The 2017/2019 MPP Cohort went to Penang for our yearly study trip. Beyond the sinful gluttony and colourful shophouses which are a feast to the eyes, the main question that floated on our heads is this—what lies beyond the veneer of this island-state, “founded” by Sir Francis Light in 1786? What is the Penangite identity about? Perhaps it is impossible to understand the circumstances of present-day Penang - one of the three opposition-controlled states in Malaysia - without understanding its port city past and its multi-cultural origins. To better comprehend Penang’s current developments and to think of the way forward for the island-state, it is essential to look at how Penang’s past has continued to shape its present and affect its interaction with the future.
What lies beyond the veneer of Penang?
Plugging into the global economy: Penang’s economic lifeline
Port cities are known as the recipients of fresh insights and new ideas. As a bustling port city in the 19th century, Penang had benefitted from many economies in the region, especially in terms of its strong commercial networks with India and the South Asian region. This openness to trade, coupled with Penang’s connectivity suggested that the island-state has frequently leveraged on its role as a connector or a middleman between the different parts of Asia to generate economic growth (Turnbull, 2009). It also meant that Penang’s economic fortunes were dependent on the vicissitudes of the international economy and it had to ride the waves of global trends with its policies. It is no wonder that Penang was given the moniker of “Silicon Valley of the East” in the 1970s and 1980s.
This was also a key issue that the Chief Minister of Penang, Lim Guan Eng raised during his meeting with the MPP cohort. One of the major themes during the study trip touched on Penang’s position in the global economy, especially with its policy of opening up Free Trade Zones in the 1970s where Bayan Lepas becomes the prominent manufacturing hub. With rapid advancements in technology and the proliferation of new technologies, Penang became amongst the first of the Malaysian states to adopt Artificial Intelligence to combat the dengue menace. In order for Penang to prosper, history has shown that Penang needed to continue being plugged into global networks and keep pace with international trends, whereby investing in their local talents and infrastructure becomes a top priority.
Balancing Heritage and Economic Growth
Penang is well-known for Georgetown which was coined UNESCO world heritage status in 2008. Since then, the island-state has enjoyed the patronisation of visitors who seek to unpack and understand the legacy of its port-city past and of its diverse, multicultural heritage. What is unique about Penang’s heritage conservation efforts is the fact that it is mainly driven by the non-governmental and voluntary sectors, suggesting the presence of a strong local identity by a population that takes pride in their roots.
However with every opportunity comes a trade-off. From our observations during the study trip, the Georgetown heritage site is fast becoming commercialised, and there is a thin balance between the maintenance of the site’s “living heritage” and authenticity, against economic growth. Chief Minister had noted that the island-state needed to protect the livelihoods of street hawkers who are essential to Penang, and ensure that Penangites are able to benefit from tourism-driven economic growth. Organisations such as the Penang Heritage Trust and Think City have been actively trying to maintain the “living heritage” of Penang by ensuring that the re-adaptive uses of the buildings are aligned to proper guidelines.
Can Penang protect the livelihoods of street hawkers who are essential to Penang? Photo: Kirk Siang on flickr.com
Think City has also been trying to revitalise old parts of Georgetown by making it a “liveable” district and this would hopefully draw in more people back to Penang, thereby alleviating the issue of “brain drain” in the island-state. As Penang continues to develop, a careful balancing act is needed to ensure that the heritage of Georgetown continues to relate to its people and their hearts, besides the desire to rake in more tourism receipts.
The hub of local voices: Penang, the “rebel state”
The political status of Penang as the strongest opposition-led state should baffle no one; however, during our visit to the Penang Institute, Professor Ooi Kee Beng of the institute had remarked that Penang was more than the Democratic Action Party, and should be understood through its historical legacy of being a hub for ideas, scholars and intellects. The laissez-faire attitudes of the British towards social governance in Penang also led rise to voluntary and social welfare organisations along ethnic lines, and this contributed to the growth of an active, civic society in Penang (Cheng, 2014).
The consecration of a local Penangite identity in the pre-war years eventually gave momentum to the Penang secession movement of 1948. While the secession movement did not succeed, the notion of Penang being a hotbed for political consciousness and civic activity had entrenched its roots in the island-state’s soil. The idea that Penang viewed itself as “different” from the rest of the Malaysian states also pointed at the distinctiveness of the Penangites identity; Professor Ooi had said that it was essential to understand the development of the Penangites identity in its relations to its history as a hub that shared porous borders to the rest of the world. The understanding of what the Penangites identity is has several policy implications on how the island-state takes charge of its economic and social policies, and its relationship with the Federal Government.
Speaking of its moniker as a “rebel state”, how many out there actually knows about the secret societies in Penang established in 1800s, and the fact that some of these societies are still active today?
It is essential for to understand the unique traits of a country, its history and culture before policies are conceptualised, Photo: phalinn on flickr.com
The study trip underscores the notion that it is essential for us to understand the unique traits of a country, and its history and culture before policies are conceptualised. If there is anything that we have taken home with us, it’s the reinforced realisation that a keen understanding of the country’s context and history is critical to policy development, and the policies introduced cannot be separated from the ethos and identity of the country that have given rise to them.
Moving forward, despite being a small state that is challenged by the limitations imposed through the federal-state divide, Penang still has a lot of potential to grow. Penangites are proud of their history and heritage, and take ownership of their state affairs. If given more autonomy, Penang will be able to align basic infrastructures and public services effectively by tailoring to the local context, cultures and structures. What lies ahead may only be restricted by the boundaries of imagination.
Cheng, E.W (2014). “Resistance, Engagement and Heritage Conservation by voluntary sector: The case of Penang in Malaysia”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol.48, No.3, pp 617-644.
Turnbull, CM (2009). “Penang’s Changing Role in the Straits Settlements, 1826-1946”, In Penang and its region: The story of an Asian Entrepot, Edited by Yeoh S.G, Loh W.L, Khoo S..N and Khor, N, Singapore: NUS Press