Back from a rejuvenating day at Penang Forum 2, where 170 concerned individuals, including representatives from 35 Penang-based NGOs, grappled with the question, ‘Has anything changed after two years?’
The participants passed two resolutions: they supported the Penang state government’s call for the reinstatement of local government elections and called on the Election Commission to act, pronto. In the interim period, they called for the quota for reps of public interest NGOs to be increased to five each in the Penang Municipal Council and the Seberang Perai Municipa Council.
The second resolution called for the Local Plan for Penang Island (completed/revised in 2009) to be made public so the public can give their views. Never mind if it is a bit dated by now. (The plan covers the period from 2005 to 2020.)
During the forum, participants were fascinated to learn the following:
- The Pakatan state government is operating under severe constraints from KL and and a bureaucracy used to the old ways.
- The city looks a bit cleaner and brighter. Some public toilets have been spruced up.
- Only four councillors make the major decisions on property development projects; just four! This makes it easier for developers to lobby and bargain with them.
- The Local Plan for Penang Island has been completed and revised since 2009, but still not yet been made public. Why? When can we see it?
- The public cleansing powers of the councils could soon be taken over by a federal body, which could then contract it out to private operators. This presents a huge rent-seeking opportunity that could be costly for rate-payers. The takeover of these powers would be bigger than the IWK takeover of the sewage disposal services. And yet, few Malaysians are aware of it.
- Do you know that swiftlet breeders have taken over hundreds of shophouses in the George Town inner city area? I thought it involved just a few shophouses, but no, it’s a major industry – and very unhygienic, so the participants were told. Where do you think the waste ends up?
- Seberang Perai has been prone to floods over the years. Millions have been spent over the years on flood mitigation – with little to show for it.
- Acute lack of affordable housing. When was the last time we saw a major low-cost housing scheme on the mainland, for instance? Many urban settlers and migrant workers are living in appalling and crammed conditions, with poor sanitation.
- Tanjong Bunga residents have discovered that a major property development (marina/housing) project is slated for the ‘sore-thumb’ next to the Penang Swimming Club. This would extend the ‘sore thumb’ further into the sea (the project covers 14-15 acres) and could mess up the flow of the sea, resulting in sedimentation on the eastern side and erosion on the western side, much like what the Tanjong Tokong land reclamation has done.
- Concerns were also expressed over a major high-density project in the Thean Teik/Farlim area. Will the access roads be able to cope? One participant expressed concern over the large number of high-rise buildings approved over the last two years.
- Do you know that Penang street food contributes more to the local economy than the MNCs? This is something we could capitalise on and turn Penang into the culinary capital of the Asia Pacific region. To this end, a Street Food Institute is being set up under the auspices of the Socio-Economic and Environmental Research Institute (Seri) of Penang.
- We could also turn Penang into a centre for organic farming and a hub for research into renewable energy such as solar power. One participant suggested that part of the Botanic Garden could be used for an experimental organ farm. This would attract lots of environmentally conscious visitors.
- More needs to be done to improve public transport, to build more accessible pedestrian walkways and to reverse the rising trend of private vehicle ownership.
- The high crime rate is a serious concern – what is causing this? Poor urban planning, lack of recreational spaces, the large income disparity…?
It was encouraging to see participants animatedly discussing sustainable development, environmental and local democracy issues. Many among the 170 spoke up either from the floor or in group discussions at the end of the day.
Generally, they recognised the constraints the state government were working under and could notice small (or significant, depending who you spoke to) improvements since March 2008. Pakatan rule had also provided some space for civil society views to be heard or articulated. For instance, the Caring Society Complex could now be used for the Penang Forum 2. For the first time as well, many Penangites were given an inside glimpse of the workings of the MPPP, thanks to NGO representation in the council (Lim Kah Cheng).
But at the same time, frustration surfaced over some of the issues mentioned above.
Opinion was divided between Kah Cheng and Goh Ban Lee on whether the whole of Penang Island should be declared a city. Ban Lee felt it would be a waste of time and resources. After all, George Town was the country’s first city. But Kah Cheng, a lawyer, felt that the Council needed the legal powers that federally sanctioned ‘city status’ would bestow to carry out more effective enforcement operations.
Another area of disagreement was over whether councillors should be professionals. Ban Lee felt that it was best to have ordinary people so that they could understand and raise public concerns within the council. Professionals, he said, could be employed by the council to head and staff various departments. Kah Cheng, for her part, felt that some level of professional expertise would help councillors to probe and question bureaucrats on technical, financial, legal or engineering issues instead of accepting whatever they say at face value. Perhaps a combination of the two would be optimal.
One participant said instead of looking to the West for answers, we should look back to Penang’s past for workable solutions. What did we have back then? We had more people cycling and strolling along the streets. We had trams running all over George Town and beyond. We had an efficient ferry service. The City Council operated a fairly efficient bus network. We didn’t have to import such a big chunk of our food from Cameron Highlands and elsewhere because Penang had quite a few large vegetable farms supplying fresh produce to the local populace. Fisher folk sailed out into the sea and hauled back inexpensive fresh fish. Housing was more affordable. Beaches were a lot cleaner. Our schools were among the best in the country. Hey, we even had local council elections!
And we think we have progressed? How did we lose all that?
Those of you who attended the Penang Forum – maybe you might want to share your impressions and concerns of the event. For the rest of you, have I left out anything of significance to you?