Time to review councillors' allowance

Posted on 22 May 2012 - 04:44am
Goh Ban Lee

IN THE last Penang state assembly, during the debate on the local government election bill on May 8, Pakatan Rakyat State Assemblyman Ng Wei Aik proposed that the allowances of councillors be increased. They are now paid RM1,300 a month, made up of a RM700 fixed allowance and RM60 for each meeting they attend up to a maximum of RM600 a month.

Unfortunately, as the Barisan Nasional assemblymen had walked out, there was no view from the opposition. Should the allowance of the councillors be increased? A short history may help.

The history of councillors in Malaysia can be traced back to 1801 when a Committee of Assessors was established in Penang. It was a gathering of rich people to assist the colonial government in Penang on rates and development matters. Members did not get an allowance.

When partial elections were introduced in George Town from 1856 to 1913 to elect three out of five and later six councillors, no allowance was given. In December 1951, when partial elections were reintroduced to elect nine out of 15 councillors, there was still no allowance. George Town Municipal Councillor Dr N. K. Menon (Radical Party) was quoted in the press that he did not expect payment for his services although he and some of his colleagues worked “ten times” harder than the Settlement councillors”, now known as state assemblymen.

The practice of paying allowances was introduced in George Town only in the late 1950s, most probably after 1957, when all councillors were elected. It was $30 a meeting to a maximum of $200 a month. In Butterworth and Bukit Mertajam, the town councillors were paid $20 a council meeting to a maximum of $60 a month.
In 1960, the National Council for Local Government established a guideline of payment for councillors in financially autonomous councils.

For councillors in new villages, the allowance was $20 a month, while for district or town councillors, it was $100 a month plus $50 for meetings. Municipal councillors were given $200 a month plus $100 for meetings. Councillors were also entitled to travelling allowance based on government rates. However, not all the local councils adopted this guideline.

Until June 1966, George Town city councillors were given $30 a sitting to a maximum of $200 a month. The total monthly allowance of Mayor Ooi Thiam Siew was $1,000 a month. All the allowances were terminated when the council was taken over by Chief Minister Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee in mid-1966 to facilitate the Aziz Commission of Enquiry into charges of maladministration.

Wong continued to be the officer administrating the city council even though the enquiry ended in 1967. In May 1969, this post was taken over by Tun Lim Chong Eu when Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia took over the state government of Penang.

In 1974, when the board of management for the whole island was set up, the appointed board members were given $300 a month. The board was converted to Penang Island Municipal Council in 1976 when the Local Government Act was passed. Subsequently, the councillors were given a fixed allowance of $600 a month and $50 a meeting to a maximum of $400, making a total of $1,000. They were given free medical service and free parking.

As a comparison, councillors in the richer local councils in Selangor are getting a much higher allowance. For instance, Subang Jaya and Petaling Jaya councillors are given RM1,000 a month and RM150 a meeting to a maximum of 10 meetings a month. They also have paid assistance and space for an “office”.

A better comparison, historically at least, is the allowance of assemblymen. The allowance of Penang assemblymen was $250 a month in 1961. This was increased to $375 in January 1962. Today, they are getting slightly more than RM5,000 a month, made up of RM4,400 fixed allowance and another RM600 plus for a variety of allowances. They get a pension for life.

Clearly, the RM1,300 a month allowance is inadequate compared to what the assemblymen are getting or to raise a family. But being a councillor, like an assemblyman and MP, is not a full-time job. The allowance is just to cover the expenses they might have incurred in carrying out their duties. Besides, it is also possible that assemblymen are over-paid.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is a senior research fellow in Penang Institute. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com