With the rubber boom of the mid-20th century, Bukit Mertajam develops to become a major town, spurred by the tenacity of the locals, an able council and – interestingly – the triads.
The year 1913 marked an interesting turning point for Bukit Mertajam. The passing of the Municipal Ordinance 1913 witnessed the colonial local authorities taking control on the mainland portion of Penang. The Act established the Butterworth Municipal Council followed by rural boards in all northern, southern and central districts of Province Wellesley. For Bukit Mertajam, the town’s administration rested in the Central Rural Board, under the authority of a district officer.
This was no coincidence. From 1900 to 1902, Bukit Mertajam provided the highest amount of revenue collected as compared to Butterworth and Nibong Tebal1. This trend resurfaced in 1904 and 19052. To be sure, Bukit Mertajam’s land revenue and tax collection had been the highest from 1897 to 1899 as well3. Given Bukit Mertajam’s role as a commercial centre, such an immense collection marked the natural fruits of its economic and administrative activities.
Moreover, the town’s expanding population also contributed to the larger revenue collected; by 1911, Bukit Mertajam had a population of 4,400 – while Butterworth had only 4,0004. As such, the establishment of local authorities was part of a larger colonial strategy to gain an administrative grip over Bukit Mertajam. The town’s growing importance was becoming all too obvious.
A holistic town
The fact that Bukit Mertajam developed with numerous public facilities installed indicates a high possibility that collected revenues were channelled towards its local infrastructural development by the Central Rural Board. For example, in 1919 Bukit Mertajam saw the expansion of the market town’s very own post office5. Throughout 1928 and 1929, new roads, incinerators and telephones were constructed followed by the extension of the water supply6. English schools mushroomed from 1924 to 19287, one of them being Bukit Mertajam High School – the first government school in Province Wellesley. Medical facilities also improved with the establishment of an infant welfare centre by 19388.
Bukit Mertajam market today. It was renovated at an expenditure of $327,233.00 in December 1934, signifying amplified British presence in Bukit Mertajam.
Interestingly, the market was also renovated at an expenditure of $327,233.00 in December 19349, signifying amplified British presence in Bukit Mertajam. Through the provision of development, the local authority appears to have imposed indirect control over the town – and exercised a looming presence over local activities and interests.
Complementary to the town’s role as a business hub, this trajectory of development, however, came to a tragic halt in 1941 when Malaya was occupied by the Japanese. It was not until the defeat of the Japanese that trade and development resumed. By 1948, the town improvement scheme resumed its implementation10 followed by the formation of new townships like Taman Sri Rambai, Taman Alma, Taman Sentosa and Taman Mutiara.
Because living conditions deteriorated throughout the war, various policies were also implemented to improve medical welfare. In March 1950, Bukit Mertajam even had its very own gynaecological, antenatal and birth control clinics under the direction of specialists Dr Marjorie Calderwood and Dr Elaine Field11.
Of rubber and smuggling
The rubber trade resumed upon the return of the British, and the reconstruction of the Bukit Mertajam railway station by the Japanese in 1942 conveniently permitted services to resume smoothly throughout Province Wellesley. The rubber trade had dominated the town’s pre-war economy, and this, now coupled with the town’s market economy, formed Bukit Mertajam’s formal post-war economy.
It is interesting to note that Bukit Mertajam’s financial soundness was also supported by the informal economy run by the triads. Post-war Bukit Mertajam became the new centre of operations for revived triad activities for the entire Northern Malaya12. Criminal enterprises such as racketeering, smuggling and gambling boomed, and it is believed that such activities played a vital role in providing Bukit Mertajam with a degree of financial soundness, crucial for its recovery after the Japanese occupation.
That aside, political considerations were rife with the ongoing Malayan Emergency providing yet another reason for the British to administer the town directly – this time, through the establishment in 1953 of the Bukit Mertajam Town Council. The reintroduction of elected local governments marked a necessary political exercise to make the locals feel that in opposing Communism, they were indirectly preserving democracy13. This idea was also consistent with British efforts to accelerate the process of Malayanisation at all levels of administration14 . For Bukit Mertajam, the presence of a town council marked another pinnacle in the town’s development. Established in January 1953, its town council bore full responsibility for the administration of the town within gazetted limits15.
A council unlike any other
The council had a distinguishing feature: it was entitled to municipal funds under Section 27 of the new enactment to the 1913 Ordinance, equipping it with a high degree of freedom pertaining to revenue disposals16. It is worth noting that this council existed independently from the Central Rural Board and governed Bukit Mertajam alone. This particular setup of having direct governance over Bukit Mertajam indicated the town’s standalone status in the eyes of the British.
While the Bukit Mertajam town council started out with appointed representatives, six out of nine seats were scheduled to be occupied by elected representatives by the end of the year17. The backgrounds of these appointed councillors are worth highlighting as the majority of them were local, Englisheducated professionals, civil servants or elites like Chan Ewe Phin, headmaster of Bukit Mertajam High School; Dr Yegappan, medical practitioner; and Che Mohamed Noor bin Hamzah, retired government servant. Armed with the appointment of local pro-British elites, a sort of cooperation was secured between the British government and local actors in Bukit Mertajam to administer the town.
The streets of Penang after the Japanese surrender in 1945. In Bukit Mertajam, it was not until the defeat of the Japanese that trade and development resumed.
More importantly, it was through such a convenient cooperation that the council was able to run the town’s local affairs smoothly, securing its needs for public infrastructure. The town council was also indicative of the complete integration of the town into the political system and economy of the colonial administration.
In exchange, the British vision of peace and social order under the auspices of public health and safety was introduced extensively in Bukit Mertajam. Public health continued to take primacy after years of investing heavily in medical facilities, with anti-malarial works costing the Town Council approximately $50,000 per year18. This was followed by an annual contribution towards the maintenance of the Fire Brigade with the highest sum of $13,204 in 195719. These examples not only depicted the council’s freedom pertaining to revenue disposals, but also the priorities of the administrators, which benefited town dwellers. From this, it is clear that an urban legacy was already taking shape in Bukit Mertajam.
Unlike other major towns, the growth of Bukit Mertajam was not spurted by administrative concentration, maritime trading, royalty influence or mining. It started off as an agro-based town supported by neighbouring cash crop enterprises, but it was the political and geospatial advantages the town enjoyed that was responsible for the town’s astounding transformation into the commercial, residential and transportation focus today.