Local Government in Penang, 1940

The following text is extracted from "Chapter V: Municipalities—Sanitary Boards, Rural and Town" in the 1940 publication How Malaya is Governed, written by S.M. Middlebrook (Malayan Civil Service) and A.W. Pinnick (Malayan Educational Service) (London, New York and Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co.). The preface states that the book was meant “for use in Malayan schools in Standard VIII and above”.

Coming out as it did just a couple of years before the Japanese put a rude end to the intricate system of government that the British over 160 years had slowly constructed for the Malay peninsula, the book provides a good sense of what the official structure of colonialism looked like just before it ended. The series of governing systems put in place after the defeat of Japan in 1945 were quite different, and all were of a transitory nature.

The Japanese centralised control over the whole peninsula without disrupting much of the civil service structure, while the British, on their return to Malaya and northern Borneo ploughed through the British Military Administration (September 1945 - March 1946), the Malayan Union (April 1, 1946 - January 31, 1948), and the Federation of Malaya ( January 31, 1948 - September 16, 1963) in quick succession, before handing over the reins of power to Tengku Abdul Rahman Putra, first on the founding day of Malaya on August 31, 1957; and then on the founding day of Malaysia on September 16, 1963. 

§ 1. What is Local Government
IT HAS BEEN said that the greatest achievement of the past hundred years has been the conquest of insanitary conditions of living. This statement referred to England but it might equally well apply to Malaya. In this chapter we shall see how the local government we know has been built up and how the conditions of life have improved for all of us. In the Colony we are familiar with the Municipalities, and in the Malay States with the Sanitary, Rural and Town Boards. Although these bodies have different titles and have not all reached the same state of development, they have similar uses and a common ideal of local government.

What is local government? We could quote long definitions by distinguished authorities but we will answer the question more simply. Local Government is the administration by leading citizens of towns and other districts. In England these people do not receive salaries but in this country development has not yet reached the same stage and the Presidents of the Municipalities in Singapore, Malacca and Penang are members of the Malayan Civil Service. The administration is in accordance with special laws and is paid for by local taxation. Its aim is to supply such conveniences as electricity, water and sanitation. Local government exists to improve the ways in which we live, and a wise municipality will look ahead to provide for our future needs. The modern form of municipal government in England is now at least a hundred years old. In 1835 more than one hundred and fifty municipalities were formed in England and Wales. Theses bodies were created to deal with the confused conditions in the towns which sprang up with the Industrial Revolution. The population in the towns had doubled and even trebled in some cases: thousands of houses were being built round factories without any sort of control: slum conditions were general: there was a complete absence of planning; roads were unpaved, choked with rubbish and impassable: the only water was got from wells: latrines hardly existed. It was not surprising that epidemics were general and it was because of the disease and the lth that action was taken to form these new local bodies. Malaya is a new country and has largely developed since 1875 and we have been able to benefit by the lessons learnt in England and by the experience gained in this form of government. It is interesting to remember, however, that as early as 1801 Penang had a ‘Committee of Assessors,’ as it was then called, who were appointed to determine the best means of raising and draining streets. There were six persons present at the first meeting, four Europeans, one Arab and one Chinese, and they appointed a clerk to the committee and also arranged for a place where any money collected could be deposited. This was the beginning of local government in Malaya. 

To-day Singapore, Malacca and Penang have municipalities controlling the town areas. In the local newspapers there are often full accounts of the meetings of the Municipal Commissions and of the work done by the various departments of the municipalities. To obtain some idea of the extent and importance of such work we will take the municipality of Penang, with its population of over 150,000, as an example and see how it is governed.

§ 2. The Commissioners

The Committee of Assessors has become the Municipal Commission of Georgetown. The Commission is presided over by a senior member of the Malayan Civil Service, as it is also in Singapore and Malacca. There are twelve members in addition: seven chosen by His Excellency the Governor, and five by the following associations: the Penang Chamber
of Commerce, the Chinese Town Hall, the Straits Chinese British Association, the Straits Settlements (Penang) Association and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. At present there are five Europeans, four Chinese, one Malay, one Indian and one Eurasian. The Commissioners are doctors, business men, lawyers, etc., and are not paid for their services but give a great deal of energy and spare time in controlling the expenditure and activities of the various municipal departments, for these are complicated matters and those who deal with them must keep up to date. One third of the Commissioners retire annually but they may be reappointed. There are various restrictions as to who may be chosen as members of the Commission and it is laid down that no person can be appointed who is unable to speak and read the English language. Men who cannot pay their debts (bankrupts) and persons sentenced to imprisonment are also disqualified. Before he can take his seat every Commissioner must make the following declaration before a magistrate:

‘I, X Y Z, having been appointed a Municipal Commissioner for Georgetown, Penang, hereby declare that I take the said of ce on myself and will duly and faithfully fulfil the duties thereof according to the best of my judgment and ability.’

The object of these restrictions and of this declaration is to make sure that only reliable persons shall serve as members of the Commission.

A baby being examined at a health clinic in Penang, 1940.

The Commissioners cannot do all the work themselves so there is a large staff of technical experts to carry out the work of the Municipality. This work is divided between the various departments. Three of these—the Water Department, the Electricity Supply Department, and the Transport Department (Trolley Buses) are known as the ‘trading undertakings’ because they sell things—water, electricity or rides on the buses to the people. The other departments are as follows:

The Health Department, The Municipal Engineers’ Department, The Veterinary Department, The Vehicles Registration Department, The Fire Brigade.

In addition there is the Municipal Secretary’s office which deals with financial and other matters which do not come under the control of the other departments. The bigger the town the more complicated the administration and the more necessary it is for the Commissioners and the heads of the various departments to work together. All work loyally to follow the common aim of serving the community. The motto of the Penang Municipality is ‘Ich Dien’ which means ‘I Serve.’ This is the motto of the Prince of Wales and Penang, you will remember, is also ‘Prince of Wales Island.’ Normally the Commissioners follow the advice of the departmental heads but they have the final power to say yes or no. In turn the Commissioners themselves are supervised by the Government, and if they omit to carry out any work which they should do then the Governor-in-Council may order a special inquiry into the matter. When completed the report is sent to the Legislative Council for its consideration, and instructions are given to the Municipality which it must carry out. 

The Commissioners hold meetings twice a month, and the public is allowed to attend, unless of course the Commissioners decide otherwise. The ‘resolutions’ which they pass are kept in a book which is open to inspection by members of the public. They are also printed in the local newspapers. The object of these fortnightly meetings is to consider and pass the work done by the Commissioners ‘in Committee.’ There are several of these committees and the recommendations which each of them make are put before the whole body of the Commissioners for acceptance, or for reconsideration. The President presides at all meetings ‘with strict impartiality and friendly dignity’ and the Municipal Secretary is present and writes the minutes of the meetings. The heads of the four main departments—the Engineers’, Health, Electricity and Water Departments are in attendance and are thus able to give technical or special information on any point which is raised during the meeting (pp. 59-64).



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