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Maintaining the happy factor of Penang

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Is growth boon or bane? Can change be but a double-edged sword? Nicholas Chan examines this question in the light of urban development in Penang.


We, Penangites, love our home town. No question about that.

Apart from that womb fetus connection we have with the place we are born and bred in, much of this affection has to do with the lifestyle and ambience Penang offers. The serene, tranquil, colonial-flavoured vibe planted in a semi-urban setting not devoid of the usual metropolitan escapades; shopping malls, open-air coffee shops and a vibrant night life.

If that is still not enough, we have the sea and mouth-watering food. Rich in heritage, dense in culture, and still relatively low in cost of living has made us all consciously or subconsciously want to work and retire in this Island State of Wonders.

Apparently our not-so-secret wish list is shared by people elsewhere in the world, as Georgetown was recently rated by Yahoo! as the No.4 “Best Place to Retire” in the world, although there is no need for rankings to make Penangites fervently proud of our homeland. If you can’t grasp the level of esteem we hold towards anything Penang, try insulting our food and you will have a taste of it. No pun intended.

Our intense pride about the uniqueness of Penang being a quaintly modern city stuck in a time capsule of the past makes it high on our agenda to preserve our way of life here, as if the whole Penang is a World Heritage Site. Xenophobia seeps in whenever big development projects are being raised and Penangites haven’t been shy in iterating and reiterating the point that we don’t want to be the next Singapore, Hong Kong or even Kuala Lumpur.

Such paranoia is perfectly justified as the Island State is starting to feel the common woes of a big city; rising prices, unaffordable housing, influx of immigrant workers, massive traffic jams, pollution and the mushrooming of high-rise property projects, which dampen the landscape aesthetics of the Pearl of the Orient.

While living a relatively slow but good life so far, Penangites are, nevertheless, afraid that if they take their eyes off the development of the state for one second, the “Happy” Factor of Penang would be gone in the next. As such, it explains the lack of enthusiasm for infrastructure building projects now, as compared to the 1980s and 90s, when Penang underwent rapid industrialisation and we welcomed everything that sang urban and modern.

Frantic to maintain our legacy, we have started to view every change introduced through the lens of scepticism –  scepticism which recently erupted in the form of fiery opposition towards the plan of building a third link connecting the mainland and the Island. It is another manifestation of our underlying fear of a greater amalgamation process that Penang would eventually move towards the world city model, meaning more people, more traffic, a more hectic life and less “Penang”.

The happy nostalgias

Although the feasibility of the third link is still debatable, to answer the burning question of how we can maintain our “happy” way of life, we must first seek to understand the supporting pillars of the ‘feel good’ factors we are so accustomed to, lest we take everything for granted without even knowing the price to pay.

So what are the blessings we have had (or still have) that has enabled us to live a financially ample life, to spend less time on traffic jams and less instalments on housing loans, and to celebrate all this in the comforting embrace of a straits architecture heritage city, modern shopping malls and beach bars facing the sunset?

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The major prerequisite of a good life is that we must have enough monetary resources at our disposal, and Penang, thanks to the industrialisation efforts introduced by Dr Lim Chong Eu, has provided substantial employment and income to its people, producing a vitalised economy for Penangites to materially indulge in the finer things of life. Not forgetting that necessities used to be cheaper because supply was at a healthy level compared with demand while the cost of labour was still relatively low then.

The second nostalgia we have and wish to preserve is our relatively merciful traffic. The question of traffic is certainly a no-brainer; our driving experience used to be much more pleasant because there weren’t so many cars on the road back then. For now, we are still doing better than the other big cities like Beijing and Jakarta because we have fewer cars on the road than they do!

And thanks to greater land availability and a healthy supply-demand relationship, the cost of owning a property wasn’t as uncompromising as it is now.

Change is the only constant

Just because we once enjoyed these perks (and still do for some of them today) doesn’t mean they are here to stay as we, Penangites, have started to find out the hard way. All of these feel good factors are certainly liable to changes – changes stemming both internally and externally.

So what have we experienced in this transition from the good old days towards the current period of uneasiness? Growth! As most other parts of the world have.

The advent of China being a major economic superpower has already upset how things used to be done; their burgeoning middle class and their immense purchasing power means that there will be fewer commodities out there for grabs – and as demand tips over supply, things get pricier.

Due to the rather restrained financial climate within their own country, the Chinese are already seeking offshore havens to park their new-found wealth. This will also inevitably lead to the soaring of property prices, as can be felt by the Singaporeans.

Such is the convention of global economics, capital is a liquid thing and it flows wherever it deems most secure and profitable. The property market in Penang with its limited land and rather low prices would seem like golden eggs for these investors and speculators.

But should we attribute everything to the foreigners and maintain a “blame thy aliens” attitude? Of course not!

No doubt speculation and poor town planning made our lives miserable, but such misery only comes about because we failed to address our own growth.

Ten years ago, the Penang population was about 1.3m, now it stands at 1.6m and we are projected to reach 2.5m by 2030. And as the sizes of families now shrink, a higher population would mean we need more houses, and more houses would mean more land is needed. But unlike states like Pahang and Johor, land availability is not a luxury for Penang, especially on the island.

The conventional demand and supply theory states that, when demand outstrips supply, the competition for resources would inevitably lead to costlier prices. No doubt, in the case of Penang, prices have soared against a backdrop of rampant speculation, foreign buyers and a lack of interest by developers to provide affordable housing.

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With exorbitant house prices spearheading the increase in cost of living, the price of consumables would soon follow suit because the people need more money to sustain a living.

As we continue to bemoan a poor public transport system, the growth of our population has also led to an increase in the number of cars on the road, crippling the rather limited and constricted network of roads we have, especially in areas of George Town. Adding to the damage is our reputation as a tourist haven: travellers, both domestic and foreign, flock to our little island for a sojourn, unleashing more traffic into the already congested system.

But then as we struggle with the slowdown of the global economy augmented by our reliance on the manufacturing industry, we shouldn’t be too nasty with the tourists as they also contribute to our revenues, create jobs and even sustain certain businesses.

The point is that, unless we stop population growth altogether, changes come and the price of weathering these changes to maintain the status grows higher and higher.

Some of the things we treasure and cherish might even come back to bite at us! Take the recognition of George Town as a Unesco World Heritage Site, for example. Most parts of the town are filled with stagnant landmarks which are obligated for protection and preservation, giving less space and flexibility for any major infrastructure projects to be undertaken within the area. That means a lot of roads cannot be widened and skyline-altering projects like the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) are not feasible, along with rail subways, which during their construction, might compromise the structural integrity of the old buildings.

The rather stagnant nature of the town structure that only allows development to be built around these monuments of the past certainly has limited capacity to accommodate future population growth. As such, future generations of Penangites will have to reside further and further away from George Town. Not something uncommon, as soaring land prices have already compelled a lot of Penangites to move further and further away from townships – something that growth would be unable to reverse, if the experience of other cities is anything to go by.

By change, we maintain

It is without question that the major burden in addressing and containing these changes brought by growth (or the lack of it) lies heavily in the hands of both the state and federal government. As a democracy, we, the people should always step forward and tell our representatives what we want and think best for Penang.

That being said, the maintenance of happiness is always a dynamic process; and we should not look at it narrowly, insisting things have to be what it used to be. That is a fallacy of thought.

As we identify the factors that cause our unhappiness, we should also have realised that the older ways of doing things may not hold anymore. For example, Penang, and Malaysia as a whole, now experiences the “middle-income trap” problem, and as our wages remain stagnant, there is no way for us to weather the inflation of prices as well as the cost of living.

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The only way out is to transform Penang’s economy into one that supplies us with high income jobs. That would mean more high value-added knowledge and creativity-based industry, rather than the current one that still relies on cheap labour to outmatch its competitors.

Although restructuring the economy is primarily the policy planners’ prerogative, it could work better if Penangites understand the need for it and engage actively in the process of change.

So the question is, are our entrepreneurs willing to change our way of doing things and increase productivity to keep up with the proportional increase in resources that are required for us to live a ‘happy’ life?

And as we anxiously anticipate the setting up of an efficient public transport system that is knitted into our post-colonial cityscape, can we abandon our reliance on cars as the primary vehicle of transport, and opt for less congesting and polluting choices like walking and cycling when it is desirable?

In the same principle, a lot of other changes could also be practised at the individual level to maintain the quality of life in Penang as long as we understand that growth can’t be stopped but it can be sustained.

In the process, we should also rediscover and even redefine the parameters that make us happy. Does it all have to do with material abundance? Is our concept of happiness as rudimentary as the ability to drive an air-conditioned car everywhere regardless of the distance? Is that happiness so internalised that it has nothing to do with the community’s well being? Or rather, should the question be whether the community is happy?

Having figured out the answers to the above questions, we should have realised that the maintenance of happiness is a collective responsibility and it does not necessarily need to be a huge undertaking. Acts like not littering and polluting the environment, not participating in property speculation activities, not abusing goods and resources, and more importantly, being nice to the people around you are just simple gestures that can contribute to the creation of a happy environment.

The most important part is that we should deem ourselves as not just the respondents of change, by which happiness concurs with the degree of success in accommodating those changes around us – but also as the parameters or building blocks of the changes that could lead to a livelier, greener and happier Penang.

Let us escape from the mentality that happiness can only come about via a top-down arrangement, and shift the chase for happiness into a bottom-up game.

If you have ideas and plans to make Penang happy, by all means participate in the decision-making process. There are various avenues for this, like joining the civil service or NGOs, by holding forums or assemblies, by writing and speaking out loud, or by being a politician.

We should view the process of the pursuit of happiness as one in which active engagement is practised rather than being reactionary – because while we chase for happiness, happiness might actually come looking for us!

Nicholas Chan is a socio-political research analyst at Penang Institute. A forensic scientist by education, he believes there is a truth in everything and it all depends on whether we want to see it or not.

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