Penang can be transformed into a place that attracts human talent and formulates people-centric policies that can transform it into a developed, sustainable and inclusive economy without poverty, says Lim Guan Eng.
I wish to thank the Penang Forum for inviting me to be here to speak to you this morning on my vision for Penang as an international liveable city.
I think that it is a tribute to the vibrancy of Penang’s civil society that the Penang Forum has continued year after year to organise and to mobilise Penangites to take an interest and to play their part in determining the future of their city and their state.
I was told that I would be walking into a wolves’ pit but one of my favourite films is the Oscar award-winning movie, Dancing With The Wolves. Even though I expect to be criticised and even roundly abused, this is part of participatory democracy, which this four-year-old PR state government is proud to initiate as well as be involved in. Even Lim Mah Hui who is so critical continues to serve at Penang Institute and the MPPP as councillor, which is never found in BN-controlled states.
But criticise us for the right reasons not for the wrong ones. We will admit honest mistakes but not bear the sins of the past. We will act against corruption and abuse of power but will also react strongly against the false allegations against our integrity. This government is clean and we are proud of our integrity in leadership which is acknowledged far and wide.
We are proud of not only being the first state in Malaysia to enjoy freedom of speech but also freedom after speech with Speakers’ Squares at both the island and the mainland. As Chief Minister, my doors are always open to members of civil society in Penang, and I welcome this opportunity to engage with and to listen to the Penang public.
Penang is never easy to govern, much less rule. I was told that a former Ketua Setiausaha Negara once proclaimed that if a federal civil servant can handle the people of Penang and can do well in Penang, then he is good enough to handle a position anywhere in Malaysia. I think this is due to two success factors that is quintessentially Penang.
One is to forge a strong civil society, society must first be civilised. In that respect, Penang takes the lead with a strong education base and tradition with democratic institutions. Two, Penang boasts of producing some of the best and brightest in Malaysia – our quality human talent.
In 1951, A S M Hawkins, the British Supervisor of Elections for the local elections for George Town, the first to be held in Malaya, reported that:
“Penang is a suitable ground for the growth of democratic institutions … Its long and honourable record in education has given it a higher degree of literacy than other towns. [Local institutions] help to weld the people into a community not only of common interests, but of common ideals. There are also local pride and local patriotism, not split by the schizophrenia of a metropolitan town. A town that has on its lips the words “Penang Leads”, as Birmingham has “Forward”, and uses the motto neither as a prayer nor an aspiration, nor yet as a boast but as a simple assertion of fact, is obviously a place of quality.”
Neglect and stagnation
Penang is still a place of quality. But over the previous 18 years, we have seen the motto “Penang Leads” fall away from the lips of Penangites, and have suffered instead the indignity of being branded “Pulau Pinang Darul Sampah” by a certain doctor from Kubang Pasu. We have suffered from neglect and mismanagement.
The historical Penang Port, once the principal port of the Federation, two and a half times larger than Port Klang in 1950, is now only No. 5 in Malaysia, behind Bintulu and Johor. The Federal government has given up and now offers to privatise it or piratise it since there was no open competitive tender. The neglect of our roads and physical infrastructure is such that no less than Lee Kuan Yew said in 2009 that we were in danger of falling behind Ipoh and Seremban.
The only way out is to go back to basics – follow the secrets of Penang’s successes in the past, which is to be part of the global community. We must transform Penang to be an international and intelligent city with world class standards, best practices and a magnet for human talent.
Penang as an international and intelligent city is leveraged on building a liveable city that attracts human talent and formulates people-centric policies that will transforms Penang into a developed, sustainable and inclusive economy without poverty. Naturally this is focused on three key areas of growing the economy that is inclusive, establishing centres of excellence in our core competencies and improving liveability.
We have the Penang Blueprint, until shelved to allow a collaborative effort with the federal government through the Greater Penang Masterplan. I spoke to Datuk Seri Idris Jala last week who said that he is still trying to get a date with the Prime Minister to present the conclusions reached together. Let’s hope it would not be after the general elections.
Space and opportunities
Being an international city does not mean that we have to ape cities like Singapore or Hong Kong or even KL. Penang has to find its own niche based on its own comparative strengths and advantages. So long as KL remains the administrative and financial centre of the country, Penang must play a secondary role.
But being a secondary city does not mean that we can or should accept being second-class or second-rate. Secondary cities such as Barcelona, Melbourne and Edinburgh can be as rich and of comparable international stature as the capital cities in their own countries. Well run secondary cities should be refreshing counterparts to mega-metropolises, given the latter’s pressures of “grime, crime and time”.
Of course, we need a fair allocation of resources by the Central Government. But we also need a change in mindset to one that demands and expects international standards of governance and development, and one that recognises Penang as a world-class city that is able to attract international talent and that is deserving of a place on the world stage.
We want to build a Penang that has space and opportunities for all. One of the issues facing Penang today is a shortage of opportunities for our young people. A common lament that I often hear among parents in Penang is how they maintain large homes for Chinese New Year and Hari Raya when the family is together, but for the rest of the year their homes are empty because their sons and daughters have left for KL and Singapore to find jobs and to raise their families.
As much as we welcome and respect our senior citizens, Penang deserves better than to become just a retirement community. A successful Penang will grow, and to be successful Penang has to grow in population, in order to develop the economic density that is necessary to create and sustain high-paying jobs, cultural facilities and good public transport.
There are those who will oppose this, fearing increased traffic and property prices. But the truth is that the price of stagnation has been that Penang has lost the best and brightest of her sons and daughters, while over the past 20 years the populations of towns in the Klang Valley and Singapore have doubled through the economic migration of our young people.
If increased economic pressures on space are the price of growth, then we must manage these pressures so that Penangites are not priced out of their own homeland. We believe that the state government has an active role to play in the building and financing of affordable housing, and we have set up a State Housing Board and have recently announced a RM500m fund to finance 18,000 affordable homes, including 1,328 in Jln SP Chelliah (Lines Road) in George Town, 12,000 units in the new industrial park in Batu Kawan and the remainder elsewhere in the state.
We have increased the minimum threshold for foreign purchases of land to RM2m for landed property on the Island, [and we are also now reviewing development charges and registration fees for transfers of luxury properties to ensure that property development is not skewed towards speculative luxury developments for the few at the expense of affordable development for the many]. At the same time, we have to use our land more wisely through better planning. And we also want to improve connectivity between the island and the mainland to reduce the pressures on land on the island and to spread the benefits of growth to the majority of the population who live on the mainland.
Protecting local treasures
Penang today benefits from having not only a skilled and educated population but also the attractions of its hills, its beaches, its food and its colourful social and physical heritage. These are the treasures of Penang that attract people, investors and tourists to Penang and that make it the most liveable city in Malaysia and eight most liveable in Asia.
You have my assurance that this government will protect these treasures. We have prepared or are in the midst of preparing Special Area Plans to conserve, improve and protect the George Town World Heritage Site, the Botanic Gardens and Penang Hill, and several public consultations have already taken place. We have also recently announced for public consultation our proposals for a new public park, open square and arts and culture centre beside the Prangin Canal as our Phase 5 of Komtar, and we hope to be able to carve out new public parks to reclaim public places for Penang in the future.
We hope that even though the federal government jealously guards its control over public transport, the Penang Public Transport Masterplan will solicit federal government support and cooperation. Doing nothing is not an option. We have undertaken an ambitious building of public infrastructure. Whether we succeed or fail will be determined by the people of Penang.
But let it not be said that we did not dare to try. I say that I am willing to fail trying than fail to try. This state government has been elected by the people of Penang to end the stagnation of Penang and to deliver clean, efficient and equitable development. We will do so based on our belief that Penang can once again lead, and show the way forward for the rest of Malaysia.
Lim Guan Eng is Chief Minister of Penang. He made this address at Penang Forum 5 held on 4 August 2012 at the Caring Society Complex in Penang.