By Ooi Kee Beng
It was a Monday, the beginning of a working week and the start of a hopeful time for Malaysia. At 11.10am on May 14, 2018, four days after it became official that Pakatan Harapan had won the general elections, and that it (earlier as Pakatan Rakyat) had retained power for the fourth term in the state of Penang, Chow Kon Yeow was sworn in before the Yang di-Pertua Negri Tun Abdul Rahman Abbas as the state’s fifth chief minister. Two days later, the 60-year-old Chow, now in charge of matters related to Land Affairs, Land Development, Transport and Information, oversaw the swearing in of the 10 executive councillors whom he had chosen to run the state government. These are:
1. Datuk Ahmad Zakiyuddin Abdul Rahman (Deputy Chief Minister I), in charge of Industrial Development, Islamic Affairs and Community Relations
2. Dr P. Ramasamy (Deputy Chief Minister II), in charge of Economic Planning, Education, Human Capital Development, and Science, Technology and Innovation
3. Chong Eng (Women and Family Development, Gender Equality and Non-Islamic Religious Affairs)
4. Jagdeep Singh Deo (Local Government, Housing, Town and City Planning)
5. Phee Boon Poh (Welfare, Caring Society and Environment)
6. Dr Afif Bahardin (Health, Agro-based Industry and Rural Development)
7. Zairil Khir Johari (Public Works, Utilities and Flood Mitigation)
8. Datuk Abdul Halim Hussain (International and Domestic Trade, Consumer Affairs and Entrepreneurship Development)
9. Yeoh Soon Hin (Tourism Development, Heritage, Culture and Arts)
10. Soon Lip Chee (Youth and Sports)
Six months have now passed, and Penang Monthly has carried out short interviews with the excos on the issues that matter most to them.
Raising Social Mobility by Empowering People
Chow Kon Yeow, the fifth chief minister of Penang; and Member of Parliament for Tanjong and state assemblyman for Padang Kota, is in charge of Land Affairs, Land Development, Transport and Information. From 2008 to 2018, he held the heavy state portfolios for Local Government, Traffic Management and Flood Mitigation.
On August 28, 2018, three months after his new government was installed, Chow presented his plans for Penang at a town hall meeting at E&O Hotel. His vision, Penang2030, carries the heading “Family-focused, Green and Smart State to Inspire the Nation”, and stands on four pillars – four themes – namely (1) Increase Liveability to Enhance Quality of Life; (2) Upgrade the Economy to Raise Household Incomes; (3) Empower People to Strengthen Civil Participation; and (4) Invest in the Built Environment to Improve Resilience.
With all members of the Executive Council giving full support, and having publicised this dream for developing the state over the next 11 years, Chow intends to delegate much of the work to all the arms of the government and affiliated organisations, and feels that much of the government’s job should be about giving direction, and beyond that, to facilitate and encourage society as a whole to participate. Getting the private sector and the community at large to be part of Penang’s development is his way of ensuring that his main goal – leaving no one behind – will come close to realisation.
Being chief minister, ideas tend to be raised to Chow himself. Over time, though, he hopes he can concentrate on the broader picture and show the way more than being bogged down with details.
“In fact, the state government, the private sector and the community at large are the major stakeholders in Penang2030. My job as the chief minister is really to provide overall leadership and to make sure that people understand what the vision is.
“Once people understand that we are actually empowering them, that we are encouraging them to be part of the state’s development, then the four themes will be filled up more and more with important projects coming from below as well as from above. Our job is to help coordinate ideas and resources, and to spread relevant information in the right direction to stimulate synergy and enthusiasm.”
According to Chow, not many new and exciting ideas have been raised so far, but as more people embrace the culture of consultative and openness, and realise that “empowerment of the people” means that they are free to think up ideas with which to engage society and the government, things ought to take a turn.
“What I have come to realise more and more in the last few months is how much help many people need. They need jobs, they need to have high enough incomes if we are to have widespread social mobility.”
Penang’s economic situation in general continues to be positive, and Chow feels it is the economic well-being of the less privileged that the focus of his policies should be on.
“There are segments of society that face challenges over very basic needs. We must recognise that. We have done a lot of welfare programmes, no doubt, but we need to do more. Everybody needs to have a job, to have an income, in order to feel a sense of self-worth. They need housing, they need good transport, they need jobs. They have families to care for. So, the focus on family which I recommend is to allow us to approach these basic needs with a broader perspective. I hope to see all Penang having that feeling of self-worth. Now, some may improve their life situation over time, some only by a bit; but people must be given conditions that make their hope realisable.”
Government measures that are available as a last resort for the poor and needy are well and good, says Chow, but the government and society at large need to seriously look at why these people are in the sorry situation they are in, in the first place: “Penang2030 is a concerted and broad-fronted approach to pull, push and inspire as many people as possible to move upwards socially.”
Will 10 years be enough? Chow’s government recently put a two-term limit on the chief minister position.
“We do what we can, and then others will take over,” he says.
The high pace of work has a high personal cost that the chief minister has had to pay. Before any health issues turn up, he feels a strong need to implement an exercise routine into his weekly schedule. His New Year’s resolution is to manage his time better. Family life remains very important to him. A more balanced daily routine will allow for him “to work, to think, to strategise, to rest.”
Chow has consciously been willing to meet as many people as possible who have wanted to see him, but in the coming weeks, that punishing routine will change as his administration moves into its next phase.
Chow hopes that the federal government will agree to fund infrastructure projects in the state in the near future. Where the plan to reclaim three islands south of Penang is concerned, which the Pakatan government had announced as its way of financing infrastructure building without federal help, he suspects that the public has not understood fully that the new islands will help propel Penang forward economically: “The idea to create them is not merely as a source of funding for other projects. They in themselves are worthy and important assets to develop.”
Where relations with Penang NGOs are concerned, Chow fears that when what are really disparate voices project themselves to be in agreement in criticising the government, little room is left for discussion, and what manifests itself is simply an antidevelopment lobby.
“As a government, we have to encourage development. Who will care for the less privileged? Those people are a major concern to us.”