Penang Watch

Quick Look

Penang Watch is an online complaint channel run by a citizens group with the aim of monitoring and improving local democracy.

Beginning Date: 
January 1, 2007
Annual Budget 2007: 
Annual Budget 2008: 
Annual Budget 2009: 
Annual Budget 2010: 
Project Scale: 
Specific Tools: 


Penang, known as "Pulau Pinang Pulau Mutiara" (Penang Island of Pearls), is a state in northern Malaysia. Acknowledging the inefficiency of the traditional methods of lodging complaints through letters, telephone calls or personal contact, where the complaint might not reach the right person, a group of Penang residents started Penang Watch to make sure that local complaints are effectively settled. Penang Watch encourages the residents to submit their complaints, which are in progress with the local authorities or have been given up, through its online channel via the following steps:

1) The complaints will be forwarded to the right authorities or individuals;
2) The people in charge will be reminded of their responsibility to take action;
3) Using the "name and shame" approach to push for complaint settlement by building up the profiles of the complaints and sending them to all the relevant Council Departments.

Established in 2007, Penang Watch envisions mobilizing people for increased public accountability and improved performance among local governments in Malaysia. To reach this ultimate goal, Penang Watch has attempted to provide constructive feedback to local councils as well as empowering the residents to participate in the process of e-democracy for better governance.

Even though Penang Watch provides several avenues for residents to settle their complaints, with nearly half of the submitted complaints proving successful, slow and limited internet access, together with the lack of public awareness on the need for citizen participation remain as great obstacles. However, Penang Watch’s coordinator, Ong Boon Keong, believes that awareness-raising campaigns including public forums, training and successful complaint settlements will demonstrate the success of this method and will ultimately motivate people to become more engaged.


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Date of Audio: 
February 17, 2010


What are the biggest obstacles to your success?: 

Slow and limited internet access, and the lack of public awareness of the need for citizens participation are our main challenges.

How do you plan on overcoming those obstacles?: 

We try to meet people face-to-face and also raise more awareness through personal contact, forums and training programs. In the case of internet limitation, we offer mobile contacts where people can call us, meet us personally to report the cases or submit their complaints through our drop-in centre in the town. Then, we can file the case online for them.

What problem is your project aiming to overcome?: 

To make the operation of Penang City Council more in line with good governance principles, namely: transparency, accountability and efficiency, which for decades it has failed to implement.

What are the roots of that problem?: 

Locally, the election of city councilor had been stopped since 1965 and thus, those who are appointed by the state government do not feel accountable to their residents. At the national level, civil liberties are restricted, media laws are oppressive and there is no freedom of information law. For example, politicians are given discretion whether to give license to a paper to be published and sold openly. Thus, the internet has become an important avenue for voicing our concerns.

Why did you personally become involved in this project?: 

I have been involved in civil society activism for more than 10 years in Penang before I started Penang Watch. I find that the various problems faced by the citizens in the city are traceable to the malfunctioning City Council. This has brought me to start Penang Watch.

Are you providing unofficial channels of information that should be provided by the government?: 

Yes. We offer the online channel where residents can submit their complaints which have been found to be ineffectively dealt with through traditional methods. Also, we bring together the citizens and the people who are in charge of their complaints so that the settlements will not be delayed or ignored. In addition to updates on the development in the Penang City Council, we provide a contact list of all government agencies, media, and NGOs which people may approach to settle their complaint.

Roughly 300 complaints are submitted through Penang Watch per year. So far we have been able to settle 50 percent of submitted complaints. There are many cases which we are still working on after many years. However we do not consider them as failures, we are trying to encourage the settlement of all complaints with due attention and to never let no one be denied the justice they deserve.

Why is the government not providing the information?: 

The city councilors are not elected by the local residents, so they do not feel accountable to the residents.

How does the information published on your website turn into offline change?: 

We publish public complaints on the website and monitor them. If there is no response within a week/few weeks we go to the department of the City Council to enquire about the bottlenecks in their responses.

What is an example of how information on your website has led to a concrete change?: 

We also investigate the operation of the city council. For example, the city of Penang was named as UNESCO World Heritage site in July 2008 partly on account of a living heritage (Georgetown probably has the largest collection of pre-war houses in SE Asia. Approximately, there are about 8000 pre-war houses). However, there are many reserved residential units that have been illegally converted into shop houses, so we publish the information about these illegal shop houses with the help of concerned residents. We also check with the City Council's planning map to verify if they are residential areas, so that appropriate action can be taken. Though it takes many years, there have been some settlements including some of the shop owners being summoned, fined or stopped.

How many people work on your project?: 
How many hours a week do you personally spend on the project?: 

2-3 hours a day.

How many hours does the whole team spend on the project?: 

They come in a few hours a week to help file complaints, investigate them and liaise with government officials.

What are the most time consuming tasks?: 

Talking to the City Council departments. It takes a long time for them to take action.

How do you extract value from large amounts of data? How do you build engagement around it?: 

We process the data, develop a profile and bring it to the City Council. We use all avenues such as email complaints, City Council counters, the "Client Window" (which receives complaints once a month) and State Government officers, to push the issues we identify.

How do you verify the identities of participants on your website?: 

We ask for contact information.

How do you attract new participants?: 

Through the website, personal contacts and a drop-in centre near the City Council building.

What has been the most effective method of spreading awareness about your project?: 

Solving the problems as a demonstration of the effectiveness of the method.

What are the incentives to participate in your project?: 

Solving problems in local areas.

What skills and expertise would be of assistance to your project?: 

Photography, video making, computer skills, website design, data processing, graphic design, communication skills and organizing skills.

How do you plan on financially sustaining your project? : 

Private financing has been keeping the project afloat. All participants are volunteers. Most equipment is donated.

What other organizations are you working with?: 

Heritage groups, public transport groups, human rights groups, student groups, press freedom groups, women groups, residential groups and also artist groups.

Have you thought about developing your own tools?: 

We are running a main website for complaints, in addition to providing free training for other local groups to run their own websites/blogs.

Has there been any communication between your project and government officials?: 

We often meet government officials and politicians to discuss specific topics like traffic, housing and heritage protection.

Are there any legal obstacles to your work? Any laws that should be changed?: 

The law which does not allow local government elections introduced in 1976. No freedom of information laws and oppressive publishing laws.

Have there been any attempts to replicate your work elsewhere?: 

There had been inquiries from other cities like Kuala Lumpur but we have not heard from them so far.

What other projects in your region should we know about?: 

IPOH Echo, a community-based newspaper established with the sole aim of providing a platform for the residents of Ipoh to voice and share their concerns. It acts as a medium to breach the gap between the authorities and the citizens. Also Ipoh City Watch, a professor’s blog aiming to make Ipoh a beautiful, clean and healthy place to live in.

If someone gave you $10,000 how would you use the money?: 

We can run programs to train more residents to learn reporting, investigating and running campaigns for improving the quality of life of the residents. Also we can improve our equipments which is all donated by volunteers so far.

If someone gave you $100,000 how would you use the money?: 

We can employ some staff to expand our operations, run a bigger campaign to push for elections in our city council and also run a better news website to enable residents to access updates news.

What are your plans for 2010 and 2011?: 

Our plans ahead include involving more people in our projects, expanding the projects to youth groups, working more with residential groups, improving our video productions output, widening spaces for public participation within George Town City like artistic performances, campaigning for local government elections, improving public transportation, improving the city council complaints channels. We also intend to improve the environmental friendliness of city planning through recycling campaigns.


Review of Penang Watch

As visible from the Penang Watch website, the team has two objectives 1) to encourage the Penang City Council to be more efficient in dealing with complaints and 2) to encourage the citizens to be more proactive. For the second objective, we can seen the active stream of complaints posted by the citizens. Penang Watch is also doing a good job of documenting the meetings and encounters on the website.

The interview mentions 50% resolution rate of the complaints routed through Penang Watch but the Penang Watch website lists only the ones in the current year. It would be good to show an archive of successfully resolved projects.

Here are some recommendations

Reaching out to Penang bloggers and netizens
Penang has active blogging community. It might be a good idea to invite them to the forums. The netizens may only reach the people who are active online. But if they link to articles from Penang Watch and embedded videos from Penang Watch YouTube channel then it will help the project get more visibility. It might also be good to indicate that the media on Penang Watch site can be freely used by online publishers. Bloggers with technical knowledge may also be able to help out in providing online publishing, computer skills, video and photography training to volunteers. One such blogging community is at

Redesign the Complaints section of the website
With little technical help, the landing page for the complaints section can be changed to a map based view. This will help highlight the density of problem in different localities of Penang. It also offers the visitors more user friendly navigation.

Interesting type of charity

Interesting type of charity work. They talk about community, but given the money would go to the city council. To do what exactly?
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