Heritage conservation and urban sprawl in Penang — Khoo Kok Heong

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JUNE 13 — As a layman, I have been following with great interest and intrigue the pros and cons of the Southern Reclamation Project and its impact on Penang Island.

Many Penangites are wary of this project and I believe it will closely be monitored by NGOs and ordinary Penangites alike. This culture of check and balance has long been an integral and ingrained trait of Penang people and I believe has helped Penang maintain its shine as the “Pearl of the Orient.”

Penang Island is small but attractive to Malaysians and foreigners alike. It is a famous destination in the “Malaysia as a second home scheme.” I believe it is often listed among the world’s best livable places for people to retire to. Hence , its population has been on the rise and land for housing and infrastructure on the island has become scarce.

A man holds a signboard in protest against the proposed Penang South Reclamation project at the Esplanade November 4, 2019. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
A man holds a signboard in protest against the proposed Penang South Reclamation project at the Esplanade November 4, 2019. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

Even with more high rise buildings, the island is still experiencing a great shortage of affordable housing. This is due to the population shift from George Town heritage zone to the suburbs and the influx of people from other states and countries.

Not much development can be done or can be allowed to be carried out in the inner heritage zone — except to conserve heritage buildings, especially the old shophouses — so as to maintain its Unesco (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation ) heritage status.

That declaration of heritage status for inner city George Town is both a boon and a bane.

On one hand, it brings in the tourist dollars and creates many opportunities in the hotel and food and beverage industries.

But this status has also led to exponential increases in the value of heritage buildings, which are greatly sought after by local and foreign investors to be converted into heritage hotels or commercial entities. Local tenants have had no choice but to vacate premises when landlords want to sell their properties for immediate gains.

Another reason is that the rental of such buildings has skyrocketed and is now beyond the means of locals resulting in a population shift and demand for affordable housing elsewhere.

The road system in the inner city leaves much to be desired. Many were previously mud tracks, tarred and upgraded for present day needs.

Most of the roads are narrow and unsuitable for heavy vehicles like buses and lorries, thus contributing to massive traffic jams all the time.

Most roads do not have enough space to have a shoulder for a bus stop lay-by that will not obstruct traffic flow.

Take for example Chulia Street: It is a two-way road and certain parts of it will experience massive jams when two buses need to pass the same stretch from different directions at the same time.

Buses may be a good form of transport in many parts of the world, but in Penang because of its narrow roads the huge Rapid buses can turn out to be obstructions and contribute to traffic jams.

Something must be done urgently to ease the transport and housing woes on Penang island.

Years back, under then-Chief Minister Dr Lim Chong Eu the state government did well in developing the Bayan Baru district. Now Bayan Baru is a thriving satellite town with modern facilities and infrastructure.

Penang has been in the backwaters for far too long. “Penang island is 40 years behind Singapore” as Singapore Premier Lee Kuan Yew rightly put it , when he visited Penang after the change of state government in 2008.

To upgrade Penang, we badly need funds for the many infrastructures in the state. The lack of funding is a major reason why Penang has remained in the backwaters for such a long time.

To generate funds the state government has come out with a viable project — the reclamation of the three southern islands.

Such a big infrastructure project will not only bring good amenities to the people at large, but will also serve as a prime mover to stimulate the economy and provide better livelihood opportunities to the youth both from the rural and urban areas.

Considering Penang is a small state with no natural resources such as oil, timber, minerals and even having to buy water — human initiatives to generate funds is of vital importance.

The Penang state government and people must be brave, have foresight, be proactive and plan well to take Penang to greater heights. As the saying goes, ‘If you don’t plan, you plan to fail.”

* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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