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Penang’s Women Lead Local Democracy

Counting the ballots. Credit: Anil Netto/IPS

Counting the ballots. Credit: Anil Netto/IPS

PENANG, Malaysia, Sep 27 2012 (IPS) - A unique electoral exercise in Penang state, promoting  participatory and gender-responsive decision-making at the grassroots level, may serve as a cue for the revival of local elections in Malaysia.  

Over three consecutive days, ending Sep. 23, low-income residents of high-rise flats on River Road, Penang Island, cast ‘ballots’ to compellingly indicate to planners their priorities.

Penang state consists of two parts – Penang Island, where the seat of government is, and Seberang Perai on the Malay peninsula. With a population of 1.5 million people Penang is an economically important state with a thriving tourist industry and port.

Before the polls, organisers had carried out a detailed census of 530 homes in  and found 1,667 eligible ‘voters’ (aged 10 and above) in the two participating blocks.

The residents, divided into five focus groups, discussed six key priorities for final polling: building maintenance (lifts, water pipes, roof leakages), cleanliness of common areas, recreational amenities, parking areas, better security and awareness raising programmes.

On the polling days, volunteers handed out booklets containing five coupons of token money – each coupon representing ‘100 ringgit′. The residents then cast these five coupons in one or more of six boxes laid out in a row – each box representing one of the six pre-identified priorities.

At least half the members of the focus groups were women. Volunteers, many of them women, helped distribute the coupons and oversaw the polling and the counting of votes.

Women made up about half the number of voters who participated and played a key role in persuading residents to come out to vote. In the end, almost 70 percent of the residents turned up to cast their votes.

Norjan Ibrahim, secretary of the residents association, was upbeat. “The residents feel this (polling process) is a good programme, which they welcome,” she told IPS.   

She felt confident that the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) would take action “because we have put in a lot of effort in soliciting public feedback. And I trust the women’s group carrying out this programme.”

Ibrahim was referring to the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC), set up to promote greater gender awareness, equality and justice and to empower women in all sectors.

The PWDC is a beneficiary of grants from the Penang state government, ruled since 2008 by a coalition of political parties that are in the opposition ranks at the federal level.

The federal government had suspended local council elections in 1960 (councillors are now mainly political appointees) making citizen involvement in the decision-making process difficult.  

Penang, ruled as it is by (national) opposition parties, is lobbying hard for the reinstatement of local elections to promote the vibrant local democracy that the state was once known for.

The polling process carried out at the flats is also part of a gender-responsive budgeting (GRB) project initiated by the PWDC in collaboration with the two local councils, the MPPP, and its counterpart on mainland Penang, the MPSP.

Under a three-year pilot project, the local councils are adopting GRB to take into account the needs of all the people, including women, children and people with disabilities when formulating budget priorities.

”The process has surpassed our expectations,” says Aloyah Bakar of the PWDC, pointing to the impressive voter turnout.

Children and teens participated strongly. “I voted for building maintenance. The lighting needs to be repaired as the place is dimly lit. Fire extinguishers are missing. I want the place to be clean and bright,” said Fareezuan Yusof, 15, told IPS.

Arash Fauwaz Asri, 16, said he voted for better parking facilities as cars and motorcycles are now haphazardly crammed into a small parking area next to the flats. “I feel this is a good way of getting views and it also strengthens neighbourhood ties.”

”The people here badly want change in this area as the local council has given insufficient attention to these flats,” said Hussain Hashim, the deputy chair of the flat residents’ association, acting as one of the ‘election observers’.

Walking around the blocks, Hussain, a driver for a catering business, pointed to low corridor railings in the high-rise blocks, which he said posed a potential danger to flat dwellers. Abandoned or broken down motorcycles are stacked in one corner at the rear of the premises.

Norjan nodded in agreement. “There are many problems here,” said the supervisor in a local hospital, rattling off poor rubbish disposal and collection, unsatisfactory lift maintenance and haphazard parking as key issues.

The results of the polling did not come as a surprise. Building maintenance polled the most votes, followed by security and cleanliness.

”Now the residents have the big task of putting together working papers which will be a tedious process that will require some ‘hand holding’,” says Aloyah.

The organisers will meet with the flat dwellers to come up a working paper on the three ‘winning’ needs and the paper will then be presented to the MPPP for incorporation in the local council’s 2014 budgeting process.

Observers say the process is commendable as it combines bottom-up participatory decision making with local democracy among women and men, young and old, in influencing how limited funds are to be allocated based on the people’s needs at the grassroots.    

In Ampang Jajar on mainland Penang, a similar exercise was carried out at the Ampangan flats a couple of weeks ago, drawing 65-70 percent of the eligible voters.

The result in Aampang Jajar was slightly different as children came out in large  numbers to vote: the ballot boxes that received the most votes was on for a  recreational park. That was followed closely by improved building maintenance and traffic lights.

The unique electoral process is the brainchild of contemporary artist Wong Hoy Cheong, who monitored the polling: ”For me the most satisfying thing has been watching the residents, including the women, take control of their own needs,” he told IPS.  

 

 
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