Captain Francis Light founded Penang in 1786 when he convinced the Sultan of Kedah, whose territory it was at the time, to cede the island to the British. It became Britain’s spice trade outpost and was soon a thriving free port and a melting pot of people from all over the world.
When it lost its free port status after Independence, then chief minister Dr Lim Chong Eu successfully reinvented Penang into the Silicon Valley of Malaysia, attracting companies such as Intel, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard.
Penangites still like to tell the story of how Intel’s Andy Grove had to get out of the car and help push it after it got stuck in the mud when he came to Penang to inspect the construction of the company’s manufacturing plant. Or how the founders of Hewlett-Packard decided to invest in the state because when they stopped at a coffee shop to discuss the possible investment, their waitress knew how to use a scientific calculator.
Basically the island is resilient. Every time someone thinks it is going into decline, it reinvents itself. Like in 2008 when it received the Unesco World Heritage Site listing.
Talk to anyone in George Town and they will be quick to tell you this was a game-changer for the city. Suddenly, the crumbling town that had slipped into somnolence (despite a thriving electrical and electronics industry nearby in Bayan Lepas) started to come alive. Heritage buildings were given a facelift. Enterprising investors bought over units in the historical district and started turning them into boutique hotels and hipster cafés.
There was a new energy in the air. And most importantly, people who had been leaving in droves started coming back. In fact, it started to attract expatriates who could work anywhere in the world but chose Penang because they loved the lifestyle there.
Think City Sdn Bhd’s own Murali Ramakrishnan, its Butterworth programme director, is a case in point. He decided to leave George Town in 2003 because he thought it was going nowhere. “You could see it was slowly crumbling, getting worse and worse. There was no new life in the city, so I left for London and then went to the Cayman Islands,” he says.
“When Think City executive director Hamdan Abdul Majeed started Think City in 2007, he offered me a job. We had gone to school together and I was his classmate for 13 years. I declined, saying ‘Who wants to come back to Penang?’
“But I came back for a holiday every year and I could see the changes taking place — not only because of Think City but a combination of factors. I think it was mainly due to citizen and community ownership. Think City was there to help with some funds and more focused efforts, but they had really good community participation.”
The state has also fallen to the opposition coalition and the new government was more open to new ideas. “So, in 2010, I decided to come back,” says Murali.
But the sprucing up came at a cost: gentrification. Old businesses are being squeezed out and their place taken over by hipster cafés and boutique hotels. As Penang Institute head of urban studies Stuart Macdonald points out, while the Unesco Heritage Site listing has brought much interest to the city, land values have gone up and traditional businesses have been forced to close down.
Penang Institute is the state government’s think tank. It helps the state with ideas and focuses on six areas: economics, sociopolitics, urban studies, history, heritage and Malay studies.
“Because land values have gone up, the only people who can afford to rent or buy these units are the people serving the tourists. So, some of the traditional family businesses that have been there for 60, 70, 80 years are being forced out,” he says.
“And as these businesses start to close, they move out of the city, creating vacancies that are replaced by more cafés, not families. So we see a depopulation of the city where traditional trades move out and new businesses that serve the tourists move in. If this continues, it will put our Unesco Heritage Site listing under threat because we will become a Disneyfied city centre that is just for tourists.”
“As the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has very unique and specific ways, how do you harness your unique heritage without over-gentrifying or commercialising it? A lot of civil servants in Malaysia just don’t have that experience, which is why the chief minister had to look outside.”
Gentrification is a leading issue. Another is the Penang Transport Masterplan. It is next to impossible to get a copy of it and Macdonald explains why.
“I think they were supposed to have a website up before Chinese New Year with all the documentation. Everything was supposed to be online and transparent. I don’t know what happened. There seems to be a delay, partly because things are changing very fast.
“They have been doing lots of little things such as consultations and town hall meetings, and every time somebody suggests something and they like the sound of it, they get them to incorporate it. So, every couple of weeks, the plan changes. And if you publish something it is out of date within a week because things change so quickly.”
There are a few constants, however. “The whole of Gurney Drive will be reclaimed. It is very sensitive because the whole thing hinges on SPAD (Land Public Transport Commission) approval. It is like a stack of cards. The first thing that has to happen is that the LRT alignment from the airport to the city has to be approved by SPAD,” he says.
“Then, the whole thing can progress because they can start reclaiming the land. If they start reclaiming the land, they can pay for the LRT and all the components that come up on top of the later stages. So, until they get the alignment approved by SPAD, they are keeping very quiet.”
SPAD may be happy with the performance of RapidKL in Selangor, but Penangites are not as thrilled with RapidPenang’s service on the island. “The state has absolutely no power or authority over routes, frequencies, rolling stock ... anything. SPAD does have a presence in Penang, but I am not sure what it does because it doesn’t seem to be engaging with the state or addressing any of the issues,” says Macdonald.
The biggest issue is a lack of rolling stock. “We don’t have enough buses so our frequencies are terrible — 30 minutes, 45 minutes, one-hour frequencies. And that’s the scheduled frequency. In reality, it is twice that. We have to wait 1 to 1½ hours for a bus.”
The Penang government has a land-driven development strategy, which is cause for concern among residents. But as Lim points out, considering the pitiful funding allocated to the state, it is the only resource it has. “If you look at the budget for the government, 97% of it goes to federal agencies and ministries. Only 3% goes to the state government.”
MacDonald cuts in. “But Penang has huge ambitions and the only way it can raise money, the only power it has is over the land, hence the land-driven development strategy. This means we have to sell land, we have to reclaim land, we have to utilise land the best we can to raise funds for other things.
“That is why you see the huge reclamation projects being proposed in the south, which are required to pay for the public transport system that every Malaysian pays for with their tax money. But we have to reclaim land to get a public transport system in place. So, we are kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
Arts and culture
Tell anyone in Penang that you are doing an article on George Town and they will inevitably ask you: “Have you spoken to Joe Sidek?” Joe is festival director of the iconic George Town Festival.
“We started the George Town Festival in 2010. They wanted to celebrate the Unesco listing and asked groups to send in proposals. Three groups sent proposals, but nobody wanted to take them on,” he says.
“I was asked to do it since I have a background in doing shows, and I agreed. The first was chaotic because — what do you do in six weeks? How do you even plan? I just called people I knew and put together a series of programmes. I wouldn’t even call it a festival.”
The next year was when the festival really got going. “I just threw myself into it. I remember the second year, we had this show by Akram Khan, Vertical Road. I saw an image and called Sadler’s Wells. Can you imagine — unknown festival, little town, no money?
“I called and asked, ‘Can you come to Penang?’ He said they couldn’t as they had been booked for two years. They were supposed to do Singapore and somehow, I arranged for them to fly in one day. If you are a businessman, you would think I was an idiot. Why would you fly in a group for just one day to do a show? But that was the clincher. I was brave enough to do that and now, every major dance company in the world thinks Penang is a big festival. It is branding.”
Joe says what is special about the festival is not so much the big names but the space. “It is hard for anyone else to have the same thing that we have in Penang. You have big halls, which are very impersonal — they could be anywhere in the world.
“But we have the place. You walk around and the whole city is a canvas, which so far, no other state can match. It is not me, it is the city. I tell you, if you live in Penang, you are a Penangite. I was born in Johor. My father is from Negeri Sembilan. But I love Penang, I love George Town. It is the spirit of the land.”
Of all the shows he has put on, Joe is proudest of one called 100%. “I hunted for this show for two years. It is by Remini Protocol and I first saw it on YouTube. The show started in Berlin before going to Paris, New York and Melbourne. And when I saw it, I thought ‘Wow, what a wonderful message and how much we need that for Malaysia.’”
Basically, it involves getting 100 people from your city representing the different demographics, putting them up on stage and getting them to move around and discuss sensitive issues.
“We had a Pak Haji and a makcik, nyonya and children, gay boys and a blind girl — the whole demographics of what a real city is. So, they go on stage and reflect on the statistics and answer questions. You think the statistics are so boring, right? But when you see them represented on stage, 100% of the city, you start to understand how complex it is, and how individual it is,” he says.
“And this whole thing is done as a presentation, with moving circles and lights and everything. But what was really nice was that these 100 people talked about God, corruption, being impure, robbing, their thoughts on murder, on same-sex marriages, and the local and federal government.
“What an amazing thing when people are left on their own without fear to say whatever they want to say. And they just say it.”
What touches Joe the most is that today, months after the show, this group of 100 very different individuals still make an effort to get together. “They go for movies and the Pak Haji toddles along, mixing with this group of people who are not his social circle. And you think this is the real Malaysia,” he points out.
“Left on their own, people are nice, they can connect. You don’t even have to tell them anything. I am so proud of them. And I think, ‘Wow, this is the spirit of the community that you don’t get anymore’ — not forced. We used to have this sense of community, but we lost it. However, we can change. One step at a time. Do what you can.”
Being in George Town, one can get carried away by the murals, cafés, old colonial buildings and sense of culture and community. One businessman says it would impossible to impose a dress code in George Town as people would invariably show up at the most exclusive places in shorts and slippers.
But the money part matters too. It is InvestPenang’s job to bring investments to the state. General manager Lee Lian Loo admits that George Town is not a hard sell. Its unique blend of old and new allows the agency to market it as “historical and traditional with the contemporary”.
A few years ago, Lee was focused on creating greater diversity in terms of employment opportunities. To some extent, the agency has succeeded.
“We have made good headway in diversifying our jobs beyond engineering. Some of the existing companies, such as AMD, Intel, Jabil, Seagate and Osram, have expanded their operations into global business services. We have also managed to attract companies such as Citi Transaction Services, Wilmar, AirAsia, IHS and Thomson Reuters. We are promoting tech start-ups as well as animation and creative jobs.”
George Town may be an attractive proposition, but money still talks. And right now, the low ringgit isn’t saying anything good. “Our exchange rate is certainly a major challenge in terms of attracting and retaining talent. Other than that, job diversity, affordable housing and having a good transport system will continue to be our key areas of focus,” she says.
The other problem is the lack of talent. “Penang only had a 1.6% unemployment rate in 2014. And there is a skills gap, due to the quality of Malaysian education delivery,” says Lee.
She adds that Penang needs talent who are more highly educated and have in-depth technical knowledge. “More specifically, we need people with specialist engineering, software and IT skills. There are opportunities in the Internet-of-Things innovation and more companies, local and foreign, are moving into that space.”
Lee doesn’t really see any of the other states in Malaysia as competitors. “Our main competitors for talent are Singapore and Australia. Though Penang is not as developed as these countries, we offer our unique mix of heritage, culture, languages and diversity. These are the factors that enrich one’s work, live, learn and play experiences. We want to position Penang as the place to work for Malaysians who choose to remain in the country,” she says. - The Edge Property