The ‘Father of Penang’

Penang’s first Chief Minister Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee kickstarted the state’s industrialisation and planned for the Penang Bridge and Universiti Sains Malaysia but his legacy is lost in the shadow of his charismatic successor. His son, Peter Wong, sets the record straight in an interview with Sunday Star. 

INSIDE the double-storey residence of Penang’s first Chief Minister Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee along Macalister Road, Penang, religious statues and old photographs reflect his two great loves – God and family.

Outside in his mini orchard, the banana trees he cared tenderly for before his passing on Aug 31, 2002, are still bearing fruit.

His widow Elizabeth Law Siew Kim, 85, still lives in the modest home where the family moved into after the late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu took over the helm of the State Government in 1969.

“He was a very humble man and friendly with everyone,” Law recalls.

Born on Oct 7, 1911, the MCA veteran and St Xavier’s Institution alumni passed away aged 91.

A devout Roman Catholic who served in church after he retired from politics, Pow Nee was never bitter or upset when he was voted out by the people after 12 years in office, his son Peter shares, insisting that his father, a former teacher, always knew he would one day return to his humble roots and passion – gardening.

“He knew that when the time came, he would have to let go so he was very focused on doing his best to serve the people while he still had the opportunity to do so.

“When he lost (the Bukit Mertajam state seat), we (his children) were too young to understand what was going on. To us, it just meant moving (out from the Chief Minister’s official residence) to another home. Perhaps politics was not as challenging as it is now.

Down memory lane: Pow Nee, aged 4, (in sailor suit) in a family portrait taken circa 1915.

“Growing up, we didn’t understand the magnitude of his responsibilities because we were sheltered from it all. He was always out working and seldom home,” he says, sharing how the family had no problems adjusting when their father was no longer chief minister because of the down-to-earth values the patriarch instilled in them.

When he was home, Pow Nee was just like any father, emphasising the importance of a solid education and strongly advising his 10 children against embarking on a career in politics.

“He was a stern disciplinarian and a no-nonsense father, so we would feel tense whenever he was home. Perhaps the position he was in made him so.

“But when he left office, he gave us all his attention, picking up where he left off when he was made chief minister in 1957.”

Lamenting that many were unaware of Pow Nee’s contributions, Peter, who is the former’s seventh child, co-authored The Unsung Patriot: Memoirs of Wong Pow Nee with Penang Institute research analyst Koay Su Lyn.

He says the 336-page book launched on Jan 8 serves as a timely reminder of his father’s legacy and a lesson for future leaders to improve.

“Lim is the ‘Father of Modern Penang’ but Pow Nee is the ‘Father of Penang’.

“Everyone knows Lim but this is not so with Pow Nee. There’s very little on the Internet about his administration and in history books, his name is only mentioned in relation to the Cobbold Commission (which paved the way for Sabah, Sarawak and Malaya to form Malaysia).

“This is not just about my father, it’s about his administration.”

Agreeing, Koay describes the 13-chapter publication as necessary in filling in the gaps of Penang’s post-war history.

3 Unsung patriot: Co-authors Peter and Koay with the book that serves as a timely reminder of Pow Nee’s legacy. — The Star / GOH GAIK LEE
Unsung patriot: Co-authors Peter and Koay with the book that serves as a timely reminder of Pow Nee’s legacy. — The Star / GOH GAIK LEE

“It was Pow Nee who kick-started the modernisation of Penang. He threw the ball and Lim kept it rolling.”

Many Penangites are hazy about the years before Lim, she finds.

Stressing on Pow Nee’s most important contribution, she says it was the schoolteacher-turned-politician who set the direction for Penang’s industrialisation.

“He must be remembered for planting the seeds of industrialisation here.

“The state’s first master plan, the Penang Master Plan 1964 (commonly referred to as the Munro Report as it was prepared by Columbo plan advisor A.M. Munro), was meant to tackle the economic woes faced by the people via the industrialisation of Mak Mandin.

“In the 60s, factories processing textile, tin, rubber and the like led to the mushrooming of companies in Province Wellesly (Butterworth).

“Sadly, this led to accusations by the islanders and Opposition (Gerakan at the time) that the Bukit Mertajam-born chief minister was only focused on developing the mainland,” she says.

Explaining, she says industrialisation was introduced on the mainland due to the availability of large plots of land there.

Pow Nee had a different vision for the island which involved growing the tourism sector, she adds.

“Penang island was more suited as a holiday destination where shopping areas like Campbell Street are aplenty.

“Thus, his administration outlined various measures including incentives for the building of hotels and the construction of Dewan Sri Pinang to host the Pacific Area Travel Association Conference in 1972.”

She believes George Town would look very different today if Pow Nee had not lost the 1969 election, pointing to how, like Lim, he too had plans to revitalise the city slums dotted with old shophouses.

The late Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee (right) greeting Malaysias first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al Haj
Political ally: Pow Nee (right) greeting Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al Haj.

“Komtar, which some feel should not have been built among the heritage buildings, may not have existed.”

The Munro Report was a comprehensive document for the development of the island and mainland and included the iconic Penang Bridge to link the two, she elaborates.

A bridge and new roads were necessary for industrialisation as Penang could not rely solely on the ferry service to transport goods and improve tourism, Koay points out.

“Whether it was low-cost housing schemes like the Rifle Range flats or the Penang Bridge, Lim was largely credited because as Pow Nee’s successor, he was the one who completed most of the tasks laid out in the Munro Report and carried out the latter’s vision, ideas and plans that were published in Penang Today 1969 (a compilation of state bulletins).”

Other projects already proposed during his time included the East-West highway to link Kelantan to Penang island via the bridge and a university (later named Universiti Sains Malaysia).

Pow Nee, however, was not oblivious to the flaws of the state’s first master plan and had commissioned a second report to address the circumstantial failures of the Munro Report such as the erosion of the free port status.

It was widely speculated that the report was later implemented by Lim’s administration.

“Lim referred to the Nathan Report (based on the findings of US consultancy firm Robert R. Nathan & Associates) to map out Penang’s future.

“The Nathan Report was almost identical to the Munro Report except that the former recommended the creation of a labour intensive industry which in the 70s, was the electronic manufacturing sector,” Koay opines.

She describes losing the free port status among the factors that led to Pow Nee’s loss, but says it was inevitable because Penang was part of the Federation of Malaya’s common market.

Furthermore, the Munro Report recommended close cooperation between the state and federal governments because being a newly independent nation, funds were scarce, she adds.

“Many were upset because they felt that Pow Nee could have prevented the loss of the free port status. The Opposition even promised to restore the free port status if they were voted into power but until today, it has not been possible.

“Circumstances that were beyond Pow Nee’s control – including the need to curb smuggling between the island and mainland – led to the gradual erosion of the status.

Green passion: Peter with his mother Law in the garden that Pow Nee tended.

“There is documentary evidence to show that Pow Nee tried to opt out of the common market but being part of the Federation, it was just not possible.

“Slowly, more and more things were being taxed and in the end, Penang lost her free port status in 1967. The turbulent years would have been difficult for anyone in Pow Nee’s seat.

“Pow Nee already had plans to create a free trade zone and bonded warehouses to revive Penang’s entreport trade but lost the election before he could implement the policies.”

After his defeat, the country’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj appointed him Malaysia’s ambassador to Italy, where he served from 1970 to 1975. On his return, he relinquished all his political and government posts.

Peter cites the Munro Report as Pow Nee’s greatest contribution to Penang but says the latter’s most important legacy is his humility and ability to reach out to the community.

He admits to knowing very little about his late father’s work until he started compiling the old photographs and documents for the book seven years ago.

It was only then that he understood how challenging it was for a simple man like Pow Nee to rise through the political ranks.

“On numerous occasions when councillors or politicians came to the house, he would ask if they walked the talk and if they ventured out from their air conditioned offices to understand the people’s problems.

“It made me very proud to see from the photographs how my father was always out there meeting people to see what he could do to make things better.

“He was a leader who really walked the talk and would always introduce himself as ‘Pow Nee’ – no titles, no bodyguards.”

The fact that people still have nice things to say about the former leader is testament of his humility, Peter quips.

“Right up till the end, he was an MCA man at heart because he was with the party when it started off as a charitable organisation.

“And, when it was time to go, he never openly commented on his successors. It was not his style. He was truly a gentleman politician.”

In his own words

The following are excerpts from The Star’s interviews with the late Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee:

I anticipate it will happen one day, maybe in 100 years. Then we won’t have any arguments over the term Malaysian Chinese or Chinese Malaysians. We will all be just Malaysians.

On Bangsa Malaysia.

We hope our Government leaders will act according to conscience, and act wisely, justly and honestly for the good of all the people.

On his hopes for the country.

If you want me, I will serve you. If you don’t, I will go home. Political life is not a professional career.

On a politician’s duty.

I was friends with everyone, even the Opposition. Why should we make enemies?

On the need for politicians to forgive and forget.