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Speedboats no replacement for Penang heritage

A significant part of Penang’s heritage will be lost when the old ferries disappear

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It is most unfortunate and disappointing that by the end of December, Putrajaya ceased the Penang ferry service, which carried both passengers and cars.

The service has been replaced by speedboats that carry only passengers, while only one ferry remains to transport bicycles and motorbikes. Four-wheel vehicles are permitted on board only in an emergency.

Since their launch 126 years ago, the ferries that ply between the island and the mainland have become an icon to both the people of Penang and foreign and domestic visitors alike.

Apart from its heritage value, the ferries have served a useful function of connecting people on both ends of the route, particularly workers who live on the mainland and work on the island. This is especially so for those working in George Town who cannot afford the high-priced properties on the island. In other words, for people travelling from Butterworth to the city centre, the ferry is a more convenient and faster link to the island than the longer route via the first Penang bridge.

Transport Minister Wee Ka Siong’s recent announcement in Parliament that only 200,000 vehicles made use of the ferry service, compared to its 1.2 million passengers, deserves scrutiny. Given that not enough money had been invested in the ferry service over the years, the Penang port authorities are left with ferries that have seen better days.

The ferry service appears to have deteriorated since the collapse of the Sultan Abdul Halim ferry terminal bridge which was blamed on overcrowding. Thirty-two people died and 1,634 more were injured in the 31 July 1988 disaster.

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Simply put, more vehicles would use the ferry service were it more reliable and the waiting time minimised. There is a suspicion that the ferries have been left in a state of disrepair to “encourage” more people to use the Penang bridge, to justify the latter’s existence.

Incidentally, this may well increase the congestion on the bridge especially during peak hours, which points to the dire need for better public transport connectivity, such as trams, feeder buses and feeder boats to various parts of the island and the mainland as well.

The Penang Port Commission contends that the costs of maintaining the ferries are prohibitive while spare parts are difficult to get, which provides an added justification for the halt to the ferry service.

While it is appreciated that the high costs of maintenance should be of concern, a price tag should not be placed on invaluable heritage. Obviously, not everything money can buy. Many ferries and old trains, for example, in other parts of the world that still provide service to passengers would not have survived had money been made a stumbling block.

Turning two ferries into a floating restaurant and a museum would seem to miss the point of preserving heritage and culture that also offers the joyful experience of being ferried on vessels with a long history. To do that would suggest tokenism.

To belittle the value of such heritage in this manner is as good as eclipsing, for instance, the rich history of Pulau Jerejak if commercial development is allowed to on the island and given priority. What would be possibly marginalised in this situation is the tiny island’s colourful past associated with a historical leprosy centre, a refugee camp after World War Two, a tuberculosis hospital and a maximum-security prison.

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Indeed, the invaluable heritage and rich history of a place makes it unique and should be the pride of the locals in particular and the country in general.

A significant part of Penang’s heritage will be lost when the older ferries cease to service locals and tourists.

Source: The Malaysian Insight

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