Penang Forum 2: Has anything changed after two years?

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Has political change resulted in radical transformation? Anil Netto reports on Penang Forum 2, which discussed to what extent the state has moved towards participatory democracy and sustainable development since the watershed 2008 general election.

Has Penang changed over the two years of Pakatan rule since the watershed 8 March 2008 general election? That was the question uppermost in the minds of the 170 participants, including representatives from 35 civil society groups, who turned up at the Caring Society Complex for the day-long ‘Penang Forum 2’ event on Sunday, 7 March.

Some were familiar faces in civil society circles; others were new faces – concerned individuals who wanted to participate and make their voices heard. The event, on the eve of the second anniversary of Pakatan rule in Penang, saw participants freely articulating a range of views and learning from one another.

Among the main issues raised and discussed: What has changed during that period? What has the new Penang State Government achieved or has it lost its way? Are there obstacles we don’t know about? What are the constraints arising from our centralised federal system? What about the budget for Penang? Has the government attempted to improve the quality of life in areas such as public transport and traffic congestion, affordable housing, recreational facilities, accessibility for the disabled, environmental protection and gender equality? What has become of the Local Plan? How has the government responded to calls for local government elections? What about problems faced in Seberang Perai, which the 2008 forum neglected to address?

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Animated discussion

The first session of the programme presented an overview of the challenges and constraints, achievements and missed opportunities faced by the Pakatan state government of Penang. Participants were briefed on Malaysia’s heavily centralised federal system and what impact it has had on Penang’s development. An alternative vision of a more sustainable and green Penang was put forward.

The next session touched on the Penang Forum’s experience in engaging with the state government since 2008. After the first Penang Forum in 2008, a Penang Forum Declaration was submitted to the state government calling for a new partnership with the Penang people based on the principles of popular participation, transparency, accountability, sustainability and social justice.

The government was also urged to set up mechanisms for civil society groups to meet with the government regularly. This would provide an avenue for these groups to give input into policy making, monitor and provide feedback on these policies and help the government to resolve problems and conflicts if required. The NGOs also called for easy access to public facilities such as the Caring Society Complex and Dewan Sri Pinang for their public education activities and other events.

During 2008, working groups were set up to look into the Environment, Heritage, Transport, Women, Youth and Students, Persons with Disabilities, Labour, the Arts, Local Government, Health and Goodwill..These groups came up with recommendations that were presented to the State Government in March 2009.

After lunch, speakers looked at a case study of the transport situation in Penang and some of the more serious Seberang Perai issues, especially the lack of affordable housing and the recurrent floods. Later in the afternoon, another panel of speakers discussed opportunities for local democracy, the Selangor campaign for local democracy and the Penang Island Local Plan for urban planning.

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To round off the programme, participants were divided into three groups for brainstorming and more focussed discussions (see Jottings from Penang Forum 2).

At the end of the day, participants at the forum passed two resolutions. First, they welcomed and supported the call by the Penang state government to hold local council elections. To this end, they called on the Elections Commission to respond positively to the state government’s request that they carry out such elections. In the interim period, they called upon the Penang state government to increase the representation of public-interest NGOs to at least five each in the MPPP and the MPSP. (Some names were suggested at the Forum as possible candidates.)

Second, they called upon the state government and the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) to make public the Local Plan, which has been completed (and revised) since 2009 and that this be made available for a period of three months for public scrutiny and feedback, in accordance with the Town and Country Planning Act.

Continuing the journey

The Penang Forum is an informal network of some three dozen Penang-based NGOs and concerned individuals which came together in April 2008 for the inaugural Penang Forum to chart a possible way forward for Penang after the historic 2008 general election. The genesis of this close cooperation may actually be traced to Pesta Rakyat Merdeka in 2007, a day-long convention and celebration organised by these civil society groups to mark the 50th year of Merdeka.

The idea behind Penang Forum 2 was not simply to organise yet another forum, but to couple this with popular consultation and participation on the issues that matter. In this regard, the future direction of Penang is not only dependent on lobbying the government of the day but in seizing the opportunity to outline and promote a vision of the Penang we desire.

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The Working Group for Penang Forum 2 was drawn from representatives of Aliran, Jerit Penang, Malaysian Nature Society, Penang Heritage Trust, Penang Transport Council, Persatuan Orang Cacat Anggota Malaysia (Pocam), Sustainable Independent Living and Access (Sila), Suaram Penang and Women’s Centre for Change.

The presentations during the forum and a summary of the discussions will be uploaded to the Penang Forum website in due course. The journey towards participatory local democracy and sustainable development continues.

Anil Netto is treasurer of Aliran

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