Since 2008, Pakatan Rakyat’s team of newly-minted representatives have worked hard to close the gap between Penangites and their government. Partnering with civil society to bring about a cleaner, greener Penang is a goal Chow Kon Yeow intends to see through in the next election. Izmil Amri asks the Penang DAP Chairman how decentralisation will boost Penang’s transport master plan.
After completing his studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in social sciences, KL-born Chow Kon Yeow stayed on in Penang. In the 1986 general elections, he was appointed as politicl secretary to Lim Kit Siang, who was then struggling for the ‘Battle of Tanjung’.
He won the Pengkalan Kota state seat in 1990. He lost it in 1995 but prevailed in the Tanjung parliamentary seat in 1999. He succesfully defended Tanjung in 2008 and is currently Penang DAP Chairman.
The Rocket: What exactly is the Penang Transport Master Plan?
Chow: This plan is spearheaded by non-governmental organizations invited to the Penang Transport Council and other individuals playing an active role in the community. This is among the efforts to increase community involvement in governmental planning; by holding public consultations to get feedback from the public.
Traffic congestion in Penang is a longstanding problem, and the transport master plan is designed based on expert advice from Australia to address this problem.
Compounding this existing problem is the limited power granted to states in matters of transport. What we need is decentralization of power from Federal to state, so that we (the state government) can do even more. It is difficult now because of whatever we want to do to improve traffic must pass through Putrajaya.
If we want to ask for additional buses, we must go through Putrajaya. In order to get taxi permits also we must go to Putrajaya. Enforcing the transport master plan also must be with the agreement of Putrajaya. We are fortunate that the Second Bridge is the result of an agreement between the governments of Malaysia and China, if not it will also be made into a problem by Putrajaya.
When Pakatan Rakyat takes over Putrajaya, we will implement decentralization of state power to allow local authorities to exercise more power and budgetary provisions to do what is good for people.
The Rocket: Speaking of local authorities, what took the State Assembly four years to pass the bill on local government elections?
Chow: We have received advice from the more senior members of state government about the need to conduct local government elections. However, we do not have the authority to implement local elections. Federal law does not allow us to do that.
When we met the Election Commission (EC) to address this, they refused. We met with the Local Government Council, they also refused. When we (Pakatan Rakyat) presented the bill in the Assembly, the opposition (UMNO) staged a walkout.
Finally our legal advisers from the state government together with civil society activists including Yeo Yang Poh and Tommy Thomas suggested that we go to court for a judicial declaration to seek interpretation of the provisions of existing law. Only then, finally we passed that law in the Dewan.
However, the authority to conduct election is in the hands of the ECs. That’s why it took four years for us to pass the law on local government elections.
The Rocket: Talking about elections, as State Chairman of the Penang DAP, is the state DAP ready for the upcoming general elections?
Chow: We cannot say that we are really 100% ready. But yes, we’re ready to face elections at any time. We have no choice! (laughs)
DAP and Pakatan Rakyat Penang will carry the slogan ‘Penang; Clean, Green, Healthy and Safe’, which is not only to be taken literally. We want Penang not only to be physically clean, but also clean from corruption and abuse of power. Green is not only about the environment, but also the preserved position of Islam, as can be seen in the increase in the annual budget for Islamic affairs in Penang.
I think the ‘Ubah’ slogan is still relevant, even though we remain optimistic in still holding the mandate of the people for the DAP and Pakatan Rakyat in Penang. What still needs to be changed is the mentality of people who are yet to accept change, and what is more important is the continuing efforts to change at national scale, and take over Putrajaya.
The Rocket: What about the perception of the Malays against DAP, would that be the problem?
Chow: What people often forget is that in 1995, DAP fielded 14 Malay candidates to contest in the general election that year. And Pakatan Rakyat’s win in Penang is not because the votes of Chinese and Indians, but the Malay votes. Without the Malay votes, it is impossible for the tsunami to occur in March 2008.
Furthermore the relationship between PR component parties in Penang is good. Penang politics cannot be equated with national politics. We are ready to face all challenges.
The Rocket: Throughout your political struggle in Penang, and now as a State Executive Councillor, you have surely witnessed many changes. What can be said about these changes?
Chow: Throughout the history of Penang, the state only went through major changes in two general elections, first in 1969 and most recently in March 2008. The political tsunami that occurred in March 2008 not only resulted in political changes but also changes the way people think and their mindsets.
Penang people used to have a huge gap with the government, but now the Penang state government is doing its best to close the gap by listening to peoples’ voice and opinion. This, among other factors, including UMNO hegemony, is the reason why the people chose to vote for the opposing parties of Barisan Nasional in March 2008, which has now formed the Pakatan Rakyat.
In addition we must also look to the national scenario which saw civil society re-emerging with a variety of activities, thus the Penang state government always sought to establish partnerships with organizations in developing programs for the people of Penang, like the Cleaner Greener Penang campaign.
The Rocket: How has public acceptance been for efforts towards change led by Pakatan Rakyat?
Chow: We always try to change the way how Penang people think so that have a sense of belonging towards the state. What is important is that there is positive reaction and energy from the people. For instance the ‘My Penang My Pride’ program holds many gotong royong activities in order to instil a sense of affection for the state. We want the public to participate in government programs, we want to take their views into account, just like we did for the Penang Transport Master Plan. -The Rocket