Empowered Penangites make their voices heard

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penang forum

Feeling more empowered than ever before after the shock opposition win in Penang, civil society activists and other concerned individuals came together to discuss and agree on key areas of concern and proposals for submission to the state government. Anil Netto reports on the historic Penang Forum.

On Sunday, 13 April, over 150 civil society activists and other concerned Penangites turned up for a lively Penang Forum to discuss issues of concern and to come up with a declaration addressed to the Penang state government.

Social activist Ahmad Chik opened the forum, highlighting the role of NGOs and how they came together for last year’s Pesta Rakyat Merdeka. They also successfully opposed the Penang Global City Centre project. But the biggest breakthrough was the result of the 8 March general election, which has given many Penangites real hope that meaningful reforms are possible. There was a buzz of anticipation in the air among the 150 participants as the forum got underway.


Protect the environment

Environmental specialist Leong Yueh Kwong presented some of the serious environmental problems in Penang: the impact of land reclamation, hill slope development, the closure of beaches to the public. He also pointed out that there is a lack of recreational spaces in Penang.

The people of Penang have to guide the new state government about their priorities, said a member from the floor. But only critical issues should be brought to their attention for immediate action, suggested another.

One Penangite wondered why there were so many high-end apartments in Tanjong Bunga? Were these for foreigners?

Other questions were raised by the floor. What can ordinary Penangites do to preserve the environment? How was Singapore able to provide open spaces for 4 million people? Penang Island, on the other hand, has only 700,000 residents. One possibility is to turn unused back-lanes in housing areas into green spaces.


Cross-channel rail link

Citizens for Public Transport (Cepat) coordinator Dr S P Choong then spoke about the traffic snarls in Penang. Public transport should be seen as an essential public service and subsidies are needed, he stressed. What we need is a pro-public transport environment.

He observed that Penangites are car-dependent because cars are seen as a necessity. It is a necessity because there is a planning culture framed by a mindset which feels that public transport will never come. So there is a pro-car environment: streets are widened, pedestrian walkways are narrowed, one-way streets introduced. It is dangerous to even cycle. Penang has one of the highest vehicle ownership per capita in Malaysia – higher than Singapore and it is rising 10 per cent annually.

One academic said we should also consider the rural situation and the situation in Seberang Prai in the forum.

A priority now is to do everything possible now to make subsidised public transport system like Rapid Penang work, said Choong.

One participant suggested that the second bridge be a dedicated light rail link to start from Butterworth and Prai and end up near the outskirts of George Town with a good bus feeder system. He said that the ferry service should be expanded rather than reduced as it is a delightful and practical way to commute.

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Perhaps another possibility is an integrated subway system between the island and mainland, said another, while a third participant wondered how there could be a shift in the mindset of Penangites to turn to public transport.

Another argued that the taxi service should be improved with the use of meters enforced so that more people would be encouraged to use this mode of transport.

Lin Lee recommended the O-bahn system found in Adelaide. It uses ordinary roads with a special fleet of buses. As it exits the city it uses an electrical rail system on river embankments. And it is cost efficient.

Supporting the arts

Ethnomusicologist Tan Sooi Beng then spoke about the arts in Penang. Penang has rich and diverse cultures with home-grown singers, actors, and poets. We need to support the arts as it creates a sense of identity and social and political expression. It would also have a positive impact on the youth. A culturally vibrant place can attract professionals to work in Penang.

But there is a lack of performance venues and rehearsal spaces, high rental costs and last-minute cancellations. Too many permits and high deposits. More arts events and festivals are needed, featuring diverse cultural groups to bring audiences together and to provide space for local artistes to perform.

Stage actor Himanshu Bhatt noted that there is no dearth of cultural facilities going on but what is required is more publicity for these events.

World Heritage listing

Heritage conservationist Loh-Lim Lin Lee then briefed the audience on the world heritage listing for Penang. The application that has been submitted is titled “Historic Cities of the Straits: Malacca and George Town”. She listed the advantages of a heritage listing: economic returns/appreciation in value, new business opportunities, increase in tourists, and prestige. Conservation is needed to protect heritage values and preserve cultural significance for present and future generations. Unesco requires a heritage management plan.

Threats arising from a heritage listing include tremendous development pressure, population pressure, environment pressure, and uncontrolled tourism. Participation of and benefit for local communities is critical. Local communities should be empowered and should enjoy the tangible benefits.

One participant brought to attention the importance of public libraries, which should be an essential component for cultural strategies. Many among the 150 participants, of diverse background and ethnic origins, were eager to speak and air their views.

Full participation by women

The next presenter, human rights activist Prema Devaraj, called on the state government to respond to the needs of women especially the protection of women and children. We must ensure the full and equitable participation of women in the economy, she said. Affordable facilities for child care are needed.

Pay equity, flexibility of hours, a code of practice against sexual harassment and a minimum wage are all essential. Training is also necessary to upgrade skills and empower women. A committee should also look into the rights of women migrant workers including domestic workers.

Workers’ demands

Another rights activist Kris Khaira then touched on workers’ issues. He highlighted how the government has over the years been weakening the trade union movement. Workers who are active in unions can sometimes find themselves harassed by management.

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One of the demands is three months’ maternity leave and one month paternity leave. The other demand is RM900 minimum wage and RM300 cost of living allowance and not more than 40 hours work a week.

Jerit, an NGO coalition struggling for the rights of marginalised communities, has suggested that a retrenchment fund should be set up with contributions from both employer (RM1 per worker) and employee (RM0.50). Alternative housing is also needed by retrenched plantation workers.

The same policies should be extended to migrant workers, who must be given the same rights.


The person comes first

A spirited Lim Kah Cheng then drew loud applause when she suggested tax reforms to allow the state governments more say in deciding how the public’s tax money is spent.

She explained that the politically correct term for disabled persons is persons with disabilities (PWDs). The ‘person’ comes first. Their actual needs are the same as the rest of us: quality education, decent incomes, leisure activities, the right to raise families, shopping and paying bills. But we tend to forget about them. We need a paradigm shift: PWDs need their rights promoted. Obstacles blocking them from gaining access to opportunities must be removed.

What is good for them is good for everyone e.g. ramps, lifts, bigger toilets, signages, larger print, and disabled friendly public transport. A by-law in force since 1993 requires all buildings to provide disabled access. Planning should be inclusive in its design and conception.


Students are humans too!

Next, a university student spelt out what is wrong with education in Malaysia. According to the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) ranking, Malaysian universities have been slipping off the radar of the world’s top universities. She highlighted the stifling impact of the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA). The UUCA forbids five students and more from gathering. Students are humans too (!) and therefore should be granted full human rights. Even lecturers have to sign an Aku Janji pledge but dozens have refused.

She also spoke out against the corporatisation of universities, which has displaced academic culture. In its place has emerged a corporate and bureaucratic culture. Universities have begun to seek new sources of funding, introducing twinning programmes and raising student intakes. But in the process, students have been turned into products catering to the market.


Bringing back local council elections

Political scientist and activist Francis Loh then pointed out that without local council elections, there is no mechanism to hold local councils accountable.

The Local Govt Elections Act 1960, Sec 5A (1) allows state governments in consultation with the Election Commission to hold local council elections. But the Local Government Act 1976 states that “all provisions relating to local government elections cease to have force or effect.” Still, Section 1A says the state authority may exempt any area within any local authority from the provisions of the LGA.

The Penang State Assembly can therefore introduce an enactment to revive local government elections – or work towards amending the LGA in parliament to allow local government elections to be revived.

In the past, councillors (numbering 8-24 in all) were political appointees (largely male) and ultimately responsible to the state govt. Thus, the state was able to dictate the local government agenda. The role of council president is critical but unfortunately, there has been no accountability.

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Pending the reintroduction of council elections, there should be fair representation of women and other independent representatives. To promote accountability, council meetings should be made open to the public and the media. Similarly, committee meetings on land development, transport and environment matters, financial matters and tenders should also be open. Non-performing and corrupt councillors must be removed and detailed financial statements be made public.

NGOs can pursue partnerships with the new State Govt and hold regular meetings with the Chief Minister or the Exco.

A restructuring of local govt in Penang is needed. Maybe there should be two councils on the island – one in Balik Pulau perhaps – and more than one on the mainland. Currently, less attention is given to the western side of the island and southern Prai.

Veteran activist Anwar Fazal suggested a whole new mechanism of neighbourhood councils, which would also build a community spirit. The role of public health inspectors should be expanded to look at public health as a total concept. New kinds of civil servants are needed to liaise with neighbourhood councils.

One participant requested that the city status of George Town be restored, receiving loud applause from the floor. Another added that we should also push for an elected mayor.

S P Choong pointed out that massive development projects require that objections be accepted only from immediate neighbours – whereas the impact is felt in a much larger area. Moreover, no reason need be given for rejecting objections from neighbouring residents.

Francis stressed that one big way to deepen democracy is to decentralise decision-making. Local democracy would be a significant step in this direction. Lin Lee, for her part, suggested that the new state government review some of the contracts for services that had been contracted out to the federal level.


A sense of empowerment

A librarian stood up to propose a Freedom of Information Act. The tempo started picking up as people began queuing up at the mike to put forward questions and comments from the floor. Among the issues and concerns raised:
• public security
• the possibility of publishing a Penang Reader
• the need for civil society groups to link up with other groups in the Pakatan states
• the need to lobby MPs to reform immigration policies relating to migrant labour and refugees
• the importance of reducing garbage – more recycling is needed
• health tourism is diverting resources from the public sector and worsening the unfair two-tier health care system

The participants of various ethnic and religious backgrounds, young and old, then adopted a Penang Forum declaration for submission to the state government. Enthusiastic participants signed up for various working committees, which will work on specific issues and come up with papers within three months.

The world is watching civil society in Malaysia, which is blossoming and acting as real agents of change. “I’m enthralled by the response of you participants who have stayed on the whole day,” concluded Ahmad Chik, the moderator for the final session, thumping the table with satisfaction.

Indeed, for the first time in years, many feel empowered and think they can make a difference.

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