George Town – From city to municipality to culture centre


George Town became a city on January 1, 1957. The timing was not by accident. In fact it was an event to herald the approach of sovereignty for the 11 states of Malaya exactly eight months later that year.

George Town thus had the honour of becoming Malaya’s first city. It remained the country’s only city until 1972, when KL, on being separated from Selangor and becoming a Federal Territory, also gained city status. Most importantly, the first popular elections were held in Penang on December 31, 1951, just over a month after the first local elections in modern times had been held in Malacca. Democracy was off to a good start. As we know, the municipal elections in KL on February 16, 1952 would see the birth and success of the Alliance. The consociationalist system born out of an electoral tactic that has come for better or worse to characterise Malayan and Malaysian politics until today was cemented very soon after when George Town – From city to municipality to culture centre the Alliance model proved triumphant in the town council elections in Johor Bahru as well.

But much water has flowed under the bridge since then.

At the time when local elections in George Town were effectively stopped in 1965 by the Alliance government, George Town was the richest local authority in the country, enjoying an annual revenue that was twice that of the Penang state government. Councillor D.S. Ramanathan, chairman of the Labour Party of Malaya, became George Town’s first mayor, taking over from J.S.H. Cunyngham-Brown, Penang’s last municipal president.

After the Local Government Act was finally passed in 1976, local council areas in Penang were merged to form the two municipal councils that we have today. Technically, George Town never had its city status repealed even though it had ceased to exist as a legal body. Nevertheless, George Town as a cultural entity has survived, and has in fact been flourishing in recent times, especially after its recognition on July 7, 2007 as a Unesco World Heritage Site, and under a new government, who has implemented a string of major cultural events that now act as strong identity brands for the city-ness of George Town. These include the George Town Festival, which began in 2010 and which has been growing year by year; and the George Town Literary Festival that began in 2012, among many others.

The speech in the following pages by Cunyngham-Brown was published in The Straits Times on December 31, 1956 – the day before George Town became a city, and on the eve of Merdeka Year itself. We reproduce it here to give our readers a glimpse of how significant January 1, 1957 actually was.

The new significance of George Town as a city

The Queen has been graciously pleased, in the exercise of her royal prerogative to command by Royal Charter that the status of George Town be raised to that of a City with effect from tomorrow.

To us, the citizens of George Town, it means two things. It indicates, first and foremost, a recognition of George Town’s leading place, historical and geographic, not only in Malaya but also among the great centres of the world.

Secondly, it demonstrates to us the continuance and strengthening of those personal and spiritual ties of steadfast loyalty and affection that exist between the people of Penang, a vital centre in the new nation of Malaya, and the sovereign head of the British Commonwealth of nations.

Voice of the people

To the people of Malaya as a whole, it also says two things. It underlines, in most timely and appropriate manner, the necessity in any democratic country for the voice of the people to be heard: it places the accolade upon the whole structure of elected local government now growing apace throughout Malaya in those local councils, town councils, rural district councils and municipalities that are increasingly producing both a well-trained supply of statesmen as well as an invaluable safeguard against too hasty, or too academic, a pursuit of ideology or policy by possible future central governments of Malaya that may lack the solidarity and wisdom the Government this country now has.

Secondly, and most important of all, it reminds Malayans of Queen Victoria’s instructions in 1875 that Britain “must bring on the peoples of this country to the stage where they can govern themselves” and indicates, in telling manner this year of Malaya’s attainment of independence, how triumphantly those orders have been fulfilled and how well the keenest desire for full independence within the Commonwealth can happily exist together with unswerving loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen.


Independent nation

To George Town – and indeed to Malaya – no event more well-timed could possibly have occurred. This is not only the year of Malaya’s growth to full stature, its first great birthday as a nation. It is the centenary year also of the act which first set the local governments of the country upon their progress – endowing them with authority in perpetual succession and with the democratic machinery of election from among the citizens.

Nations can exist without local governments, but no democratic nation can. Malaya’s desire for a fully democratic nationhood has therefore necessarily been based upon a vigorous growth of local governments as an essential pre-requisite, without which no democratic form of independence would have been possible.

It has been in recognition of these two interlocking factors that the citizens of George Town have organised their forthcoming festival from January 1 to January 6 – a celebration now made glorious and augmented a hundredfold in significance, by Her Majesty’s elevation of this town to city status.

Their sense of service

As from the date of the centenary, the City Fathers, as they may now properly be called, will all be elected from among the people of George Town. Their president, or lord mayor, will be elected by the Councillors from among themselves.

In congratulating George Town on its democratic progress and enhancement of status the first tribute should be paid to all those past Commissioners and Councillors – a hundred-year-long band of hardworking and conscientious men (and one lady) who found time in their busy professional lives so successfully to steer the progress of the municipality, unrewarded by recognition or recompense and carried forward solely by a sense of public service and a knowledge of good work well done.

Praise and thanks in abundant measure are also due to no less than five generations of municipal officers and men – a list of many thousand strong – whose expert and unremitting toll has produced, from a small and fever-ridden equatorial port, one of the largest and most beautiful cities of Asia and a world renowned beauty spot.

Confidence in future

As in the past, so in the future, this city will stand or fall by the continuing wisdom and integrity – the painstaking thoughtfulness and unself-seeking spirit of service without thought of personal Arkib Negara 50 | January 2015 gain or popularity – on the part of its Councillors, and by an esprit de corps and attention to duty among its staff at all levels that can be engendered only when the City Council’s employees are well paid, well taken care of, well understood and, above all, trust their employers and feel secure.

As the oldest and most highly developed municipal organisation in the country, and one that has both inspired and been at the forefront of so much of all Malaya’s advancement, George Town itself, with its motto of “Leading We Serve”, will undoubtedly accept this new great honour of City status with all due pride and humility – pride that it is destined still to serve the people of Malaya, still to be the country’s great northern free port and focus of trade, still to be a great educational centre sending its young people to all corners of Malaya: and humility that by the good fortune of geography and by the assiduity and initiative of its hardworking and enterprising people it should still be chosen to lead.

Many vital tasks

The tasks that face the new City Council are many and vital. In this Council’s relationships with the Federal Government there remains some need for a greater measure of flexibility and autonomy. The inevitable financial and other controls imposed by the Federal Government upon George Town since 1948 may have tended somewhat to retard this growing city’s progress to keep step with slower moving and less highly developed entities.

It will be for future Councillors to consider how best these very necessary bonds of integration between this city and the central government may be eased.

In this Council’s interrelations with the Settlement Government the most important future problem facing the City Fathers may well prove to be that of an enlargement of the City boundaries. George Town is increasing by some 8,000 people every year. It has already outgrown the area of its present jurisdiction.

In order to enable a radical tackling of slum clearance it is essential not only to have a ready access to very large sums of money at low interest rates and upon long terms of repayment, but also to be possessed of sufficient peripheral areas within its control for the building of satellite villages to take the many thousand families urgently needed to be re-housed from the mid-town slum areas.

More open spaces

They will be occupied with the enlargements, already fully planned, to their water supply system and will doubtless progress rapidly in the construction of a new fire station, a new market to replace Chowrasta, and a new municipal veterinary service abattoir, all of which are items approved for construction in the near future.

Their main residual difficulties will probably be in the matter of the completion of Gurney Drive (in future to be known as “Merdeka Drive”), in the provision of more open spaces, in low cost housing development in all its expensive facets, in taking over and administering all the many primary schools within George Town’s boundaries, in road development and straightening, and in obtaining financial provision to meet the accelerating tempo in constructing the highly necessary midtown waterborne sewerage system.


An immense challenge

They have a great task in front of them. A task of immense challenge and great reward.

It has been an exciting and invigorating experience to have had a hand in municipal affairs over these last years and to have been present during the recent stages of its growth to fully elected status and to its final flowering as the first city in this new country of Malaya.

I have every confidence in the City of George Town’s continued prosperity and wish it and succeeding Councillors all the success they so richly deserve.


Related Articles

Jun 2011

Penang on the brink of war,1821

Kedah’s Rajah Ahmad Tajuddin Halim Shah II fled to Penang to escape the Siamese, and war nearly broke out.

Apr 2016

A History of an Icon

Penang Monthly traces the beginnings and rise of the Chinese Recreation Club.

Aug 2017

A History of the Malay Left: Part One

Distrust, fear, resentment – these gave rise to the Left.

Jul 2011

Kedah hoped for the return of Province Wellesley in 1957

With Malaya’s independence just around the corner, Kedah wanted Penang back.