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The Penang Town Hall and City Hall in the background.

Feature

Local Democracy Awaits a Resurrection

The end of local elections in Penang signalled the thorough centralisation of power that was to come.

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Penang is a state with a vibrant history of local government. It was the first state on the peninsula to hold local elections, and had one of the most developed, autonomous and powerful local authorities in the country: the George Town city council.

Unfortunately, local democracy was short-lived. This year marks both the 65th anniversary of the first local elections in Penang as well as the 45th anniversary of the last Penang local council’s demise.

On December 1, 1951, Penang held the first democratic election in then-Malaya. These elections were the first step in introducing democracy to Malaya, heralding the beginning of decolonisation and the start of Malayan self-rule. This was an important milestone indeed on the road to Merdeka. The elections were also timed in the middle of the Communist insurgency, aiming to present democracy as a more attractive alternative to Communism.

The local government of Penang was divided among five councils: the George Town city council (George Town was later declared a city in 1957) covered the town area, the Rural District Council controlled the rest of Penang island, and the North, Central and South District Councils controlled Seberang Prai.

From 1957 to 1966, the George Town city council was dominated by the Socialist Front, opponents of the Alliance (who controlled both the federal and the Penang state governments, as well as the other four local councils in Penang). Although the George Town council achieved much – such as the construction of Malaysia’s first ever public housing (People’s Court, still standing today) – it was continually clashing with the Alliance over national policy, especially the Malaysia Project in 1963. The Socialist Front opposed the formation of Malaysia, as well as North Borneo’s inclusion in the federation; they were in turn accused by the Alliance of being supporters of Indonesia who likewise opposed the formation of Malaysia and was engaged in an armed confrontation (Konfrontasi) with the newly formed nation.[1]

These tensions were exacerbated by the substantial influence the George Town city council had. Its annual revenue was almost twice the size of the state’s[2], and it also had a greater number of better qualified, better paid staff. It had considerable autonomy over local affairs, and did not hesitate to use its clout to flout state government injunctions. (In 1963 the council pointedly ignored state orders on two notable occasions: it refused to celebrate Malaysia Day and it supplied piped water to a squatter settlement that the state had ordered demolished.[3])

By the mid-1960s, there was decided antagonism between the state and local governments. The political leanings, substantial autonomy and considerable influence of the George Town city council were a thorn in the side of the Alliance-led state government.


The End of Local Government

In March 1965 local elections nationwide were suspended due to the ongoing Konfrontasi with Indonesia. The sitting local governments were, nevertheless, allowed to remain in power until elections were reinstated. But in June 1966 the City Council of George Town (Transfer of Functions) Order by Penang Chief Minister Wong Pow Nee transferred all the functions of the city council to the state government, effectively giving the latter full – albeit temporary – control of the council.

This Order was ultra vires – beyond the powers of the state government – because it violated the Local Government Elections Act, a federal statute. Although the city council consequently protested the Order in the Federal Court, the Alliance-controlled federal government simply decided to amend the Act, thus retroactively rendering the Penang state government’s actions legal. A mere 15 years after the colonial government had granted power to the George Town city council, the national government and the state government took it away.[4]

This swift takeover of the George Town city council by the state can be traced back to 1963, when D.S. Ramanathan, an ex-Socialist Front mayor of George Townturned- Alliance supporter, accused the George Town city council of corruption and mismanagement. A Commission of Enquiry was set up to investigate Ramanathan’s charges, and the George Town city council was consequently suspended in June 1966 to facilitate the Commission’s investigation.

The Commission of Enquiry validated Ramanathan’s claims. The final nail in the nowdisgraced council’s coffin came on November 6, 1967, when the state government decided to extend the duration of the 1966 Transfer of Functions Order until new elections to the council could be held. In effect, the George Town city council came under the control of the state government until further notice.[5]

D.S. Ramanathan.

The 1970s witnessed the abolition of the remaining local councils in Penang. When Parti Gerakan Rakyat took over the state government in 1969, it moved quickly. Following the precedent and legislation of the former Alliance government, it suspended the four District councils (which were almost entirely controlled by Gerakan’s opponents, the majority of whom were Alliance members). These councils, according to Gerakan officials, were inefficient and mismanaged; furthermore, they were not “viable units” of government in terms of size and centralisation. Thus, from January 1, 1971, the last elected local authorities in Penang fell under state government control.[6]

A Commission of Enquiry was set up to investigate Ramanathan’s charges, and the George Town city council was consequently suspended in June 1966 to facilitate the Commission’s investigation.


Behind the Smokescreen

Although the official rationale behind the George Town city council suspension was corruption and mismanagement, there were other factors at play behind the scenes. On a personal level, both civil servants and the state administration found direct state control of George Town’s affairs a beneficial arrangement . Administration was more efficient without council meetings; the civic staff could enjoy regular working hours and had fewer complaints to deal with (all such had come through the councillors in the past). The chief minister also undoubtedly enjoyed having the greater resources of the George Town city council at his disposal, and the freedom to carry out policy unhampered by recalcitrant councillors.[7] With such a beneficial arrangement in place, the chief minister would have been unwilling to reinstate the city council.

Taking a broader view, inter-party conflict was an important factor underlying local government’s demise. As has been mentioned, the Socialist Front-controlled city council did not get along well with the Alliance-led state government, so the former’s suspension by the latter in 1966 can be at least partly explained by their political rivalry. The suspension of the Alliance controlled District councils by Gerakan in 1970 can also be explained in the same way. Although the official justification given in both cases hinged on reasons of malpractice or inefficiency, this was likely a veneer for the actual cause, which was inter-party tension. However the situation is viewed, party politics – particularly the conflict between state and local governments – played an obvious role in the downfall of elected local governments in Penang.

People's Court, Malaysia's first ever public housing.

National politics played a significant role as well, beginning with the March 1965 suspension of local elections across Malaysia. The official rationale for the suspension cited national unity as a reason – to prevent unnecessary divisions caused by the politicking that would occur during campaigning, and also because such campaigning could be a cover for “subversive activities” by Indonesians during the fraught period of Konfrontasi.[8] Among others, Jürgen Rüland, a German political scientist, rightly questioned this justification – after all, national elections were held in 1964 despite Konfrontasi, and these were on a much larger scale than local elections. Rather, Rüland posited that the suspension was due to the desire of the ruling Alliance to cement and centralise power.[9]

Upon closer inspection, it appears that the Malaysian government may have wanted to suspend local government all along.

In further support of this idea, note the quick action of the Alliance-controlled federal government in 1966 to amend the Local Government Act, thus legalising the initially unauthorised takeover of the George Town city council by the Penang state government.

Although this action can be read as an isolated, partisan move (at that time the Penang state government was also under the Alliance after all), if we consider other factors like the introduction of the New Economic Policy and the new 1976 Local Government Act which abolished elected local authorities altogether, it seems more likely that the suspension of local governments was part of a larger national policy of centralisation under the federal government which emerged more fully after 1969. This policy was geared towards eliminating competition at lower levels of government, thus buttressing the power and control of the federal ruling party.

Penang is a state with a rich democratic heritage stretching back to pre-Merdeka days. It has had, and can have, thriving local democracy and capable and dynamic local governments. Although the old state-local antagonism – one of the stumbling-blocks to local democracy in the past – has been to some extent resolved by the current state government’s desire to reinstitute local elections, the more formidable obstacle of national policy remains: unless the federal government chooses to recognise the value of local autonomy, thus abandoning its desire for centralised control and its aversion to increased democracy, any attempt to revive local government will be unlikely.

  • [1]Yeoh Seng Guan et al., eds. Penang and Its Region: The Story of an Asian Entrepôt. Singapore: NUS Press, 2009. Print. 248-49.
  • [2]Report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry to Investigate into the Working of Local Authorities in West Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Government Printers, 1972. 86.
  • [3]http://penangmonthly.com/a-history-of-localelections-in-penang-part-ii-a-legacy-to-protect-3
  • [4]Tennant, Paul. ‘The Abolition of Elective Local Government in Penang.’ Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 4.01 (1973): 80-82.
  • [5]Ibid, 82-84.
  • [6]Ibid, 85-86.
  • [7]Ibid, 84.
  • [8]Tennant, Paul. ‘The Decline of Elective Local Government in Malaysia.’ Asian Survey 13.4 (1973): 355.
  • [9]Ruland, Jürgen. ‘Continuity and Change in Southeast Asia: Political Participation in Three Intermediate Cities.’ Asian Survey 30.5 (1990): 63-64.
  • A proud Penangite, Joshua Wong is currently studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. He has a keen interest in both history and writing.
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