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The controversy behind Jalan D S Ramanathan

June 18, 2012

FMT LETTER: From Richard Kamalanathan, via e-mail

Captain Francis Light  in 1786 made known to the world ‘ The Pearl of the Orient’ which lay isolated  and discarded as a desolate island  in  the far corner of the Malay Archipelago. However never would have he dreamt that in the next 70 it would have had attained a municipality of its own.

The City of Penang rose in stature and in governance as a pivotal part of the British Colonial Empire, from merely a fishing village and trading post when Light bought the island from the Sultan of Kedah. The Municipal Council of George Town was established in 1857 and became the first local authority in Malaya after Singapore. Three out of the five municipal councillors were elected however due to the lack of enthusiasm in public office by the local population these elections were abolished in 1913.

After Light’s demise, Lieutenant-Colonel Wellesley arrived in Penang to co-ordinate the defences of the island. In 1800, Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Leith  secured a strip of land across the channel as a buffer against attacks and named it Province Wellesley (today Seberang Prai). The annual payment to Sultan of Kedah was increased to 10,000 Spanish dollars per annum after the acquisition. Today, the Penang state government still pays RM18,800 to the Sultan of Kedah annually.

In 1796 Penang was made a penal settlement when 700 convicts were transferred there from the Andaman Islands.  In 1805 Penang was made a separate presidency (ranking with Bombay and Madras); and when in 1826 Singapore and Malacca were incorporated with it, Penang continued to be the seat of government of the Straits Settlement, an extension of the British Empire.

In 1829 Penang was reduced from the rank of a presidency, and eight years later the fast-growing town of Singapore was made the capital of the Settlements. In 1867 the Straits Settlements were created a Crown Colony under direct British rule, in which Penang was included.

After the Second World War, the disintegrating British Colonial Empire began consolidating its regained weaker power; however the prowess to manage a vast empire without its greatest colony India, which gained its independence in1947, forced it to tighten its belt by giving more self- rule to its existing colonies elsewhere.

In 1951, it reintroduced local elections and in nine of the fifteen municipal commissioners for George Town. By 1956, George Town had become the first municipality in the Federation of Malaya to have a fully elected council with Councillor G H Goh (Alliance Party comprising Umno, MCA and MIC) as its first President.

On Jan 1, 1957, George Town became a city by a royal charter granted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11 hence becoming the first town in the Federation of Malaya to be elevated a city, and the only city in Malaya/Malaysia until Kuala Lumpur was granted city status in 1972.

The first Mayor of George Town was Councillor D S Ramanathan (Labour Party of Malaya). D S Ramanrthan was the husband of the late Ruth Vanniasingham. Hailing from a prominent Tamil-Jaffanese family, her father,  Kanagasabapathy Vanniasingham founded the Tamil Methodist Church in Penang, Ruth was the first person in Penang to obtain the Licentiate of the Trinity College of Music in 1936. She initially taught Penang’s renowned pianist Dennis Lee before he went  to  the United Kingdom.

On Aug 31, 1957, Malaya became an independent state and in September 1963 it joined North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore to form the Federation of Malaysia. However the Republic of Indonesia did not recognise the validity of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty signed by the colonial signatories in 1824, which gave possession of North Borneo and Sarawak to the British Colonial Empire.

President Sukarno declared a confrontation and war with Malaysia. The federal government using this as a pretext suspended all local elections in the Peninsular in 1965. At that time, the City Council of  Penang was the richest local council in the country, with an annual income double that of the Penang State Government.

During this period of suspension, Wong Pow Nee was the Chief Minister of Penang representing the Alliance Government via the MCA. He was one of the five members of the Cobbold Commission along with Ghazalie Shafie. This commission was formed  jointly by the British and the Government of Malaya to determine the views of the people of Sabah and Sarawak and to make recommendations to them on the formation of the Federation of Malaysia comprising Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak.

It must be mentioned that contrary to the recommendations of  Sir Anthony Abell and Sir David Watherston, to allow a transition period  between three to seven years for the formation of Malaysia, Wong along with Ghazalie insisted the transition period should not exceed 12 months.

Abell and Watherston along with the Chairman of the Commisison also recommended that freedom of religion must be one of the main facets of the constitution of the Federation of Malaysia. However, Wong and  Ghazalie stood by the fact that the position of Islam as the official religion of the Federation of Malaya shall not affect the freedom of religion in Malaysia.

Subsequently allegations of maladministration and misconduct were hurled at the City Council of Penang, a Royal Commission of Enquiry was set up and the functions of the City Council was temporarily transferred to the Chief Minister of Penang. The Royal Commission in 1968 under Senator Athi Nahappan recommended the restoration of the local councils, which was not implemented by the Federal Government.

As we remember the late D S Ramanathan should be retained for the name of the road purportedly named after two persons: James Scott, partner of Francis Light when Penang was formally established or Ralph Scott, the Resident Councillor of  Penang between 1926 to 1928, the people of Penang would never forget his contributions to the state and the members of  the Socialist Front of which the Malayan Labour Party was a component member, would never want to deride him as he was also one of the the prime movers of the Fabian Society in Penang.

In 1953, D S Ramanathan along with Tan Phock Kin, N Patkunam, Lee Kok Liang, CY Choy, Tan Chong Bee and V Veerapan joined the Pan-Malayan Labour Party (PMLF). On June 5, 1954, the  PMLF became known as the  Labour Party of Malaya under the chairmanship of Lee Moke Sang. LPM called to unite the workers and peasants to form a united Malaya.

Though D S Ramanathan was an erstwhile socialist challenging the colonial and federal  authorities for the most downtrodden people in the country, and stood side by side with Lim Kean Siew and other socialists, the allegations of malpractice and misconduct eventually made him malleable and to resign from the LPM and to become an independent councillor and subsequently an Alliance Councillor.

The Left may not want to remember him along with Ahmad Boestamam, Hasnul Hadi, Ishak Mohammad, Abdul Aziz Ishak, M K Rajakumar, Tan Kai Hee and  Kampo Radjo and yet Lim Guan Eng, as the present Chief Minister believes ignoring the worst and considering the best of  any invididual may be the apt and suitable path to a retained victory before March 2013.


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