DBKL remove flagsAPRIL 20 ― I filed a complaint to the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) as early as April 9 on the setting up of political flags in Taman Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI) before nomination day on April 28, an offence under Section 24B(4) of the Election Offences Act 1954 that states campaign materials can only be displayed during the official campaign period.

Unapproved political flags put up before nomination day of the 14th general election are essentially illegal advertisements, no different than illegal banners and advertisements offering various services.

They are an offence under the Advertisement By-laws (Federal Territory) 1982 and the Vandalism By-laws (Federal Territory Kuala Lumpur) 1991.

After repeated reminders of my complaint to DBKL, which I had emailed and filed in person at their office, and a police report that I lodged, DBKL finally responded to me today (April 20) and told me that the Mayor's Office has given instructions to remove political flags in TTDI.

Prior to DBKL's action today, it was no surprise that some desperate citizens decided to take matters into their own hands and performed a public service by removing the political flags themselves, which are essentially trash. 

However, when my TTDI neighbours ― three young women ― allegedly took down 133 BN flags in the neighbourhood and handed the materials to the police, rather than litter the place, they were arrested for “committing mischief”, an offence under Section 427 of the Penal Code that is punishable with maximum five years’ jail, or a fine, or both. 

Worse still, they were remanded overnight for such a minor offence.

It is absurd to accuse the TTDI residents of committing a vague offence like “committing mischief”, especially when political players are allowed to put up illegal advertisements with impunity.

KL police chief Datuk Seri Mazlan Lazim urged the public to file reports with local authorities instead of taking matters into their own hands.

But what can citizens do if the authorities refuse to uphold rules and regulations?

DBKL refuses to take action on illegal political flags and banners despite numerous complaints from KL residents. Even though I subsequently lodged a police report, police told me that the matter fell under DBKL’s jurisdiction. However, DBKL finally took action today, which shows that constant pressure on the authorities via formal complaints and police reports works. The civil disobedience acts undertaken by my TTDI neighbours probably also helped pushed them to respond.

While some dubbed the TTDI residents’ actions as vigilantism, I believe civil disobedience is sometimes necessary.

If institutions like DBKL fail to uphold the law on something as simple as illegal political advertisements, then citizens have no choice but to do what they think is necessary to protect their homes and public spaces.

While this may seem minor to some, who say all that matters is casting your vote, the TTDI case exemplifies what happens when rule of law breaks down.

Public authorities and institutions must uphold rules and regulations at all times, rather than pick and choose what they like because of political bias.

If public institutions themselves cannot follow the law, why should ordinary citizens do so? And if local authorities ignore the rules on a minor case of illegal political advertisements, how can they be trusted to safeguard public interest in much larger issues like corruption?

The key issue is DBKL’s lack of independence, which neither BN nor Pakatan Harapan (PH) addressed in their election manifestos.

It is not surprising if DBKL staff are reluctant to remove illegal political flags because they are afraid of losing their jobs since the country's largest local council seems to be "under" the Federal Territories ministry.

The ubiquitous smartphone and ease of spreading photographs and videos on social media have also deterred DBKL staff, who are afraid of accusations of political bias, from performing their duty.

DBKL and local councils must have the independence to set their own budgets, manage their staff, and carry out programmes to improve town and city planning.

Restoring local council elections will enable local authorities to be directly accountable to the people, rather than to their political masters in the state or federal government.

Since residents pay taxes to local councils, it is all the more crucial for them to elect their own mayor and local councillors so that their tax monies are spent according to their wishes.

Unfortunately, both BN and PH are reluctant to empower the people, preferring to control vast amount of resources with as little public input and elections as possible.