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Our island, our world

Tsunami, Penang’s future and the limits to nostalgia

by Khoo Boo Teik
Aliran Monthly Vol 24 (2004): Issue 11/12

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start_quote (1K) Did George Town only begin to ‘rot’ after the Barisan Nasional’s return to power?
end_quote (1K)
Khoo Boo Teik

Writing from Penang Island at the beginning of January 2005, I assume that many of us will long remember this past month because of two events.

One event was as global and ‘out of this world’ as could be imagined. Within hours the tsunami of 26 December ended the year 2004 most horribly. Not even ‘safe, safe Penang’ was spared the tsunami’s grievous destruction.

The second but actually earlier event, spread over a week starting in mid-December, was a local and parochial outcry over Penang’s ‘loss of shine’. Three newspapers, the New Straits Times, Berita Harian and The Star, launched a joint campaign to ‘Stop Penang From Decay’ and to ‘Stand Up for Penang’.

We are free to make real or imagined connections between these two events, one global and the other local. But they raise questions about the future of the Island which no Penang resident can ignore.


In Penang the tsunami caught the unfortunate mostly at Batu Ferringhi, Telok Bahang and Pulau Betong. The tsunami brought the Island its biggest loss of life, damage to property and disruption of livelihood caused by a natural disaster in living memory: 52 persons dead, 5 missing and 206 injured; 615 houses and 1,332 boats damaged, according to the Penang government’s statistics.

To the families of those who died, one offers condolences. One tries in small ways to help those who survived but bear other forms of hardship. Across the world, ordinary people have been extraordinarily selfless in responding to the plight of devastated communities.

Here numerous civic bodies, religious organizations, NGOs and individuals have volunteered time and effort, contributed money and materials, and joined overseas missions to mobilize relief aid for the tsunami’s victims in some of the worst hit regions.

Their efforts were made tirelessly and quietly with no thought of credit, profit or publicity – a solid indication that the tsunami’s toll on Penang (and Malaysia) has not been endured in vain.


Too often in the past self-interest made us choose our neighbours.

While we prospered, we prided ourselves on belonging to an abitrarily constructed ‘East Asia’ that excluded large chunks of Asia. During the 1997 financial crisis, however, we hated it when foreign fund managers lumped us with the rest of a ‘moribund region’.

When we were hit by the haze, SARS and avian flu, we strove to ‘distinguish’ ourselves from our neighbours in hopes of saving our tourist industry. (Some are already upset that foreign media coverage of the tsunami-ravaged areas lumped Penang with, say, Phuket.)

In short, faced with ‘globalization’ in full swing, we viewed if not feared our neighbours as our ‘competitors’.

Like it or not, the tsunami has forced upon us a shared misfortune and sense of vulnerability. But that, together with the need for joint action to avert future disasters, must inspire a deeper awareness of our regional commonalities.


This isn’t contrived sentimentality.

Look at where the tsunami was deadliest – Acheh, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India. Without Penang’s close historical links with the communities in each of these places, could George Town have become heritage-rich and a world famous repository of cultural diversity?

We needn’t speak moralistically of debts and obligations. It’s enough to recognize that old and deep personal, familial, cultural, social, economic and educational ties bind us to those communities – and to act accordingly.

It’s evident that their post-tsunami reconstruction will require long-term efforts and external assistance. It’s also likely that government-to-government arrangements won’t be enough to sustain those efforts. Sooner or later, bureaucratic obstacles, political motives, corporate resentments and inter-state suspicions may give the lie to well-intoned rhetoric about helping one another in a time of crisis.

For Acheh especially, if the ‘community of Penang’ plans to extend its assistance beyond immediate relief, our NGOs, which the government has found ‘meddlesome’, have already been cooperating with community-based Achehnese NGOs in Acheh and Penang.

Working together, these NGOs would be well placed to facilitate regional ‘community-to-community’ support networks. In the process of aiding reconstruction, their continued cooperation may meaningfully help to heal many kinds of social conflicts and political wounds.

Above all, to tackle our post-tsunami condition with confidence and creativity requires us to imagine our neighbours differently.


Retrospectively, how petty must seem the ‘Stop Penang From Decay’ information overload on spoilt beaches, dirty seas, garbage-strewn streets, snarled traffic, abandoned buildings, unhygienic hawkers and unscrupulous taxi drivers!

Substantively, the media reports, complaints and letters taught us nothing new about man-made problems in George Town. Either the media had not heard, the state government had not heeded, or the unelected ‘local government’ had not attended to similar grievances long expressed by residents, people affected by different kinds of projects, NGO activists and even visitors.

Politically, the campaign was a sandiwara late in its staging. Was Penang’s ‘glory’ intact before the March 2004 general election? Did George Town only begin to ‘rot’ after the Barisan Nasional’s return to power?

Election time would have been best for scrutinizing ‘Pulau Pinang Darul Sampah’ if the media were truly concerned about ‘neglect’ and ‘lack of political will’. But wasn’t the media bent then on persuading voters that everything was dandy?

One should sympathise with the Island’s long-suffering permanent residents. But one can’t empathise with the Kuala Lumpur-based editors and journalists, politicians from other states, ‘ex-YBs’ of the Penang Exco, and Parti Gerakan’s foes within the BN who claimed to ‘Stand Up For Penang’.

Were they generously giving voice and space to local discontent? Or were they beating the drums for ‘regime change’ in Penang by tugging at public heart strings?

Without being an apologist for the ‘present regime’, whose failings Aliran Monthly has regularly documented, one can say this much. Only someone who dishonestly disavows BN’s collective (Exco) responsibility would cheer a round of ‘musical chairs’ to replace a Gerakan Chief Minister with one from MCA or UMNO.


The rest of us don’t need an orchestrated politics of nostalgia.

For instance, what’s the point of being nostalgic about Penang’s eclipsed Jual Murah? In an age when departmental stores and hypermarkets undermine small ‘rent-controlled’ shops and community-centred kedai runcit, can the vanished stature of shopping precincts, like Penang Road and Cambell Street, be recovered by half-hearted pedestrianization and the construction of glitzy arches?

George Town used to have smoother traffic dispersal when a smaller urban population walked, cycled, or relied on public transport. But the Island’s population grew. With the development of rural areas, suburbanization increased residence-workplace distances.

There isn’t an efficient system of public transport, whether privately operated now or partially run by the Municipal Council before. Much of the peak hour traffic ferries children to and from school because they can’t conveniently walk or safely cycle anymore.

There’s a ‘sell the national cars’ policy no State government can resist. And so highways and ring roads become ‘necessary’ while the needs of pedestrians are sacrificed to escalating car ownership.

Can such conditions magically make George Town’s trams, buses, bicycles and trishaws of yesteryear reappear? Can one make traffic snarls disappear by compelling drivers to go longer distances and more roundabout ways of ‘getting from A to B’?

For that matter, how do we bring back bathing in the seas and playing on the beaches, when the hotels and the tourist strip from Batu Ferringhi to Telok Bahang have all but shut out local residents from the Island’s finest beaches?

Besides, who among the ‘locals’ still bathe in the seas when swimming has gone ‘indoors’ with private clubbing and condominium living, at least for those who can afford it? (Wasn’t it sad and telling that a number of the tsunami casualties were out-of-town picnickers attracted to the beaches?)


Finally, there’s a matter close to our hearts because it’s so close to our stomachs!

Nothing is more emblematic of Penang’s cultural diversity than its ‘hawker food’. (In Perth, Australia, in 1999, I found five outlets for ‘Penang hawker food’.) No one embodies our self-reliance like the ‘Penang hawker’.

Yet, the many laments recorded over ‘Penang hawker food’ showed no realization that the hawker food business has expanded like never before because ‘eating out’ has risen like never before. Consequently, unlike 30–40 years ago, hawkers currently make a decent living, owing very little to local authority tolerance, government aid or political will.

There are still famous, ‘inner-city’, street-lined and sidewalk-based hawker stalls – for example, at Lorong Selamat, New Lane and Kampong Malabar, popular with residents and tourists alike. Elsewhere, hawker centres tend to be grouped in large ‘coffee shops’, massive food courts, annexes to wet markets or high-rise housing schemes.

There are other roadside hawkers who went too far in building semi-permanent structures and seeking political help against eviction or relocation. But mostly it’s sheer prejudice to stereotype the ‘Penang hawker’ as an unhygienic, itinerant, street-blocking, traffic-disrupting would-be squatter on public land!

It’s ludicrous for Kuala Lumpur editors and politicians to pontificate on the quality of ‘Penang hawker food’ by lamenting the supposed decline of George Town’s nasi kandar.

Like other Penang people, I enjoy my share of that excellent Indian Muslim cuisine. But, really, what can they know of Penang who only nasi kandar know?

A better city is possible

Merely to pine for the ‘lost lustre’ of the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ takes us nowhere except to serve some hidden political agenda. Nor can we take refuge in our pre-tsunami sense of safety.

From now on, we’ll probably hear more ‘warnings’ than before. Some warnings we’ve heard ad nauseam. If BN doesn’t have a two-thirds majority, if there’s no ISA, political instability will drive away foreign investors. If labour’s allowed to organize for better conditions, wages will rise, competitiveness will fall, and the same investors will depart.

Perhaps warnings of economic competition will be spiced with ‘early warnings’ of natural disasters. Anxiety over a jaded tourism may be laced with fears of a scared-off tourism. If we publish haze levels and SARS figures, foreign tourists would shun us. If we require more stringent environmental impact assessments of projects, ‘development’ would cease, and where would we be then? (Ironically, the tsunami has created an appreciation of our ‘mangrove shield’.)

Nothing I’ve written is a do-it-yourself package for making Penang a better place in which to live, work, play and die.

To work towards that goal, we must chart fresh ways between the local and global, and between the past and future. We need to appreciate that Penang Island’s uniqueness lies in our paradoxical social character and texture of life: We can be insular and yet cosmopolitan. We’re simple without being backward. And even when we ‘go global’, we’re rooted to home.

The tsunami didn’t take any of that away from us. But we’ll lose it all if we uncritically persist along ‘tried’ paths of ‘progress’ that threaten to overwhelm us, by design or default.

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