Legal & historical perspectives on local government elections

- at the Restore Local Government Forum organised by DAP
by Mr Ramdas Tikamdas

(Kuala Lumpur,  Sunday):

  Early  British colonial period

In Malaysia, the idea of elections to form a government of elected representatives of the people started with British occupation. The first recorded elections in Malayan history is the Municipal elections in Penang in 1911. Apparently there were two candidates and the defeated candidate lodged a protest that the other had hired a motorbus to convey voters to the poll. In any event this first experiment appears to have been a false start because in 1913 the British colonial power transformed the partly elected governing body of the Penang municipality into one wholly appointed by the Governor  1

Second World War And Road to Self Government 

The next phase appears to fast forward to the Second World War, the Japanese occupation and the return of the British, this time with the myth of their invincibility shattered. This was also the period of nationalism and independence movements in Asia. In this phase, free elections emerged as part of the British colonial regime’s programme to grant independence to Malaya. After the Second World War, the British mooted the idea of the Malayan Union which came into force on April 1, 1946. Opposition from the Malays led to its replacement by the Federation of Malaya under the Federation of Malaya Agreement of February 1, 1948. 

The latter envisaged self-government for the territory and to that end provided for the introduction of legislation that would lead to the election of members to the legislatures of the component states of the Federation and to the national legislature. The progress to a fully elected national chamber was visualized as a progress from local authority elections to the state-level elections and finally to the Federal Legislative Council.

It was this vision that led to the passage of the Local Authorities Elections Ordinance 1950. Under this Ordinance the first nominations were received for the municipal elections of Malacca on November 1, 1951 but all the candidates were returned unopposed. The Penang municipal elections was on December 1, 1951 and was the first popular elections for government at any level after the formation of the Federation of Malaya. Kuala Lumpur then held its own elections in 1952. 

Thereafter the Local Councils Ordinance 1952 extended the system of elected local authorities to areas not covered by the Local Authorities Elections Ordinance 1950. This included New Villages into which people were forced during the communist insurgency  which began in 1948. All residents, including non-citizens were permitted to vote and be candidates  2

Independence and self-governance 

The first federal elections of 1955 and national independence on 31st August 1957 saw a vibrant extension of elections for the local government in various centers especially George Town, Malacca, Ipoh, Seremban, Johore Bahru and Taiping. In the 1950’s and 1960’s there were 373 local authorities that had well over 3000 elected representatives out of a total of some 4,223 local councilors. This number excluded those of the Kuala Lumpur Municipality, which came under a separate jurisdiction because it was the federal capital  3

Voting Pattern 

While at the federal level, the Alliance swept the elections of 1955 and won comfortably in 1959 (except for Terengganu and Kelantan which fell to PMIP) at the elections for the local government, the pattern of voting was different. 

The opposition Labour Party, the Peoples Progressive Party and the Malayan Party all demonstrated the ability to win in urban areas where their strength was centred. 

The Table below illustrates the voting trend from 1956-1961 in various urban centers  4.

 Seats won in selected local authority elections


  Alliance Lab/SF NAP  PPP Ind.    MP
George Town            
1956  7 5     3  
1957 5 8     2  
1961 1 14        
1956 11     1    
1957 9   1 2    
1961 2     16    
1956 7 5     3  
1957 7 5     2  
1961 4 2        
Johore Baharu            
1956 10          
1957 10          
1961 10 4        
1956 9          
1957 7 2        
1961 13       2  
1956 2         4
1957 6 1       5
1961 5 5       2



The geophysical history of Malaya changed radically with the formation of Malaysia in 1963. This was immediately met with Indonesian Confrontation  which led to the declaration of Emergency on 3rd September 1964. The Emergency  led to the suspension of local authority elections. This suspension was executed through the enactment of two regulations, the Emergency (Suspension of Local Government Elections) Regulation (1965) and Amendment Regulations (1965). The suspension was never lifted and in the meantime the government commissioned an inquiry to study the operation of local authorities. 

The Athi Nahappan Report     

In June 1965 the government set up a “Royal Commission of Inquiry on Local Authorities” headed by Senator Athi Nahappan. It completed its work in December 1968 coming out strongly in support of elected councils. Some of the more important recommendations made were :- 5

  • Every state capital should be administered  by  a  local  authority   and have   elective  representation. The  same  principle  should  also    be extended to all local councils outside state capitals.

  • There should be one single law applicable throughout the country relating to and governing local authorities, and every state should adopt and enforce the law within six months after it has been passed by Parliament.

  • A local authority should be decentralized and should be an autonomous body corporate consisting of fully elected members with financial and administrative autonomy but subject to control of the State Government on matters of national importance and interest.

  • Party politics should be allowed to continue despite its good and bad aspects and candidates should continue to have the right to stand as “independents”.

  • A Local Government Tribunal should be constituted by the State Authority of every local authority.

The Commission’s recommendation for the restoration of local government elections was never adopted. After Konfrontasi came the 1969 racial clashes and a new declaration of Emergency. 

Abolition of Local Authority Elections 

The enactment of the Local Government Act 1976 led to the abolition of local authority elections. The Act provided that the Mayor or President and all Councillors of a local authority, ie City Council, Municipal Council or District Council shall be appointed by the State Authority. The Commissioner of the City of Kuala Lumpur would be appointed by the Yang Di Pertuan Agong on the advise of the Prime Minister. 

The Present 

This is the system of local government we now have which accounts for our incomplete or truncated franchise. Hence the need for obvious reform and the urgent need to seriously reexamine and reconsider the Athi Nahappan Report for the restoration of local government elections, especially in the light of UN Agenda 21, (Chapter 28) which refers to “Local Authorities Initiatives” as a level of governance closest to the people. That is the substance of democracy we ought to strive for as we move towards vision 2020.

In the meantime we can only hang our heads in shame that a Member of Parliament, a State Assemblymen and four other public spirited citizens have been arrested on 1st March 2005 at the Freedom Square (Dataran Merdeka) opposite the hallowed Courts of Justice for exercising their legitimate right to campaign for the 3rd vote to give back the vote at the local level to the people. 

The march towards 2020 is not just a matter of computation of the financial indicators, but must necessarily involve positive steps for democracy.  Bringing back franchise at the local government level is one such positive  step towards achieving the vision .     

1.         S. Sothi Rachagan, (1993) Law And the Electoral Process in Malaysia ; University of Malaya Press , p4.

2.         ibid p5. 

3.         Johan Saravanamuttu, The Snuffing Out of Local Democracy in Malaysia ;  Aliran Vol 20 issue 4 (2000).

4.         Gordon P Means, (1970) Malaysian Politics University of London Press, p 251.  

5.         Saravanamuttu, (2000).



* Ramdas Tikamdas, Human Rights Advocate