The twin Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur's business district (Photo: Gerson Kurz)

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Local government in Malaysia
Malaysia’s towns and cities are
governed by appointed mayors

By Andrew Stevens, Deputy Editor

6 March 2006: Occupying the tip of the Malayan Peninsula and part of the island of Borneo, Malaysia is a federation of 13 largely autonomous states. The federation emerged as the post-colonial solution to demands for Malayan independence as well as the struggles taking place elsewhere in the region among British colonies. Having achieved independence within the British Commonwealth in 1957, Malaya expanded to become Malaysia in 1963, though Singapore left the federation in 1965. In addition to the 13 states, nine of which are sultanates, there are three federal territories. The states exercise considerable power over local affairs, even appointing councils and mayors.

Like neighbouring Indonesia and some regions of the Philippines, the influence of Islam remains strong in Malaysian society and governance. During the period of British rule, Malaya’s sultans were allowed to continue their dominance of local affairs and effectively governed on Britain’s behalf. Furthermore, the influx of Chinese and Indian labour during this period led to a more diverse population than the ethnic Malays alone. Britain’s possession of its Malayan colonies was effectively ended by Japanese occupation during the second world war and although it was keen to embark upon withdrawal within the context of the ailing post-war UK economy, it waged a six-year war against Communist insurgents, who having formed the resistance against the Japanese then viewed independence as their military goal. Malaysia emerged independent against a wider backdrop of British imperial retreat in the early 1960s however.

Malaysia is a constitutional elective monarchy, chosen for five years among the nine sultans. Malaysia’s federal government is constituted along the same lines as the Westminster model adopted by many former British colonies, but in practice the executive has come to dominate political affairs, especially under Prime Minister Mahathir. The parliament, located in the capital Kuala Lumpur, consists of two houses – the Chamber of the Nation and the Chamber of the People. The Chamber of the Nation, or Senate, consists of 69 senators who sit for six year terms, 43 appointed by the king and 26 from the states. The lower house’s 193 representatives are elected from single member divisions for up to five years and by universal adult suffrage (21 years and over). The Prime Minister, who is appointed by the king as the leader of the majority party or coalition, must sit in the lower house. Since independence in 1957, the United Malays National Organisation has dominated its politics and since 1973 governed alongside other parties, though the Prime Minister has always come from the UMNO. Under Article 153 of its constitution, Malays are accorded certain political and civil privileges. Malaysia’s media is also tightly controlled by the government through the issuing of printing licences.

The nine sultanates are each governed by an elected chief minister, in addition to their hereditary ruler. The four states without hereditary rulers are governed by ceremonial governors and executive chief ministers appointed by central government however. The federal territories, including capital Kuala Lumpur, are governed directly by the Ministry of Federal Territories. Local councils, which have not been elected since 1970, but appointed to by the states themselves, fall under the jurisdiction of the Minister of Housing and Local Government, under the 1976 Local Government Act. Elections were suspended following racial disturbances during the 1969 local elections. However, the Malaysian constitution also provides for each state to govern its own arrangements by ordinance.

The two main division of local government are rural district councils and urban centres. There are two types of urban council: city councils and municipalities. All types of local government perform the same functions. Municipalities can be upgraded to cities once they satisfy the required criteria. There are nine city councils, 34 municipal councils and 101 district councils. However, cities are led by mayors, while municipalities and districts are led by presidents. The state governments, elected every five years, appoint mayors, presidents and all councillors. The appointments are for three-year terms, but individuals may be reappointed. This is uniform across the country. The council decision-making process is through a committee structure determined by the local authority, including the committees provided for in legislation.

Executive powers lie with the mayor in the city councils, and presidents in the municipal and district councils. They are appointed by their state governments on either a part-time or full-time basis. The state government also sets remuneration. The respective state governments establish executive committees, which are chaired by the mayor or president. Councils can establish other general or specific committees at their discretion.

Local government is responsible for public health and sanitation, waste removal and management, town planning, environmental protection and building control, social and economic development and general maintenance functions of urban infrastructure.

World Mayor 2023