Models for state and city
Writer: Tricia Yeoh
Published: Fri, 12 Oct 2012
As part of the Penang launch of my book, "States of Reform", as well as the FreedomFilmFest screenings of my documentary, "The Rights of the Dead" in the same state, I spent several days in Penang recently (a sister state of Selangor, in the sense that both are governed by the Pakatan Rakyat coalition as a result of the March 2008 elections).
The trip was a personal exercise in analysing just how the Penang state government has done over the past almost five years in comparison with Selangor.
One question I have been commonly asked, from the Selangor perspective, is why the Penang state government seems to have done a better job than Selangor in selling itself over this last electoral term.
Indeed, news of its now cleaner streets, more vibrant arts life, a dedication to preserving its heritage and culture, and a more flourishing tourism industry has spread to the Klang Valley.
And without a doubt, comparisons would be made between the two as they represent the new states governed, whilst having common characteristics.
It is true that both states are similar in several ways, namely the fact that both are two of the most urbanised states in the country, as well as contributing significantly to the country’s economy through the existence of numerous industries including manufacturing and other business entities.
There are, however, differences that one must note when comparing the two states.
First, the geographical size of both states: Penang’s area is 1,048 sq km whilst Selangor’s is 8,104 sq km. Penang’s population is estimated at 1.5 million, compared to Selangor’s 5.4 million (the state with the largest population in Malaysia). Where Penang has two local councils, Selangor has 12 local and municipal councils combined. The ethnic breakdown differs, with Penang having 45.6 per cent Chinese, 43.6 per cent Bumiputera, 10.4 per cent Indians and 0.4 per cent others; and Selangor with 52.9 per cent Malays, 27.8 per cent Chinese, 13.3per cent Indians and six per cent other ethnic groups.
Having established these figures, the spread of issues shared by both states are similar, especially with respect to the cities represented within (although managing them sometimes requires different modus operandi given the differences in size and ethnic makeup). In Penang, the main cities and towns concerned would be Georgetown and Butterworth; in Selangor, in order of population size, these would be Subang Jaya, Klang, Ampang Jaya, Shah Alam, Petaling Jaya, Cheras and Kajang.
And the issues of city living are many: public transportation, water services and sanitation, waste management, roads and traffic control, sustainable development, ensuring sufficient public parks and recreation, crime and security, and the list goes on.
At a recent public talk entitled “Your KL? My KL?” I spoke at, organised by Genta Media during the Art for Grabs festival at the Central Market Annexe, a quick poll amongst the participants on city living concerns reflected existing frustrations with traffic jams and the cost of living.
Penang has done several things successfully, and these are several interesting models worth exploring.
My little amble along the streets of Georgetown’s Heritage Trail was a pleasant one. Because of the city’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a number of organisations have contributed to its renewal.
In a sense, it possibly gave new life to existing bodies dedicated to the preservation of the state’s history, like the Penang Heritage Trust, an NGO that existed since 1986, and the Georgetown World Heritage Incorporated (which comes directly under the chief minister).
Another interesting experiment is Think City, a special project vehicle established under Khazanah Nasional specifically tasked with implementing a grants programme in Georgetown.
It selects projects to contribute small grants to for the purposes of conservation, restoration and revitalisation works. Old shophouses and hotels are given an incentive to beautify the exterior of their previously shoddy buildings, whilst streets have signboards elaborating on the history of their names.
This demonstrates the ability of a federal government agency to work closely with the local councils of the Pakatan-led state government, for the sake of bipartisan interests.
The formerly Gerakan-led think-tank for Penang, the Socio-Economic & Environmental Research Institute (SERI) was also transformed when Pakatan took over the state.
One of its first projects was to revamp the existing newsletter, the Pennag Economic Monthly, into a monthly magazine that would eventually be sold all the way in Singapore and Selangor. This eventually became the Penang Monthly.
The institute itself was also rejuvenated with new ideas and researchers, now renamed the Penang Institute, housed in a beautiful old bungalow and lovely grounds. The think-tank is responsible for conducting numerous public fora on a range of topics including most recently on the Malaysian Education Blueprint and on decentralisation (at my book launch-cum-forum).
It has also established itself by inviting world speakers such as Jeffrey Sachs, world-famous economist and Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who is due to give a lecture on Oct 20.
Selangor, given its many institutional and existing strengths, such as having a university under its helm, Universiti Selangor (Unisel), could also consider the possibility of establishing a think-tank under it.
The university could also perhaps initiate short courses, lecture series, elective subjects and public discussions on public policy, political philosophy and so on. It is important to build a generation of thinking young Malaysians already exposed to current political affairs and engage them in conversation on these matters.
Such a think-tank would also engage in public policy research and publications on behalf of the state.
Plans for urban regeneration and renewal in Petaling Jaya are already underway, and ensuring local communities and civil society are thoroughly involved in its process is extremely important. Building a community of individuals who participate in the development of their own areas would allow them to decide for themselves what sort of city of the future they desire.
Multi-stakeholder engagement, although sometimes tiring, truly does work when properly done.
Pakatan-led states when collaborating would form the best possible model, adopting the best of each state’s examples, slowly laying the blueprint for other states to follow in the future – whether Pakatan or Barisan.
This, perhaps, is an example of what the heads of states had in mind when discussing the "economic network" of Pakatan states two years ago during the second Menteris Besar Summit held in Shah Alam.
Indeed, this would go well to demonstrate to Malaysians that the coalition is determined to improve people’s lives, which is ultimately the chief reason for which governments are elected into power.