GEORGE TOWN: When Tan Sri Chin Fook Weng (pix) first took his seat in the Penang City Council in 1974, the ferry was the only way to cross the channel to Butterworth.
Komtar was still just an idea, land reclamation was unheard of and more people cycled than drove.
Economically, it was a challenging time. Penang had lost its free port status five years earlier and was in the midst of reinventing itself as a regional manufacturing hub.
Even in the face of such challenges, Chin never wavered in his desire to serve the state. In fact, he ended up serving for 24 years, making him the longest-serving local councillor in the country.
Today Chin, at 77, keeps himself occupied with other matters that concern Penang and its people. He is helping to advance education in the state, and his pet projects include artificial intelligence and robotics.
His long tenure in the local council has made him a specialist on local government matters. He even served as the Gerakan whip in the Penang City Council.
In the 1990s, he took on another role, as media liaison for the council.
Among his responsibilities were to explain to the media how the council functioned in light of higher expectations from ratepayers.
Politically, the 1990s was also a turbulent era for the Gerakan-led Barisan Nasional state government. The DAP, then the Opposition, made several attempts to capture Penang under its Tanjung campaigns.
It took advantage of the weaknesses in the delivery system of the government to raise issues.
Chin was kept busy explaining how the council worked and how decisions were made.
He retired in 1998, several years before DAP took the reins in Penang.
After leaving the service, Chin initially took it easy, watching the country transform as he enjoyed his daily coffeeshop talk with his friends.
But in 2000, he was called back to serve, and this time as head of the non-profit Disted College. He did it for a year, but last year, 18 years later, he was again asked to lead the same college.
“I feel like the Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad,” he quipped. “I was asked to come out of retirement to help steady the ship.”
“Mahathir and I retired about the same time (just two years apart) but now that he is back, so am I.”
But Chin acknowledges that apart from being a “younger model” of Mahathir, he is also under less pressure. His main challenge is to make Disted College an institution for students to pursue courses in AI and robotics rather than traditional disciplines such as architecture or arts.
He wants to position the college to help students meet the challenges of the Industrial Revolution 4.0, and he is making STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – central to the educational pursuit.
Chin also keeps in touch with current affairs and continues to offer his views. On the call for local government elections, he said there had to be a balance between meeting expectations and ensuring good governance.
“Elections can induce partisan politics, and contentious issues such as race and religion could creep into the local councils.”
Chin proposed only those skilled in government matters, such as engineers, technocrats, environment conservation experts and doctors, be picked to sit in the council.