(Editor’s note: A paper presented to the International Forum on Malaysia 50 Years On: Expectation Vs. Reality,1 BORNEO GRAND BALLROOM; Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia on 5th October, 2013]
Malaysian society has been preoccupied with political discussion since the electoral ‘tsunami’ 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 has 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.
A history of village participation
The first participatory approach to rural planning occurred during the British colonial period where the authorities created ‘new village’ resettlement schemes 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. They were however ‘top down’in the approach taken, where village heads or ketua kampong were believed by the government to be able to articulate the needs and aspirations of kampong 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 like DARA, JENGKA, KETENGAH, and KESEDAR involved the local participation of JKKKs.
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 was to create a ‘bottom up’ orientation that would empower the JKKK committees to develop their own project proposals and programs. The JKKK committees would 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 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 working to make 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 – The Emancipated Village Consultative Committee
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 could 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.
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.
Village consultative committees can build upon the sense of community prevailing in most rural areas. A truly representative and consultative committee may bring a sense of local ownership into new projects, and positive attitudes about individual fate and the community’s future. A sense of community is one of the most desirable “Malaysian” cultural traits that should be encouraged and built upon, otherwise the narratives of national unity will just remain the myth they are today.
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. Ministries act within a facilitating 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 intent of dismissive domination must be reframed to the narrative of serving. if this is achieved, communities will be able to engage in worthwhile projects like developing their own savings cooperatives which extend 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.
The necessity for this grassroots democratic institution can best be seen where it doesn’t exist. Former Perlis Chief Minister Shahidan Bin Kassim dismantled the JKKK system in Perlis, leaving local communities with many unsolved problems as newly elected PKR state member Chan Ming Kai has found out. Most of his time is spent solving basic community problems. Village consultative committees have a role to play within their communities that government agencies fail to cover. They can intervene in family disputes, solving land disputes, the sharing of communal land use, recommending needed infrastructure, recreational, and social facilities, and assisting in solving the youth alienation issue. This would be especially the case if the federal ministries and state governments are prepared to play a supportive rather than directive role.
Village consultative committees can play a major role in the identification, discussion, and offering solutions to problems related to village life and surrounding hinterland. Through their spokespeople, coordinators, and leaders, these communities can begin to discuss and disseminate village views to government authorities.
This would be in stark contrast to what is happening now, where the district officer gets advice from absentee village heads, with little village consultation. Prioritized project lists are sent to ministries often bearing little relationship to community needs, becoming ‘white elephants’ where individuals have financially benefitted on the failure. The allocation of projects to specific areas has become an election tool which the BN still firmly controls. Financial abuse is a major problem.
Village consultative committees have a major role to play in creating development programs that really assist the people and reduce corruption. This is not to mention the other benefits of community consultative committees where new leaders can be nurtured, local entrepreneurship can be encouraged, practical education to the community encouraged, and assistance in community law enforcement provided. With the right knowledge and skills available, village consultative committees could be at the vanguard in creating a new sustainable Malaysian hinterland.
However most importantly, the village consultative committee will bring an important new level of democratic practice to Malaysia, something that would have not just a major influence on shaping future rural policy, but on shaping the future of the whole country.
The village consultative process needs to evolve past the party political process, if it is going to play a role in rural development and the democratic process of Malaysia. It must proceed with transparency and accountability or the feudal cancer that is holding back Malaysian development will creep back into the consultative system.
The whole village consultative process should be apolitical, based on the principals of self help, cooperation, and capability development at both the social and entrepreneurial levels. However most importantly the village consultative process must enable the voices of rural Malaysia to espouse their needs and aspirations, and empower them to solve their own problems, with assistance rather than live in the current culture of dependency that successive BN governments have fostered for the purpose of political domination.
Towards a new level of democracy
It’s time that rural Malaysians have a greater say in their own affairs and control over their local community assets. This will redistribute power away from the central government back to the people. As a consequence federal policy must shift from an emphasis on developing physical infrastructure towards community based education models to support village empowerment projects. The community consultative program should become one of the forces that bring Malaysian democracy into the 21st century, through the fostering of this new level of peoples’ self governance.
Such an initiative like this will have its critics, particularly those who have a lot to lose by it – both sides of the formal political system. The redistribution of power and inability to control the village anymore is a big threat to those in power at state and federal levels. Community Consultative Committees should take away opportunities for those who want to act according to their own benefit and greed.
There are also those who will attempt to politicize Village consultative Committees for their own advancement. This must be strongly resisted as it will take away from the potential objective discussions that should go on within these committees. Finally these committees must be run in the true interests of developing and managing the local community.
Emancipating the JKKK system will assist in moving from a feudalistic to a meritocratic system at the very grassroots of the country. Community Consultative Committees are a way of eliminating cronyism and bringing new forms of wealth to rural communities. This should assist in opening up new opportunities to enhance rural livelihood and become a training ground for the country’s future leaders.
True political, economic, and democratic change would come into the hands of the people for the first real time since Merdeka, where people will have the power to pursue their own self determination. Democracy must begin at home and this is one of the greatest gifts that could be given to Malaysia.
It was the Saemaul Undong movement that helped rural Korea progress in the 1970s and the One Tambun One Product (OTOP) movement that helped rural Thailand develop over the last decade. It could be the Village Consultative Committee movement that helps rural Malaysia evolve into a hinterland of activity that will benefit the nation.
Prof. Murray Hunter is one of the frequent contributors for The 4th Media.