The frontline in Malaysia's next general election
By Murray Hunter
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 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.
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. They were however 'top down' in their approach, 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 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.