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Sunday August 3, 2008

Recipe for rebellion

In 18th century George Town, the early settlers protested at being taxed without having a say and created, for the first time, a civic sense that united the community.

HISTORY, they say, often repeats itself. The year was 1795. A government official had been placed in charge of setting assessment rates for George Town. The “gentlemen” in the community rose up against this unpopular proposal. They found “the arbitrary decision of one man” unacceptable.

Two centuries and a decade later, we hear echoes of the same complaint. How can an unelected official, responsible to a Minister, remote from local life, be solely in charge? What about ratepayers? Don’t we have a right to decide “the most equitable mode” of running local councils?

For those who are attempting to bring back local elections, it might be wise to look back into the past for some inspiration.

It’s no accident that Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling has a mosque, Hindu and Taoist temple. They were built on land alienated by the first Commitee of Assessors.

As soon as the Union Flag was planted in George Town, on what was formerly Tanjong Penagger, the northeastern tip of Penang Island, settlers of many ethnic backgrounds decided to roll up their sleeves and begin building houses, shops and roads.

Captain Francis Light, the English East India Company (EIC) representative, without much financial support from the EIC, encouraged settlement by allowing the settlers to “own” freehold land.

Historians, both British and local, have lamented about Light’s “buccaneer-style”; highlighting the many legal loopholes in his acquisition of Penang. But he was really a pragmatist.

By allowing the settlers to own freehold land, Light not only encouraged many to move to the island, he also gave them a stake in the colony. So, many ardent “admirers” defended Prince of Wales Island back home in London where it really mattered.

Light’s decision however had some unforeseen consequences, some of which are positive for in this late 18th century pioneering colony, a new type of society was being created.

Whilst previous European colonies in Southeast Asia followed a rather strict and hierarchical pattern of government, Light and his contemporaries transferred British Enlightenment ideas to George Town. They were part of the “coffee house” culture of open debate and active participation in “society”.

Light is but one half of this British “enlightenment” project. His business-partner James Scott, of which Scotland Road was named, being the other. In 1707, Scotland and England were united after many years of enmity. Both countries decided to give up their religious rivalry resulting in the union of the Crowns hence the Union Flag.

The Scots were mostly Presbyterians and every Presbyter must learn to read the Bible and decide for himself what the word of God meant. This gave rise to a tradition of universal education. The result of which was a meritocratic society less hindered by class distinctions. The Scots were poor materially but had the best scientists, doctors and thinkers.

By the time Light and Scot set out for the Far East to establish their trading port city – their key to the China trade – Britain was well on the way to becoming a world super-power.

Light was very much exposed to Dutch trading and seafaring activities as across the English Channel from Suffolk where he grew up lay “the Hook of Holland”.

Amsterdam was then one of the most “open” societies in Europe benefiting from massive immigration from less tolerant countries. The Dutch gave the English a new monarch, the Bank of England (which was founded by a Scot!) and, following the demands of the mercantilists, the “stock market”.

Light may have disliked the Dutch traders and their monopolistic practices but George Town developed like London and Amsterdam, a free city open to all talents.

This brings us back to George Town in 1795. After the pioneering stage was over, it was decided that properties should be taxed. Revenue needed to be raised to pay the police, maintain roads and ensure cleanliness.

Captain Francis Light encouraged many people to the island and gave them a stake in the colony.

Scot protested against being put at the mercy of a government official without representation. Together with prominent members of George Town’s community, which included Koh Lay Huan and Cauder Mohideen, the Kapitan China and Kapitan Keling respectively, the first Committee of Assessors met to decide on the rates and collection of taxes hence the term “assessments”.

What has all this to do with civil society?

Firstly, it establishes the fact that our modern local government actually has deep roots. The basis was a British model adapted to local conditions. But one thing remains clear: Just as in 18th century George Town or Boston, both then a small trading settlement, taxation without representation was a recipe for rebellion.

Secondly, by allowing property owners to establish their own rates of payment and mode of collection, the settlers actually pulled their resources together. For the first time, “a civic sense united the gentlemen and other inhabitants”.

Thirdly, Scott’s indignation at being at the mercy of an EIC officer highlights a salient point about civil society – the resolve never to be dictated to especially when one has to pay taxes! It is not that the EIC officer was behaving badly but the idea that he might be behaving badly was roundly rejected.

However, it is equally important to remember the context in which these developments were taking place. Though “public” participation was taking root in municipal governance, it is nevertheless made up of various stakeholders of means – a situation far removed from contemporary democratic practices. The idea of local elections was mooted not necessarily to give a voice to the public – it was driven by largely self interested economic and commercial considerations.

A fully-elected municipal council was years away. Elections limited to ratepayers was held in 1888, with Cheah Chen Eok, who donated the Clock Tower on Beach Street, winning the most votes.

Only in 1951 was the franchise enlarged to include eligible voters above 21 years old. Of course, once again George Town was the first to hold elections where Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu made his debut as a politician.

The Reid Constitutional Commission, which drew up the Federal Constitution, recommended that local government be democratically elected to help encourage civic consciousness and national unity. It is not incidental that Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling (formerly Pitt Street) has a mosque, Hindu and Taoist temples. They were built on land alienated by that very first Committee of Assessors.

In 1964, local government elections were suspended due to the Indonesian Confrontation. Whilst this article is not the place to debate the reasons for or against local elections, suffice it to say that two generations of Malaysians have grown up without any experience of it.

The ultimate victim may be Malaysian civil society, or perhaps the dynamics of the local context will unearth different ways in which local communities may wish to see themselves governed.

What is certain is that many share James Scott’s indignation at being dictated to by a single government officer. Dissatisfaction that is not balanced by Scott’s sense of social responsibility for the common good.

But maybe we are on the brink of yet another historical cycle.

Neil Khor read English at Cambridge University and Khaldun Malek read Philosophy at Oxford University. They both believe that social reform begins in opposing views discussed with civility.

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