The First and Forgotten Chief Minister of Penang
Few young Penangites have ever heard the name Wong Pow Nee, and yet, he was the state’s first Chief Minister. He was, furthermore, the man responsible for laying much of the foundation for the state’s industrial future. It is time he is given due honour.
When it comes to the history of Penang’s modernisation, the late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu’s name will always appear. His legacy, from the Free Trade Zone to the Penang Bridge and Komtar, has left an indelible mark on the state to this day.
This focus on Lim as the architect of Penang’s industrialisation, however, comes at the expense of the late Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee, the state’s first Chief Minister. In spite of Wong’s own achievements and efforts, he remains forgotten in the minds of Penangites today.
An unplanned ascension
Unlike most prominent figures who had various positions within the colonial government upon completion of an overseas education, Wong started out as an English teacher at the Kim Sen Primary School in his hometown, Bukit Mertajam. He was said to be a simple, dedicated teacher with a keen interest in scouting and student affairs. Wong had no political ambitions and merely desired to serve his community. But fate had different plans.
In 1951, the Penang Radical Party formed by Lim emerged victorious in the municipal elections. When the town council election was introduced to Bukit Mertajam in 1954, candidates were sought for that party, and in spite of his initial reluctance, Wong finally accepted the residents’ nomination. He went on to win in November that year. Later, he went over to the MCA with Lim and was re-elected to the council in 1955 under the Alliance party banner.
Shortly before Malaysia’s independence, Lim was announced to be Penang’s first Chief Minister, being a senior council member and head of MCA Penang. However, Lim withdrew his candidacy, citing his father’s death as his reason for declining the post.
Wong was said to be favoured by Lim as his successor, and by Tunku Abdul Rahman as well. A meeting convened by the Penang Alliance in July 1957 voted on the matter, and that resulted in a tie between Wong and the late Cheah Seng Khim. Lim ordered a re-election and, in the process, two members changed their minds, and Wong became Chief Minister by a majority of two votes.
Wong was sworn in as Chief Minister during one of the state’s most challenging eras. Penang’s free port status was slowly being removed piece by piece, and the unemployment rate was skyrocketing. Left unchecked, the island would face a bad recession. It was up to Wong to fix it.
The Penang Master Plan 1964 (also known as the Munro Report) recommended industrialisation based on the concept of import substitution, tourism and rural development. In accordance with these recommendations, Wong’s early attempts in reviving Penang can be viewed as three-fold:
1. AGRICULTURE, RURAL DEVELOPMENT & HOUSING
Wong’s administration introduced both intensive and extensive methods of agricultural cultivation, including a more effective drainage and irrigation system. The improvement of infrastructural facilities via the 44 Road Schemes (1964-1968) also provided a smooth marketing process.
As a teacher, Wong understood the importance of providing formal education to the rural areas. In line with the federal government’s rural development scheme, new schools with modern facilities were constructed in then-kampung areas like Gelugor, Bayan Lepas, Balik Pulau, Kepala Batas and the outskirts of Nibong Tebal and Bukit Mertajam.
Wong was also a pioneer of low cost housing in Penang. He launched a range of low cost housing with the primary aim of ensuring the availability of cheap houses for the lower income groups and to encourage the building of similar types of accommodation by the local government authorities to enable slum clearance and resettlement within urbanised areas.
2. PENANG’S EARLY INDUSTRIALISATION
Since the agriculture sector alone was incapable of increasing employment rates, Wong initiated an unprecedented call for factories to be located in Province Wellesley. The pilot project at Mak Mandin marked the establishment of various factories – textiles, clothes, wires, a steel mill and even a sugar factory. The post-Indonesian Confrontation period witnessed stable growth. An additional 2,252 acres of land were acquired for industrialisation purposes. The New Prai Bridge was built to accommodate local industrialists.
Electricity supply was crucial for the blooming industrial areas. The Prai Power station was constructed in 1965 and 1966, and 10 new substations were commissioned, followed by an electrical step-down substation in Bukit Mertajam. Progress was made in supplying electricity to giant industrial consumers like Malaysia Weaving Factory, Southern Iron & Steel Works, Pacific Garments and Din Wai Electrical.
The birth of Penang’s industrialisation ignited the government’s plan for the next stage of development – an integrated regional plan. Wong’s administration believed that regional development was important to enable Penang to compete as a regional producer and supplier of both capital and consumer products. This approach led to the implementation of the Kuala Muda and Kemubu Irrigation schemes and the construction of the East-West highways.
Wong also wanted a linkage/causeway between the mainland and the island. Pending materialisation of the link, Wong devoted his time to improving existing ferry facilities. He proposed the usage of a specially designed vehicular ferry to transport vehicles as an interim solution. The solution was adopted and such modern ferries remain alive in George Town till today.
Wong also proposed the establishment of a state development corporation to help coordinate development work on a state-wide basis, and engaged consultants to prepare a new Master Plan for the state’s economic development in the 1970s.
By 1967, Penang‘s free port status had been abolished completely. Per capita income dropped to as low as 12% under the national wage and recession hit the state with unemployment rates reaching 16%. It was widely predicted that Penang would end up as a “fishing village”.
According to an edition of Penang Today published before the 1969 elections, plans to establish free trade zones and bonded warehouses were already in place for the purpose of reviving Penang’s entreport trade. But Wong’s dream of raising Penang as a wholesale trading centre of the northern region ended abruptly with his defeat in the 1969 elections – ironically to Lim.
While industrialisation focused on the mainland, the island was viewed as the centre of tourism. Wong was the first to visualise the revitalisation of the city centre of George Town for this purpose.
To advance tourism in the state, the Bayan Lepas airfield was extended to accommodate heavier and faster aircraft. Wong also impressed the idea of constructing the largest multipurpose hall in Penang, the Dewan Sri Pinang, to host the Pacific Area Travel Association Conference in 1972.
Initiatives were also taken to provide access lanes to Muka Head through the Pantai Acheh Park project, and a road up Penang Hill was paved for the convenience of tourists. Wong also suggested incentives for the private sector to encourage the construction of more hotels and tourist facilities on the island.
The forgotten leader
While Penang after Wong transformed into the “Silicon Valley” of the East, it is a shame that his early contributions to Penang’s development have seldom been acknowledged, if at all. Many may claim that he did little during his brief, three-term reign as Chief Minister, and that his successor, Lim, had more astonishing, or at least more famous, accomplishments.
Wong was the first to plant the seeds of Penang's industrial future, laying the foundations to transform Penang from a "fishing village" to the success story it is today.
But Wong’s administration was the first to plant the seeds of Penang’s industrial future. His ideas and development plans laid the foundation that allowed Lim to transform Penang from a “fishing village” to the success story it is today.
Hence, while his immediate successor dominates the entire history of Penang’s modernisation, Wong should be just as worthy of accolades, and should not only be remembered as Penang’s first Chief Minister but also afforded a place in the chapters of Penang’s history.
Koay Su Lyn is a research analyst in the Penang Institute with a keen interest in political history.