One mayor for City of Unity?

VIRTUALLY every Malaysian from the peninsula who has been to Kuching will leave with a very good impression of the Sarawak state capital.

While race still divides their fellow Malaysians on the mainland in their daily lives, it's a non-issue whatsoever in Kuching and it's the same elsewhere in Malaysia's largest state.

There's complete racial and religious harmony among so many races who live in the city, a microcosm of the over 30 ethnic communities who make up Sarawak's population.

It's against this backdrop that the 1Malaysia Foundation (Y1M), a non-governmental organisation devoted to the national unity agenda, has initiated efforts for Kuching to be declared not only as Malaysia's first City of Unity but the world's first, too.

A lot of effort has been put into making this a reality and it's a work in progress.

Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg is giving his all-out support as did his predecessor, the late Tan Sri Adenan Satem, who set aside a large piece of land in the heart of Kuching that will be turned into a Unity Theme Park.

In Y1M's concept paper, besides being an incomparable perfect City of Unity, Kuching with a population of over 600,000 based on the 2010 census, symbolises political stability, fair employment opportunities irrespective of race and with government scholarships for students either in local or overseas universities given out not based on racial quota but on merit.

And racial harmony is strengthened further by inter-marriages being part and parcel of the Sarawak way of life.

As a Sarawakian myself, I can cite my own family as an example. Three of my brothers have Iban spouses while another one is married to a Chinese.

Y1M held a two-day workshop in Kuching last week to get more feedback from the people of all walks of life on its initiative before reaching the last mile of submitting the plan to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), the Paris-based body which is responsible for conferring such an international status and recognition.

There is, however, one issue which many participants at the Kuching workshop argued ought to be tackled and resolved to smoothen things out when Unesco finally decides on the matter.

Kuching since being accorded city status in 1988, the fourth in Malaysia after George Town in Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Johor Baru, has two mayors. It is not only the only city in the nation with two mayors but the only one in the world.

This uniqueness is necessitated more by history before Kuching gained its city status almost 30 years ago.

Kuching as a municipality was then administered by two local authorities, Kuching Municipal Council (KMC) for the largely Chinese populated belt and the Malay and other bumiputra part of the city in the outskirts by the Kuching Rural District Council (KRDC).

When Kuching became a city, KMC changed its name to Kuching City South Council with a Chinese mayor while KRDC to Kuching City North Council with a Malay mayor.

Since then Kuching with two mayors has been one of the better run cities or major towns in the country and considered the cleanest, which in a country like Malaysia where throwing rubbish is a habit, is no mean feat.

Y1M chairman Dr Chandra Muzaffar, who spoke at the workshop, said having one mayor for Kuching was something the Sarawak government could not brush aside especially in aiming for Unesco's recognition.

"We should study it because the implementation might face some challenges. But we cannot avoid it because the matter of two mayors here is odd. Some parties will question it, especially if we want Unesco to recognise Kuching as the City of Unity," said Chandra.

He told me that while there are compelling reasons for the two mayors arrangement for Kuching, it is bound to raise eyebrows among entities outside Malaysia.

"Unesco, for instance, would be a bit surprised that Y1M is proposing as the planet's first City of Unity a city which has two mayors whose respective constituencies reflect to a great extent the ethnic demographics of the city.

"If there is tangible proof to show that Kuching North and Kuching South are working towards some integration, Unesco would view our proposal more favourably especially since all other indices of unity in Kuching are overwhelmingly persuasive," Chandra said.

Kuching North Mayor Datuk Abang Wahap Abang Julai is all for the idea.

In his speech closing the workshop, he said the local authorities governing the city and its suburbs could be maintained but under the administration of just one Kuching mayor.

Some workshop participants also suggested the post of Kuching mayor be rotated among the ethnic groups.

Abang Wahap, a former director of the Narcotics Criminal Investigation Department at Bukit Aman, also agreed to the rotation of the mayor's post.

"The post of Kuching mayor can be fixed at two terms and then another one is appointed. We can rotate it so that every ethnic group gets representation," he said.

Moving forward for Kuching to get the Unesco recognition, Chandra said what's needed now is a high-level working committee led by perhaps the chief minister to achieve this plus support from the federal government.