When Labour ruled the council

loading A partially-elected council in the early 1950s.

Once upon a time in Penang, there were local council elections, and the underdog Labour Party reigned for many years

As the first British settlement in South- East Asia, George Town inherited most of the British Empire’s conventions, including an elective local council. Indeed, the island became the first and only state to own an entirely elective local council.

With that said, the island’s history is never complete without highlighting the Labour Party’s reign over the council. Since its reign marked the pinnacle of the council’s democratic development, the Labour Party’s rise and fall within the council is worth some retrospection.


The George Town Municipal Council elections in November 1951 were the first elections held in Malaya. Under the New Council Enactment, there were six appointed and nine elected councillors (it was only in 1956 onwards that the council was fully elected) serving three constituencies – Tanjong, Kelawai and Jelutong. The elections witnessed a dramatic victory for the Penang Radical Party led by Dr Lim Chong Eu, Nancy Yeap and Oliver Phipps.

The Radical Party’s strength declined when MCA began to cooperate with Umno, and although the MCA did not run in the 1953 council elections, this cooperation swayed some Chinese votes to Umno candidates, and even Lim himself lost his Jelutong seat to an Umno candidate. By 1955, the Radical Party had no representatives at all in the council which slipped into Alliance hands after the 1956 elections, when G.H. Goh was elected its first president.

Rise of the Labour Party

The Labour Party, formed in 1952, was initially just another state party encouraged by the British to accommodate trade unionists. It was led by Tan Phock Kin, an accountant, and had a total of 16 members, some of whom were destined to make a name for themselves, such as Lim Kean Siew, Lee Kok Liang, Patkunam, D.S. Ramanathan, Ooi Thiam Siew and C.Y Choy. Incidentally, steps were already in place to form a national pan-Malayan party with a branch in KL.

In no way communist-inspired, Fabian Socialism dominated the Labour Party’s ideology, and it considered itself associated with the middle class. As democratic socialists, the members believed in the procurement of power through peaceful, non-violent and constitutional means, and despite the fine line drawn between socialism and communism, the Labour Party was ipso facto not left wing and was against dictatorship and oppression. However, the Japanese Occupation, coupled with the Malayan Emergency, heightened the sense of paranoia in the establishment, much to the detriment of the Labour Party which was accused of being communist-linked.

The People's Court along Lebuh Cintra, constructed by the Labour Party's council.

A setback turned into an advantage

Despite earlier losses in 1955, the party ambitiously set its eyes on capturing the council. It lacked funds, however, and had to depend entirely on the generosity of members and supporters. Most members worked pro bono, and perhaps the older generation might recall how Lim Kean Siew’s own antique 1930 A-Model Ford was used as the party’s mobile public system. This ironically helped their standing with the poor – their financial woes gave people the impression that they were the “poor man’s party,” as opposed to MCA, the “towkay’s party.”

Ground work was vital to them. Roads, including back lanes and drains, were swept clean. Rubbish bins were replaced. The poor who found it difficult to visit hospitals were given assistance and the Labour Party even had its own team of female youths ready to provide tuition to less fortunate children. To form a multiracial socialist front, the Labour Party partnered with Parti Rakyat Malaysia in August 1957. The latter was led by Ahmad Boestamam, an ex-activist of the leftist Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM).

The People's Court in recent times.

Hopes ran high then that they would win the 1957 council elections.

An unprecedented victory

In December 1957, the Labour Party gained a majority and was announced the council’s ruling party. A sequence of events provided ample opportunities for it to boost its credibility – it played an active role in defending the reinstatement of 68 Chung Ling High School students in Penang who were expelled after the November 1956 strike, supplying them with pro bono legal representation (Lim Kean Siew was a lawyer after all, as was party stalwart Lee Kok Liang), and rendered the same assistance in another strike staged by workers of the British Eastern Smelting Co. upon the sudden dismissal of workers who were union rights proponents.

Moreover, a deliberate verbal attack against Lim Kean Siew during a mammoth rally at the Esplanade in 1956 confirmed the party’s intimidating capabilities as a rising opposition force. The play of the racial card to undermine the party also failed as Ooi Thiam Siew and Lim Kean Siew emerged victorious in areas with sizeable Malay votes. Thus, despite widespread branding as antigovernment subversives by the Alliance, the win in 1957 was not unexpected. Ramanathan thus became the first Labour Party council president and mayor of George Town.

Efforts and results

To encourage openness and reduce petty corruption, a Public Complaints Committee of Councillors was set up to receive public complaints in any spoken language, and although English remained in the drafting of minutes, this reflected the party’s favouring of a multi-language system. Councillors had a white short-sleeved shirt dress code for easy identification, a measure introduced ahead of Singapore’s People's Action Party (PAP). The deputy mayor would conventionally be selected from a different racial group from that of the mayor’s.

Healthcare centres and clinics were established in poor Chinese areas, and this was supported by mobile dispensaries. Along with new programmes, drains were regularly inspected, blockages removed and dustbins emptied daily. Even long grass and over-hanging tree branches were trimmed.

Under a slum clearance scheme, new stilt homes were built for the villagers of the Malay-dominated Kampung Selut along Sungai Pinang. The first ever low cost housing was thus constructed by the council, followed by the People’s Court along Lebuh Cintra which marked the first of such public buildings in the Federation. Air Itam Dam was yet another impressive project by the council.

For the first time, the people’s welfare was efficiently taken care of. Hence, the Labour Party’s tremendous success in 1961, winning 14 out of 15 seats in the council, was no surprise.

The plaque at Air Itam Dam.

Council is rattled

The 1960s were perplexing times. Stemming from different backgrounds, members of the Labour Party and Parti Rakyat Malaysia differed in policy thinking, and the absence of cross-over rules enabled many disgruntled Labour Party members to leave and then attack the party. During the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation, the Front suffered a serious political blow when many of its members participated in raiding groups to “liberate” Malaya without the leadership’s knowledge. Thus, it performed poorly in the 1964 general elections shortly before its fractional suicide.

The council too began to get rattled in 1963. During a meeting in June 1963, Ramanathan rocked the council with accusations of serious malpractice within the party. He alleged fraud in the renovation of Chowrasta Market and malpractice in the Town Planning and Building Development committees. He also questioned the appropriateness of Lim Kean Siew & Co. representing clients in their dealings with city departments.

Consequently, three Labour Party councillors resigned, taking with them their supporters, and the Labour Party lost five seats in the 1963 council elections. While the accusations could have been motivated by bitterness, the party’s public integrity was tarnished.

The George Town Enquiry

D. S. Ramanathan, the man who rocked George Town council with allegations of malpratice among councillors.

Major policy differences between the Alliance state government and the Labour Party-ruled council intensified hostility, and this was not helped by the council’s increasing self-importance due to its higher annual budget and surplus and the fact that it owned a significantly higher number of professional staff compared to the state. The council’s boycott of Malaysia Day celebrations in 1963 deteriorated relations when it refused to decorate the streets despite being expressly asked to do so by the state. This rebellion against state orders heightened, such as in the case of a Chinese squatter village located on state land adjacent to downtown George Town – state plans required its demolition, but the council thwarted them and supplied the village with piped water instead. Such small acts equipped the state with solid reasons to doubt the effectiveness of the council.

By March 1965, local elections throughout the country were suspended under the proclamation of Emergency. The Seremban Council was deferred following corruption charges and Johor emerged as the first state to abolish local governments. Ramanathan’s accusations, in light of these events, caused the public to view local councils as a stumbling block against federal unity.

It was in this mood that the council was suspended to allow for the George Town Enquiry. Hearings began in July 1966 and by then, the Labour Party had lost its grip over the council.

The fall

Ooi, who acted as the last Labour Party mayor in 1963, left the party and was elected mayor again with Alliance support. Many of the party’s Englisheducated leaders also left, and the party departed from its socialistic ideals when more left-wing Chinese-educated members assumed control. Much of the party’s efforts proved to be in vain with the effective transfer of the council’s functions to the Chief Minister under the City Council of George Town (Transfer of Functions) Order 1966.

The report from the George Town Enquiry, completed in May 1967, did not recommend the council’s continued suspension, however. It similarly found “no case of corruption sufficiently verifiable for prosecution” as alleged by Ramanathan. However, the state decided that the suspension should be indefinite. Since the new administrative system benefited the state, there was no reason for it to resurrect elective councils. All hopes faded when the Gerakan-led state government stretched the 1966 enactment to suspend all remaining local authorities in 1971. The passing of the Local Government Act in 1976 signalled the ultimate burial of elective councils nationwide.

Today, 51 years have passed since the last local elections were held in George Town. Nonetheless, that era was a highly significant one. It is high time the forgotten tale of the Labour Party’s rise and fall in the council be duly recognised and afforded a significant chapter in George Town’s fascinating history.

Koay Su Lyn is a research analyst with the history and nusantara section of the Penang Institute. A lawyer by profession, she believes that one cannot truly comprehend the present without proper reference to the past.

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