Adult suffrage comes to Penang and Malaysia, 1951

On December 1, 1951, the first case of universal adult suffrage took place in Malaya. This was when Penang held its first municipal election. This followed swiftly after the Local Authorities Elections Ordinance, 1950 for the Federation of Malaya, became law on January 1, 1951.
The Report on the Introduction of Elections in the Municipality of George Town, Penang (Kuala Lumpur: Government Press, 1951), written by the Supervisor of Elections, A.S.M. Hawkins, was ready for public viewing by the end of December 1951. The following text is extracted by Ooi Kee Beng to present the results and the concluding comments made by Hawkins. The Radical Party was the clear winner in the new Penang Municipal Council, which after the election consisted of “nine elected councillors and six councillors and the President appointed by His Excellency the High Commissioner in Nominated Council”.

Voter registration under way.

The new council.

53. The political composition of the elected part of the new Council is six Radical, one Labour, one U.M.N.O., and one Independent. Functionally they are four lawyers, two doctors, one office assistant, one Government pensioner and one schoolmaster. It was gratifying to find that in a town where the attitude to women is still rather early Victorian, two women contested the elections. One of them topped the poll in her ward and is returned for three years. The other, though not among the first three, had a very good following. I hope that women will continue to play their part in elections and local government, and will follow the good example of the two pioneers. At all stages women have taken part: broadcasting, registration of voters, as candidates, and as polling staff . One of the busiest polling stations was staffed by women and all three did an excellent day’s work.

The human touch.

55. Post-war conditions brought disappointment, disillusionment and even bitterness, and traces of these are evident. ‘A number of incidents are worth mentioning if only as a guide to the type of instruction required to remove the difficulties that beset the heart and mind of the ordinary man and woman. An elderly Malay came to register and regretted that his eyesight was poor. He thought that he could still be useful in the Army Service Corps. A young Chinese would have none of us, but insisted on being attached to a jungle squad. He was directed to the proper registration centre but could not be persuaded to register for a vote as well, although he was qualified. Many who had to leave Penang on business wanted to cast their votes before leaving. Several requested an itinerant polling booth, and staff . There was perhaps absence of humour but one incident was amusing. The Radical and Labour parties held rallies on the same evening in the same area. The driver of a decorated lorry belonging to the Radicals overtook two small boys carrying a banner for the rival party, and invited them aboard. The boys naturally preferred this mode of transport, and the lorry with its new passengers travelled twice round the Padang before it was discovered that the Radicals had admitted the Labour flag to their band-wagon.

56. Explaining and preserving the secrecy of the ballot was most difficult. “How will you know that I’ve voted if I don’t sign my name?” was the most frequent question. In a polling station at a peak hour a boy scout trying to direct voters one at a time towards the polling booths was grieved when told by one voter to mind his own business. “That’s my wife,” said the voter, trying to squeeze into the booth, “I must see that she marks her paper right.” The Presiding Officer came to the rescue.


58. Democracy is a jade of a word. Th roughout this report it is used to mean a system of government under which people periodically choose their representatives at elections held under conditions of freedom of thought, speech, and association. Penang is a suitable ground for the growth of democratic institutions,—the rule of law, the secrecy of the ballot, and the separation of the three functions of government. Its population is stable, less transitory than that of other large towns in Malaya. Its long and honourable record in education has given it a higher degree of literacy than other towns. A local newspaper, and the Penang station of Radio Malaya help to weld the people into a community not only of common interests, but of common ideals. There are also local pride and local patriotism, not split by the schizophrenia of a metropolitan town. A town that has on its lips the words “Penang Leads”, as Birmingham has “ Forward”, and uses the motto neither as a prayer nor an aspiration, nor yet as a boast but as a simple assertion of fact, is obviously a place of quality. Its high tradition of local government built up during the years when Commissioners were appointed by Government and which has made Penang Municipality a model in East Asia, is a challenge to the new, popularly elected Councillors. Penang took elections in its stride and the novelty of the process caused only few and minor errors in party and official procedure. In spite of emergency conditions, Penang is fostering a spirit of political responsibility, and it is a tribute to that spirit that the complex machinery of representative government has been constructed, assembled, set in motion, and directed to the desired end in calm, harmony, good order and goodwill, and on time, in accordance with a time-table prepared six months before.

59. Probably never again will nine Councillors be elected at one and the same time. These 1951 elections are unique, and have given rich experience to all who took part at any stage, and by their nature allowed the experience to be shared by a very large number. It is an excellent sign that all who shared are eager to repeat the experience, to take part in registration, to act as polling staff , and to stand for election.

60. And what of the gloomy prophecies? The register? Three times 5,000 strong, not one miracle but three miracles. “These people know nothing of voting; they will vote for their friends, voting will be communal.” Vide the results. How to explain that a Ward, predominantly Malay and Chinese, returns an Indian at the top of the poll? On the eve of the poll a leading newspaper forecast a 40 to 60 per cent poll. The guess was wide and, but for rain, came near to being wild. Th e campaigns of parties and candidates with no previous experience were not violently vociferous although energetically pursued, yet it was the parties and the candidates who brought 10,500 voters to the polling stations. It is hoped that the parties will grow and thrive and keep the interest alive.

61. It would be regrett able indeed if elections came to be regarded as a costly experiment. Among the most interesting facets of my work were the opportunities of meeting and talking with the working people in Penang, the shop assistants, the amahs, the hair-dresser’s assistants, the cobblers, the trishaw men, and of hearing the views of senior pupils in schools. Political consciousness though not universal is not lacking. There have been opportunities to listen to the teachings of communism. It is by no means too soon to present the case for democracy and the freedom of the democratic way of life. Adult education has been started and the demand for teachers far exceeds the supply. Elections are an important branch of adult education and are a positive contribution to anti-banditry. Even if fully elected Councils are delayed for some time there must be no interruption in the progress of popular education. Penang is ready for elections.

The Penang Institute is planning to republish this report in the near future, with broader and more contemporary discussion on local elections.

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