A history of local elections in Penang Part I: Democracy Comes Early

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Fifty years ago, in March 1965, local elections were suspended throughout the newly founded Federation of Malaysia.

Those were turbulent times in many ways, no doubt, and the centralising of power was a major objective of the federal government. The political disagreements and conflicts among various parties were serious and diverse. This was no surprise, given how independence from the British was gained only eight years earlier, and how the Federation of Malaysia had just been formed out of four very disparate parts.

How disparate these parts were was soon revealed half a year later in the separation of Singapore from the Federation after only two years. This occurred following racial riots, and there was real fear that much more serious ones would take place if the tension between KL and Singapore was allowed to continue.

Although the Communist Emergency was over, the danger from the Communist Party of Malaysia was far from over. Furthermore, Indonesia and the Philippines were opposed to the Malaysia project, and President Sukarno had declared a status of confrontation with the new federation.

Claims were repeatedly made that corruption at the municipal level was rampant and that local-level politicians were more concerned about their own wellbeing than about those of the nation.

For Penang, the banning of local elections ended a tradition of local democracy practiced since 1857, if not earlier. Indeed, MPPP and the City Council of George Town can trace their origin to the Municipal Commission Act of 1857. Although there was no universal suffrage then, the polls held that year marked the first ever democratic election in Malaya, guaranteed by law.

The big question is whether or not the ban on local elections made in the 1960s should be revisited and discussed by the general public and in the federal parliament now, given how very different the national and regional situation is today from what it was back then.

Where Penang is concerned, there are many ways in which its complex history can be written. One of the more comprehensive ones is certainly the one reflected in the development of local elections since the early 19th century, in fact since the first show of political protest on the island in 1800.

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 offers, this month and the next, a two-part history of local elections in Penang.

 

The first political protest

In 1795, nine years after Francis Light landed on Tanjong Panagar and renamed it Prince of Wales Island, and a year after his death, Philip Manington who replaced him as Superintendent of the new settlement appointed one John McIntyre as Clerk of Market and Scavenger. Among others, McIntyre’s role was to valuate “houses and shops in the bazaar belonging to natives, according to the extent of the ground, for the support of the Police and for cleaning, making proper drains, and keeping the town in order and free from nuisance”.

The elite residents of the infant George Town were furious that so much power to decide on taxation was vested in a single individual. They protested and petitioned Manington, demanding instead that “the most equitable mode to adopt would be that a Committee of Gentlemen be appointed to fix a valuation on every particular house and that so much per cent on that valuation be levied”.

Although Penang was recently denied the restoration of local government elections via a judicial decision, it is fascinating to note how local democracy has been a recurrent issue throughout the state’s history and how the loss of elective local councils in the 1960s in fact marked the sad loss of Penang’s historical democratic inheritance.

That petition marked the first ever record of political protest in Penang. In effect, it was a demand for local representation in municipal governance. Many refused to pay their taxes in what seemed to be a form of “no taxation without representation” protest. As a result, the condition of George Town degenerated so badly that there were proposals to move the administrative centre to the south of the island (where Bayan Baru is today). This proposal, later abandoned, was also due to defence considerations on top of municipal concerns.

It is interesting how 219 years later, the people of Penang, represented by the current Penang state government, once again protested and demanded for representation in the local government through a reintroduction of local government elections. Although Penang was recently denied the restoration of local government elections via a judicial decision, it is fascinating to note how local democracy has been a recurrent issue throughout the state’s history and how the loss of elective local councils in the 1960s in fact marked the sad loss of Penang’s historical democratic inheritance.

The First Committee of Assessors

In 1830, the last Governor of Poloo Pinang, Sir Robert Fullerton, returned to England after the demotion of the settlement from a Presidency having its own Governor to one reporting directly to the Presidency of Calcutta in India. This radical shift of power took effect the same year Fullerton left.

A correspondence carried by the Singapore Chronicle on April 12, 1832, two years after Penang’s demotion, described its state as “dull, stupid and languid. Society, there has been none, since the dissolution of the Government and the breaking up and departure of the gay civilians. At best it can be looked on as a military colony; those that remain of the community not having, as formerly, a voice in the land...”

The last governor of Penang, Sir Robert Fullerton.

Fullerton himself thought that the arrangement was a bad idea. He feared that drastic government budget cuts and the lack of a strong local government due to excessive centralisation of power would eventually lead to municipal neglect. Indeed one of Fullerton’s main contributions had been the institutionalisation of the first municipal entity in the Prince of Wales Island – the Committee of Assessors. Although such committees had been established already since 1796, these were ad hoc advisory committees without regulatory power, headed by a civil servant and consisting of prominent European and native ratepayers of the island. While their establishment was to deal with specific matters and only for as long as the said matter persisted, they marked the earliest systematic form of municipal governance in Penang.

Below is a list of Committees of Assessors set up between 1786 and 1814 with their names reflecting the nature and scope of their functions1. For example, the 1806 Committee was to investigate the abuses of police magistrate Paul Kellner, the first German in Penang.

• Committee of Assessors on obtaining a revenue from trade (founded 1796)

• Committee of Assessors for the valuation of property for assessment (1800)

• Committee of Assessors on Kellner, the police magistrate (August 18 and 22, 1806)

• Committee of Assessors on the regulation on the market (September 8, 1806)

• Committee of British Inhabitants of Prince of Wales Island (1806)

• Committee of Assessors on constructing water works and supply (1806)

• Committee of Assessors on maintenance and building of roads and bridges (1807)

• Committee of Assessors on Land Holders of Penang (1807)

• Committee of Assessors to formulate regulations on road users (1807)

• Committee of Assessors to abolish slavery (1808)

• Committee of Assessors on the fire of 1814 (1814)

• Committee of Assessors to guard against the possibility of future fire (1814)

Lieutenant-Governor of Prince of Wales' Island, Sir George Leith.

While the members of the 1796 Committee were probably nominated by the government with trade issues and not exactly municipal matters on its mind, the 1800 Committee can be properly considered to be the first municipal body in Penang. On that point, there exists conflicting information about how civilian ratepayers were appointed.

One source reported that “The procedure adopted was for the Lieutenant- Governor (at that time Sir George Leith) to call a public meeting at which the leading inhabitants elected a Committee from among themselves. This was in 1800 and the body so formed, to meet under the presidency of a government office, was called the Committee of Assessors 2”.

Thus was the description of how ratepayer representatives were elected into the 1800 Committee. Non-civil servant members in the said Committee included the wealthiest businessmen and landowners on the island, James Scott and David Brown. These were the same people who were opposed to taxation only five years earlier. Now, using their vast influence and wealth, these “gentlemen” gained positions in a body that advised the government on taxation.

On the other hand, other sources revealed that, “…in practice the Europeans and natives nominated by the government to sit in the Committee of Assessors were wealthy”3.

This seems to suggest that there was no election but rather that the ratepayers’ representatives were co-opted into the Committee by the government. It is submitted, however, that some forms of elections were conducted to appoint the Committee, as confirmed by a government advertisement in the Prince of Wales Island Gazette on December 31, 1808 (vol. 3, no. 149) which made the following announcement:

“Europeans and native landholders in the different Districts of the island, with the exception of George Town, are requested to assemble at the Custom House on Thursday next the 23rd instant at 12 o’clock at noon for the purpose of electing a committee to device the necessary funds for repairing and keeping the roads and bridges… (signed) Thomas Raffles, Secretary to Government, Fort Cornwallis, 16th July, 1807”

This was to be the 1807 Committee of Assessors on maintenance and building of roads and bridges (see the list above).

Clearly, elections were held to appoint non-civil servant members to the Committee. However, it remains uncertain if this was the sole method then. It is possible that both election and co-option were employed as the Governor saw fit. However, these elections were not based on the principle of suffrage, much less universal suffrage. Instead, representatives were elected from among “leading inhabitants” and “gentlemen”: wealthy usually, but not always European, landowners and merchants on the island.

Map of early Penang. By 1799, the infant George Town was slowly but surely developing. And so where its people.

As such, the 1800 gathering convened by Leith was perhaps the first political election in Penang. It was an election to choose the first ratepayer representatives into a local government body; in other words, we have here the first local government election ever held in Penang, albeit an informal one. The island had to wait another 31 years after the first Committee of Assessors was created for such bodies to be formally sanctioned through a legislative mention.

The Singapore Free Press, in a later article contributed by its owner, C.B. Buckley, reflected that, in 1827, “we find the first trace of the subsequent Municipalities in the Settlements. A regulation was made, under Mr. (Robert) Fullerton, on the 1st January 1827, which was sanctioned by the Court of Directors and Board of Control, for the appointment of a body designated ‘The Committee of Assessors’, framed for the purpose of providing the means of clearing, watching, and keeping in repair the streets of the town of Penang.”

It would be another 30 years, in 1857, before a formal local government election was held in Penang.

Local government reform in England and the Straits Settlements

Interestingly, the question of governing cities and towns effectively had been one of the major debates in England especially towards the end of the Industrial Revolution. Boroughs or towns in England were being administered by municipal corporations, but before 1835, these corporations, created by royal charter, consisted of selfappointed prominent traders and wealthy landowners. Many of these self-serving councils had only narrow political interests, and the job of maintaining the borough was largely neglected. This, coupled with the new social changes brought by the exodus of people and capital into the cities, resulted in filthy urban conditions. Following the Whig government’s reform of parliamentary election in 1832, a Royal Commission was formed to investigate the conditions of local governments. Among others, the Commission stated:

View over London in the 1870s. The question of governing cities and towns effectively had been one of the major debates in England especially towards the end of the Industrial Revolution.

“Corporation funds are frequently expended in feasting and in paying the salaries of unimportant officers. In some cases, in which the funds are expended on public works, an expense has been incurred beyond what would be necessary if due care had been taken. These abuses often originate in negligence... in the opportunity afforded of obliging members of their own body, or the friends and relations of such members.”

The result of the investigation was the Municipal Corporation Act of 1835, which provided for local government election by ratepayers as well as a more professional, transparent and effective administration of the corporations.

Following the reform in England, British India also went through several reforms in municipal governance. Notably, in 1847, Act No. XVI introduced municipal election to appoint four out of seven members of the Board of Commissioners responsible for the upkeep and improvement of Calcutta. It was only a matter of time before this British invention of local government spread to the Malay Peninsula.

The Victoria Monument in Calcutta, West Bengal. Following the Municipal Corporation Act of 1835 in England, British India also went through several reforms in municipal governance.

Already in 1839, a piece of legislation was created to formalise local governance in the Straits Settlements despite strong objections by leading traders as well as the Governor of the Settlements himself. This was because the Act, while establishing some kind of municipal administration, including taxation, had vested all powers to provide direction for the said administration to Bengal, India.

Once again, the local elites were left wishing to have more say in local governance.

Penang’s first suffrage election

In 1848, a new Act was passed for the creation of Municipal Committees, each consisting of five ratepayers to be appointed by the government of the Settlement. A Penang Gazette news report that year recorded for posterity on the level of effectiveness of the Municipal Committee, during a fire disaster in Penang that year:

“Four fire-engines were on the ground, but two only would act and the very inadequate supply of water materially interfered with their usefulness.”

Clearly, further reforms were needed. In 1856, Act No. XXVII, being “An Act for appointing Municipal Commissioners and for levying rates and taxes in the several stations of the Settlement of Prince of Wales Island, Singapore and Malacca”, was created. The Municipal Commission had five members, with the Resident of each Settlement as the head. Two members were appointed respectively by the Resident and Governor of the Straits Settlements, while the rest were elected by ratepayers. Coming into effect on January 1, 1857, it permitted the first ever suffrage election to take place simultaneously in Prince of Wales Island, Malacca and Singapore.

The people’s reaction to this first ever experience of electoral democracy however, was lukewarm. For instance, a newspaper article from the Straits Times on December 11, 1906 describing a by-election – a Commissioner retired by rotation – noted that: “In spite of the fact that (the candidate) Dr. P. V. Locke was unopposed, no fewer than 153 people went to the poll and recorded their vote for him. Dr. Locke was therefore declared duly elected.”

Thus, it was obvious that, unlike today, elections then were not a crowded affair. However, the 1856 Act ushered in two very important events in our country. Firstly, the Municipal Commission became the direct predecessor of the modern local government in Penang and Malaysia. In fact, up to 1950, the local government of Penang was still called by that name and the current MPPP traces its founding to 1857, the year the Municipal Commission Act came into force. Secondly, it also marked the first suffrage election in our country. Although not universal, as only expatriate ratepayers and Straits-born British subjects could register themselves to vote, it was nevertheless the first ever democratic right to vote to be exercised in our state and country and to be guaranteed by the law. More crucially, these events were major steps forward institutionalising local democracy, selfgovernance and political awareness in the Prince of Wales Island – and in British Malaya.

Termination of elections in 1913

The passing of the Municipal Ordinance of 1913 by the British, however, reversed the democratic achievements of 1856 by abolishing local elections and reintroducing a system of nominated representation.

The reasons for the abolition are not clear but one factor, namely the changing demography of the Straits Settlements, may have contributed to it. Even mild demands for representation of the immigrant communities in the government were met by the argument that the majority of the local population consisted of “transient aliens who showed no interest in their government and who would be an utterly unpredictable electorate”. In any event, it was claimed that there was limited local support for elective representation4.

MPPP councillors convene. MPPP and the City Council of George Town can trace their origin to the Municipal Commission Act of 1857.

In the light of the new arrangement, the council consisted of seven commissioners inclusive of the president, all appointed by the Governor of the Straits Settlements on the advice of the Resident Councillor who remained “tactful in choosing able men who reflected the views of the community or interests and who were popularly recognised as inevitable choices”.

Allocation of seats to certain communities and associations, however, reflected the remnants of the old system of a considerably limited representation. For instance, in 1923, the number of commissioners was increased by two to allow representations for the Eurasians and “Mohamedans”. Seats were increased once again the following year to accommodate the Penang Chamber of Commerce, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the Straits Chinese British Association and the Straits Settlements (Penang) Association. In 1934, another seat was allocated to the Chinese Town Hall. The total number of Commissioners by then had increased to 13. Such an allocation of seats remained until 1951, except for the Straits Settlements (Penang) Association, which was discontinued in 1946.

The MPSP debate in action. For Penang, the banning of local elections ended a tradition of local democracy practiced since 1857, if not earlier.

Despite its long life until 1951, the cessation of local election in 1913 signalled the misguided idea of stifling democracy for the sake of “efficiency” and “stability”, usually with the excuse that the condition was not suitable or the people were not ready. This colonial orientalism would unfortunately be repeatedly applied.


1 Nordin Hussin, Trade and Society in the Straits of Melaka: Dutch Melaka and English Penang, 1780-1830, NIAS Monographs 100, Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies; Singapore: National University of Singapore Press (2007).

2 City Council of George Town (1966), Municipality of George Town centenary book.

3 Nordin Hussin, Trade and Society in the Straits of Melaka: Dutch Melaka and English Penang, 1780-1830, NIAS Monographs 100, Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies; Singapore: National University of Singapore Press (2007).

4 Report of the Royal Commission of Enquiry to Investigate into the Workings of Local Authorities in West Malaysia (1970), p.15.

 

Steven Sim is the MP for Bukit Mertajam.

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



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