State exco YB Chow Kon Yeow speaks...

loading Chow Kon Yeow during Penang Institute's Agents of Change dialogue session.

Penang Institute’s first dialogue session with policymakers and influencers was held in August, with an enlightening session with state exco member Chow Kon Yeow, who is also chairman of the local government, traffic management and flood mitigation committee.

It is not an easy task being in government, especially when it comes to making difficult – and on occasion, unpopular – decisions, as Chow elaborates. While challenging, it is at the same time a fulfilling job.

Chow Kon Yeow on…

Local governance

In a nutshell:

• We operate based on laws, rules and regulations, but risk becoming unpopular because of enforcement actions.

• Previously, there were about over 1,000 telecommunications structures in Penang; 98% were unlicensed. Upon taking office in 2008, I pressured the council to work on the legalisation of such structures. We were empowered to tear them down if they were found to be illegal. Today, telecommunication companies are more open to work with the local government division on the process of legalisation.

• The conversion of residential/commercial houses into swiftlet farms to harvest birds’ nests sparked concerns towards heritage houses in George Town, especially after the city was awarded the Unesco World Heritage Site title. Complaints were made as the farms threatened George Town’s Universal Outstanding Values with regards to its living heritage. The phasing out of these swiftlet farms from the city were under favourable circumstances: China imposed an import ban on bird’s nest, prices dropped and the business became not as lucrative as before; the success rate of swiftlet farms is only 20% vis-a-vis appreciating property prices in the heritage area. After two years, the state government settled the complaint.

• The unlicensed conversion of hotels: the three-year legalisation programme expires in October 2017; about 50 premises have obtained their licenses, 50 have closed down and the rest are still in the process. My office will do our best not to intervene with decisions undertaken by the council in terms of enforcement to ensure that there is no conflict.

• The Local Government Unit has since expanded into a division under the state secretariat with additional units overlooking issues of telecommunications, public transport and local governance. Staff capacity has increased to about 30-40 people from 10 since my early years.

Flood mitigation

• Pollution at Sungai Emas and Sungai Batu Ferringi was solved through an effective drainage system project with an active task force to oversee operations.

• At Sungai Pinang, IQPR technology was used to curb pollution. Recent years witnessed sightings of otters, indicating the presence of healthy marine life which indirectly shows that the water is healthy and safe.

• Major flood mitigation projects to commence end of this year, mainly in the Seberang Perai Tengah and Seberang Perai Selatan areas, which are flooding hot spots. The aim is to effectively reduce and curb flooding issues within the next three years.

Penang Transport Master Plan

• SRS Consortium initiative, launched in August 14, 2015, has been appointed as delivery partner. We are currently in the final phases of securing approval for the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for the LRT and land reclamation.

State-federal cooperation

• It is crucial to work with federal agencies (mainly the Public Works Department and the Department of Irrigation and Drainage) and to maintain an effective working relationship.

• Issues in jurisdictional matters can be contentious; the local council is constantly blamed for matters arising in areas in which it has no jurisdiction. People and communities are ignorant on jurisdictional boundaries and who is in charge; the proper mapping of areas and boundaries is required for people to be more aware.

• Federal-state cooperation is important for the people's betterment in general. Penang still receives a handful of federal-based projects despite the lack of funding and jurisdictional problems.

Chow inspecting Sungai Pinang in 2015. The water level is now approaching Class II (clean).

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