development, poverty eradication, and other general assistance programs involving various government agencies. Consequently the village head is seen as a representative of the state under the authority of the district officer, rather than a representative of the village.
The JKKK system was overhauled in June 2009 by Premier Najib Razak to develop more active participation of village committees in the rural planning and implementation processes. The aim of these reforms were to develop a 'bottom up' orientation to empower the JKKK 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. The results indicated that these courses were too standardized, formal, and theoretical to provide any real positive benefits. Moreover, many key JKKK people and those who had the interests of the community in mind did not for many reasons attend these 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 centres of political conflict between the Barisan Nasional and 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 bi-election in Terengganu. The JKKK system is very capable of harnessing kinship ties in rural areas as an election tool to garner votes for the BN, and 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 now also 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 than a community empowerment mechanism. Consequently it could be easily assumed that the system is now managed to with the sole objective of reaching 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 people 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. 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 village heads 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 benefitted 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 it's will upon the village population. A small minority can dominate 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 suppressing community empowerment. 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 wellbeing of rural communities. The government has been forced to reform the system a number of times.
Turning the corner?
If the village consultative process was structured in a more embracing way to attract more village cooperation, this process could have a major role to play in Malaysian rural life. Village consultative committees have the potential to be a game-changer. 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 wellbeing of their villages, where committee management must be along the lines of ...'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.
It is in this spirit that village consultative committees can start to look after the real interests of their respective communities with a deep sense of local purpose. The interests of the young, old, single mothers, disabled, and unemployed can be considered in this setting, where advice can go out to the relevant authorities that should serve rather than try to direct these communities.
This is where the crux of change must take place.
It's not about infrastructure and first class facilities, it's about mindset. The narrative of domination must be reframed to the narrative of serving. if this is achieved, then communities will be able to develop their own savings cooperatives and operate micro-credit schemes without any external assistance, rather than be, dependent upon handouts by domineering political patrons.
Self-management and independence brings a sense of pride that rural people in Malaysia deserve. It's time rural people gained the respect they deserve rather than being manipulated by the party political process.
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 developing the necessary capacities for the youth to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities that can be a source of both value as an enterprise at the individual level, and also create social value 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 there is a major drawback. Any change of government in the next general election requires political support from the rural heartland. The next election will be won and lost here. One of the keys to winning the rural heartlands will be control of the JKKK(P) system and the influence these committees can bring upon rural voters. This is where the frontline will be drawn for GE-14.
Village Consultative Committees are most likely to remain subservient to ruling interests for this purpose.
* Murray Hunter reads The Malaysian Insider.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.
~ The Malaysian Insider