A history of local elections in Penang Part II: A legacy to protect

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In response to the increased dynamism evident in Malaysian politics today, and in order to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of local elections in Penang and throughout the country, Penang Monthly completes herewith the two-part history of local elections in Penang.

As mentioned in the preamble to the first part, which was published in the November 2014 issue, there are many ways to write Penang’s complex history, and the development of local elections since the early 19th century is certainly as good a way as any other.

The revival of local elections

World War I memorial at the Esplanade. From the ashes of the Great War and the Second World War arose a new, heightened awareness of self-governance among the people in Malaya.

From the ashes of the Great War and the Second World War arose a new, heightened awareness of self-governance among the people in Malaya. By June 1948, the Malayan Communist Party (Parti Komunis Malaya) had begun waging war with the newly returned British colonist, a war which would last until July 31, 1960.

There were widespread protests and rallies, and even a nationwide hartal in 1947 – the first major national protest movement in Malayan history. Emergency law was declared, and many anti-colonist organisations were banned and dissenters arrested or exiled. But the British realised that they could not continue to resist the push for political change with such high-handed methods. Great Britain, saddled with an enormous debt from waging the two wars, was beginning to lose control over its global empire. Decolonisation was inevitable and the newly elected Labour government of Clement Attlee supported measures to give independence to British colonies. India, Great Britain’s most prized jewel in the East, was granted independence in 1947. In Malaysia, the clarion call for self-governance began to be heard in villages, towns and cities all over the peninsula.

Lord Mountbatten, last Viceroy of India, with Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, just after midnight on India's independence day.

And so, 37 years after the cessation of Municipal Commission elections in 1913, the Local Authorities Election Ordinance 1950 was passed, allowing the people once again to elect their own local government.

The new legislation empowered the Malay states and the Straits Settlements to formulate laws for the registration of voters and the conduct of elections. This resulted in the proposal from the chairman of the Municipal Elections Committee of George Town, Dr Lee Tiang Keng, to re-introduce elections in the municipality of George Town, which was divided into three electoral wards: Tanjung, Kelawei and Jelutong. A report was submitted to the Straits Settlements’ legal adviser and it was decided that elections should be held in December 19511.

This development popularised the idea of mass electoral registration, training of registration and polling staff and, more crucially, the holding of the first universal adult franchise elections in Malaya – a precursor to the nation’s first general election in 1959.

The total number of Penang voters in 1951 stood at 14,514 and the distribution for each ward was as follows – Tanjung: 7,782; Kelawei: 2,439 and Jelutong: 4,293. These figures did not reflect the total voter population, which was estimated at that time to be between 50,000 and 60,000. Nevertheless the event amounted to a fresh political awakening, and the people were starting to show interest in the democratic process. Campaigns were carried out with little attempts to inflame communal passions – unlike what is happening today – and political meetings in Penang’s open spaces and parks marked an innovation never seen before. Indeed the whole atmosphere and process served as signal that a people would soon run their own country independently2.

Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Penang in 1972. The subsequent passing of the Local Government Act four years later closed the curtains on an era of animated local democracy in Penang and throughout Malaysia.

Political parties were no doubt new to Penang. Nevertheless, the elections witnessed a dramatic victory for the Penang Radical Party led by intellectuals and professionals like Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, C.O. Lim, Dr Menon, Nancy Yeap and Oliver Phipps. More interestingly, in an era when gender equality was uncommon, two women stood as candidates in the 1951 election: Nancy Yeap from the Radical Party and Che Wanchik Binti Abidin from Umno. Both contested in the Kelawei ward. Yeap received 1,142 votes and was duly elected while Che Wanchik received 516 votes3. Another interesting observation was how Che Wanchik titled herself a “housewife” – something we do not see today.

The new municipal council consisted of nine elected and six appointed councillors plus the president who was appointed by the High Commissioner of the Nominated Council. By 1956, the George Town council had become a fully elected one – the first in Malaysia. Five wards were created to elect one councillor each every year, and the president was elected by and from among the councillors themselves.

On January 1, 1957 George Town was granted city status by Queen Elizabeth II, and this received legislative recognition by virtue of the City of George Town Ordinance No. 50 of 1957. Consequently, the Municipality of George Town was styled the City Council of George Town. Similarly, the Conduct of Elections Authorisation of 1958 empowered the Election Commission to conduct local government elections in Penang, and these were conducted until 1961.

Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu. Local elections in George Town in 1951 witnessed a dramatic victory for the Penang Radical Party led by intellectuals and professionals like Lim.

Labour revolutionises the City Council

In the late 1950s, Penang had become the only state in the Federation to have a fully developed, elected local government. Not only did the City Council of George Town provide its own services in three areas of public utilities – public transportation, water and electricity – it also had its own professional staff, namely qualified lawyers as secretaries and accountants as treasurers. It was staffed by professionals: accountants, architects, engineers, health officers and lawyers. By then, public enthusiasm was overwhelming and local government elections were highly anticipated seasons in George Town.

Shortly after Merdeka, the Labour Party took over control of the council from the Alliance. Not only did it reign the longest, it revolutionised the council to serve local needs and welfare. Given the council’s structural shift in approach and procedure, Labour’s rule of the council is worth highlighting. In encouraging openness and reducing petty corruption, a Public Complaints Committee of Councillors was established to receive public complaints in any spoken language. A multilingual system was practiced within the council although English was still used for drafting the minutes. Councillors were permitted to turn up in clean, white short-sleeved shirts to identify with the large working class and grassroots demography. The concept of racial harmony was also observed as a deputy mayor would conventionally be selected from a racial group different from that of the mayor’s.

Aftermath of the bombing of MacDonald House in Singapore during the height of the Indonesian Confrontation in 1965. By March that year, local elections nationwide were suspended under the Proclamation of Emergency following the confrontation.

Healthcare centres and clinics were established for the first time in poor areas, followed by the implementation of mobile dispensaries. At street level, regular drain inspections were conducted with blockages being removed and dustbins emptied daily. Overgrown grass and tree branches were trimmed regularly. A slum clearance scheme was established and new homes were raised on stilts in the Malaydominated Kampung Selut along Sungai Pinang, a slum and flood-prone area. The council also constructed the People’s Court residence along Lebuh Cintra, the first-ever public housing project in the country.

Interestingly, under Labour, despite big spending to improve public amenities and municipal conditions, the council became the richest local authority in the Federation with sufficient financial and administrative resources to run its own operation. Its annual budget was larger than the state’s and it had more professional staff with higher salary scales than what the state civil service had. In short, the George Town council by then had not only matured structurally but also attained a level of financial autonomy and independence from the state4.

Unfortunately, its promising days were close to being numbered.

Weld Quay in the 1970s. Penang had become the only state in the Federation to have a fully developed, elected local government 20 years earlier.

The George Town Enquiry and the demise of elective councils

D.S. Ramanathan, who was elected mayor from 1958-1959, rocked the council during a meeting in June 1963 with accusations of serious malpractices. He alleged fraud in the renovation of Chowrasta Market and several malpractices among the Town Planning and Building Development Committees. He also raised the impropriety of the whip’s legal firm, Lim Kean Siew & Co., in representing clients in their dealings with the city council. While the accusations could have been motivated by bitterness due to dissatisfaction with the leadership more than actual abuses, the episode tarnished the council’s public integrity on the island.

A Commission of Enquiry was called to investigate Ramanathan’s allegations and alas, much was sensationalised under a negative political climate. By March 1965, local elections nationwide were suspended under the Proclamation of Emergency following the Indonesian Confrontation. The Seremban Council was suspended following corruption charges and a year later, Johor became the first state to abolish local governments. Inevitably, these events caused public conception to be unfavourable towards local councils, viewing them as a stumbling block against national unity. Moreover, the Labour-ruled council’s constant rebellion against the Alliance-led state government heightened existing doubts on the effectiveness of a three-tiered government.

Malaysia Day celebrations in Penang this year. The festivities were a contrast to Malaysia Day 41 years ago, when the council boycotted Malaysia Day celebrations in 1963 and refused to entertain the order by the state to decorate the streets.

For instance, a major strain appeared when the council boycotted Malaysia Day celebrations in 1963, citing the formation of Malaysia as a neocolonialist concept and the inadequacy of the UN’s Cobbold Commission. The council refused to entertain the order by the state to decorate the streets. The State Secretary finally had to assume power to control the city council via a newly created state legislation to ensure the streets were decorated. Tensions heightened once again when a Chinese squatter village was evicted. While existing state plans required their demolition, the council thwarted the plan and supplied the villagers with piped water instead. While these little acts symbolised the council’s firm and commanding authority, the state now had solid excuses to doubt the council’s effectiveness and condemn how it hampered state administration5.

It was in such a mood that the city council was suspended to pave way for the establishment of the George Town Enquiry. Hearings began in July 1966 with the report being completed in May 1967. Suspension then was of a temporary nature under the Municipal (Amendment) (Penang) Enactment 1966. More interestingly, the subsequent passing of the City Council of George Town (Transfer of Functions) Order 1966 which transferred all functions of the council to the Chief Minister was found to be ultra vires since, according to the Federal Government's Local Government Elections Act, “every municipality is to be administered by councillors selected according to the constitution of that municipality”. The city council boldly took the state to court over the matter but their final bid failed when the Federal government amended the Act.

MPPP worker cutting grass at the Esplanade. Despite the abrupt demise of elective councils, the desire for a third vote, traced from the early establishment of the Committee of Assessors to the council under the Labour Party, persisted among the people of Penang.

Ironically, the Commission of Enquiry did not recommend the continued suspension of the council contrary to general expectations. It similarly found “no case of corruption sufficiently verifiable for prosecution” as alleged by Ramanathan. However, by the time the suspension period ended, the State Executive Council decided that the suspension should be continued indefinitely. Since the new system benefitted it, the state saw no reason to resurrect elected councils. In due time, 1971 to be exact, the state government, now under Gerakan, stretched the 1966 state enactment to suspend all remaining local authorities.

The subsequent passing of the Local Government Act 1976 put the final nail on the coffin of local government elections in this country, thus closing the curtains on an era of animated local democracy in Penang and throughout Malaysia. Since then, local governments, subsumed under the authority of the state and federal governments, have diminished in significance and political identity. People no longer think of the municipal authority as a government on its own, but rather as a department of either the federal or state government. The third tier of government was effectively lost, leaving only a layer of bureaucracy still collecting some forms of taxes and providing municipal services, but which is a far cry from the golden days of the George Town City Council of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Penang City Hall. In the late 1950s, the City Council of George Town provided its own services in three areas of public utilities (public transportation, water and electricity) and also had its own professional staff, namely qualified lawyers as secretaries and accountants as treasurers.

Local government elections: where to now?

In 2012, 47 years after the last suspension of local government elections, Penang rallied once more towards the revival of its lost inheritance. The Local Government Elections (Penang Island and Province Wellesley) Enactment 2012 was passed in the Penang State Assembly to allow the Elections Commission (EC) to conduct local government elections in Penang. The bid however, landed in a legal dispute when the EC failed to respond to any requests to conduct such elections.

Subsequently, the Federal Court rejected Penang’s application to restore local government elections on the grounds that the state government lacked the jurisdiction on such matters as it falls under the purview of the federal government, as enshrined under the Local Government Act 1976.

Despite the abrupt demise of elective councils, the desire for a third vote, traced from the early establishment of the Committee of Assessors to the council under the Labour Party, persisted among the people of Penang. Local government elections – or rather their absence – continue to be the elephant in the room in our country’s democratic discourse. The fact is, local authorities, even in their form today, exercise vast power over the daily affairs of the people and retain control over important taxes such as property assessment, business licensing and development charges. As such, the public urge remains strong for a democratic process to ensure that local policymakers are accountable for their actions and serve public interest.

By the time the suspension period of local elections ended, the state saw no reason to resurrect elected councils. In due time, 1971 to be exact, the state government, now under Gerakan, stretched the 1966 state enactment to suspend all remaining local authorities.

The state government of Penang has, over the past two years, exhausted all legal avenues to restore local government elections. A new state legislation had been enacted, an executive decision undertaken and the judiciary consulted over the matter, and yet all these failed to bring back Penang’s historic and much cherished democratic tradition.

Whatever the next development on the issue may be, there is a need in the meantime to make local governments more accountable and transparent. Even without a third vote in the conventional sense, local councils can still be radically opened up to involve the people in the decision-making process, such as budgeting and development planning.

The situation is not static though, even if the reinstatement of local elections will require enormous social activism. All is not lost. Developments in technology and sociological conditions are causing many to rethink the means now available to increase people participation in local decision-making. The introduction of the Citizens Action Technology (www. cat.betterpg.com) system in Penang for example allows for faster, simpler and more efficient interactions between the people and their local authorities.

This is appropriate. Penang is, after all, the birthplace of local democracy in Malaysia. Now, after two centuries, when the developmental focus of the world is shifting from nation-states to urban centres, how Penang is to be run is crucial if it is to come on par with global standards.

While the challenges are many, there is great optimism because it all started here in Penang. The democratic tradition is strong in this little town on the western edge of the peninsula.

1 Report on the Introduction of Elections in the Municipality of George Town, Penang 1951.
2 Report on the Introduction of Elections in the Municipality of George Town, Penang 1951.
3 Ibid.
4 Paul Tennant (1972), Race, Party and Administration Efficiency in Malaysian Politics: The Case of Penang.
5 Paul Tennant (1972), Race, Party and Administration Efficiency in Malaysian Politics: The Case of Penang.

Steven Sim is the MP for Bukit Mertajam.

Koay Su Lyn is a research analyst at the Penang Institute who believes that one cannot truly comprehend the present without proper reference to the past.



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