There is no guarantee that those elected as civil society nominees in the Penang Forum elections on 14 November will be appointed municipal councillors come January. But it would be a major mistake for the state government to ignore the results of the poll, says Goh Ban Lee.
On 14 November, Penang Forum, a coalition of more than 40 civil societies, held Penang Forum 3 to select five nominees for each of the two municipal councils. It was not a local government election that many civic leaders have been clamouring for, but it did show that those pushing for elected representatives in the local authorities can do something besides campaigning for local government elections.
Despite some criticism in some blogs, it was a success. Besides the exercise to select potential councillors, there were also talks on the roles of the councils and issues they face.
However, the event does pose a dilemma for the state government. What should it do with the successful candidates?
To appreciate the significance of Penang Forum 3, it should be noted that since coming to power in Penang in March 2008, the Pakatan Rakyat government has been appointing three representatives from non-governmental organisations (NGO) to be councillors in the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP) and four in the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP). There are 24 councillors in each council.
Although the number is smaller than the expected one-third and three out of the seven NGO representatives in the councils have been from chambers of commerce and a manufacturer’s organisation, which some civil society leaders do not see as part of “them”, it is still seen as a progressive step.
The leaders of the civil societies could have just nominated themselves and be appointed councillors. The fact that they took the difficult path to organise and conduct an election and allowed anyone, as long as they were not leaders of political parties or chambers of commerce, to stand as candidates is a commendable act.
A total of 24 nominations were received, 15 for MPPP and nine for MPSP. In terms of age, nominees ranged from a 20-year-old part-time student to a 71-year-old retiree. All ethnic groups took part, although the distribution did not reflect the overall pattern in the state. The occupational backgrounds of the candidates were also varied with many involved in civil society work.
All residents of Penang, including foreigners, were eligible to take part in the voting although each participant had to pay a RM10 fee to cover costs and lunch. The fact that more than 300 participants took part on a Sunday was testimony that there were many who cared.
The five candidates for MPPP with the highest votes were Teo Lee Ken, Lim Mah Hui, Chin Khuan Sui, Loh Swee Heong and Dalbinder Singh. Those with the highest votes for MPSP were Tiun Ling Ta, V. Sivagurupatham, Teng Kim Chew, S. Krishnan and Ung Teow Hong
Many of those elected have excellent credentials to serve as councillors. For example, Chin Khuan Sui is a retired teacher and is active in the Women’s Centre for Change, Penang. Dr Lim Mah Hui is a former banker and professor and is involved in Aliran and the Consumers’ Association of Penang. Loh Swee Heong is a mechanical engineer. Since retirement, he has been active in community and development work.
Dr Tiun Ling Ta is a university lecturer and is active in Persatuan Orang Cacat Anggota Malaysia and Sustainable Independent Living and Access. Sivagurupathan is a lawyer and involved in social work, including pesticide control.
There is no guarantee that those elected on 14 November will be appointed municipal councillors come January. The decision-makers to appoint councillors are the state executive councillors and the chief minister.
It is not possible to appoint all the 10 successful candidates as councillors unless the state leaders reduce the number of appointees from the Pakatan Rakyat coalition parties. Furthermore, will the state government replace all the representatives from the business organisations with the successful candidates of Penang Forum 3?
It would be a major mistake for the state government to ignore the results of Penang Forum 3. The steering committee of the event comprises leaders of Aliran, Malayan Nature Society, Penang Heritage Trust, Persatuan Orang Cacat Anggota Malaysia, Suaram Penang, Women’s Centre for Change and Tanjong Bungah Residents Association. They are influential people not only in grassroots movements, but also in academic circles and the cyber world.
While these leaders are basically “helpful and friendly” people, it would be a big mistake for the state government to ignore their attempt at reintroducing local democracy.
Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is a senior research fellow of Seri and interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning.