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Penang: Malaysia’s stepchild or prodigal child?

The grandiose plans of the 11th Malaysia Plan, in a bizarre and unfair manner, excludes Penang.

When tabling the 11th Malaysia Plan (11MP) in Parliament on 21 May 2015, the Prime Minister waxed lyrical about the government’s intention of “anchoring growth on people” in this coming five-year development plan that is set to bring Malaysia towards the “aspiration of an advanced nation that is inclusive and sustainable by 2020.”

As usual, the Prime Minister is never short on verbosity. The 11MP document is replete with impressive jargons that tick all the right checkboxes. However, the devil is always in the details, and the details in this case appear to belie the grand promises of the Prime Minister.

Is the 11MP truly inclusive?

The term “inclusive,” for example, is used judiciously throughout the entire document. This implies a commitment towards ensuring that any gains from development and progress would be spread and shared by all Malaysians. Unfortunately, the inclusiveness of the 11MP is cast in serious doubt when one finds that the RM260 billion development plan has conveniently ignored certain regions, despite its massive scale.

Take, for example, one of the six “game changer” strategies that have been introduced – “investing in competitive cities.” This strategy rightly recognises cities as a critical growth engine of the 21st century economy which plays a key role in spurring growth not only by providing jobs and trade opportunity, but also by connecting them to rural and suburban areas. Such a strategy is all the more relevant given the current context of a globalised world where talent migration is increasingly influenced by choice of city before choice of jobs.

Therefore, the 11MP seeks to develop “competitiveness master plans” for four major Malaysian cities, namely Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu. These master plans will be based on the principles of “creating density, expanding transit-oriented development, strengthening knowledge-based clusters, enhancing liveability, encouraging green-based development and practices, as well as ensuring inclusivity.”

Yet, the list of chosen cities appears to have one major exclusion – Penang.

Penang is the leading secondary city in Malaysia

Notwithstanding the fact that Penang is the most well-known and developed city after Kuala Lumpur, as well as the most liveable city in Malaysia and the eighth most liveable in Asia according to ECA International, the exclusion of the city-state is also incongruent with the very criteria purportedly used in making the selection.

According to the 11MP, the four cities were chosen based on their potential in terms of “population size, GDP contribution, existing major infrastructure, concentration of higher learning institutions, geographical advantage, and also the principle of inclusivity and fair distribution.” On each of these criteria, there is nothing that suggests why Penang should be sidelined.

In terms of population, Penang constitutes 1.7 million people, while the “Greater Penang Conurbation” metropolitan area covering parts of central and southern Kedah, along with northern Perak, encompasses almost three million people. In addition to that, Penang can boast of having the second highest population density in the country after Kuala Lumpur, with about 1,500 people per sqkm. These are ideal conditions for a competitive city.

Statistics from the 11MP itself also recognises Penang as a major GDP contributor. In 2014, Penang produced a GDP of RM67 billion, which is the fifth highest in the country after Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Johor and Sarawak – a significant achievement considering the fact that Penang is also the second smallest state after Perlis. This translates to an impressive GDP per capita. This year, Penang is expected to surpass Selangor with a GDP per capita of RM46,019, compared to RM45,617 for the most developed state in Malaysia. Thus, there is no better evidence of Penang’s role as an integral cog in the Malaysian economy.

Where infrastructure is concerned, Penang is already an established logistics hub for the northern region of Malaysia, in which the principal seaport, airport and rail station are located. In fact, the conditions are ripe for the government to invest on expanding and integrating the existing infrastructure in order to create a world-class urban conurbation.

In terms of higher learning institutions, Penang is also a well-known centre for education at all levels. Besides nine international schools, Penang also houses one of the country’s top public universities, the Universiti Sains Malaysia, along with many other private colleges and university colleges. In addition to that, Penang has also attracted foreign institutions such as Hull University from the United Kingdom, which will be setting up a campus in Batu Kawan in the near future.

As for geographical advantage, it is almost impossible to deny Penang’s optimal location, be it by air, land or sea. More importantly, Penang is also an important link that connects northern Indonesia to southern Thailand.

Finally, the four chosen cities represent the two states of Borneo, as well as the central and southern regions of Peninsular Malaysia. This induces a very glaring question – why is the northern region of the peninsula left out? How then, can the choice of cities be said to reflect the principles of inclusivity and fair distribution?

Based on all the above criteria, Penang not only qualifies, but should in fact be a prime candidate for the development of a competitive cities master plan. Clearly, Penang’s progress would help drive growth in the entire northern region in particular and Malaysia in general. Unfortunately, despite such a logical corollary, the Federal government has chosen to exclude Penang for reasons known only to them.

The Malaysian stepchild?

It must be noted that this is not the first time that Penang has been unfairly treated. In the 9th Malaysia Plan (2006-2010), Penang was promised many things, including two massive public infrastructure projects in the form of a RM2 billion monorail line and a RM1.5 billion highway called the Penang Outer Ring Road (PORR).

The monorail project looked set to be on its way when a tender was held in 2007 and awarded in 2008. However, both the monorail and the PORR projects were put on indefinite suspension during the mid-term review in 2008, coincidentally following the 12th General Election in March 2008, which saw the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition losing power in Penang. Two Malaysia Plans later, both projects have not since resurfaced.

However, in spite of the Federal government’s non-cooperation, the Penang state government has moved to resolve the longstanding problem of traffic congestion in the state by developing the Penang Transport Master Plan. This long-term transport infrastructure project seeks to alleviate traffic congestion by incorporating transport systems with development plans in order to achieve optimum mobility.

At a total estimated cost of RM27 billion, this integrated plan is based on comprehensive studies that began in 2011, and will encompass the construction of new road highways, a light rail system in the form of LRTs and trams, upgrading of the existing bus system, innovative features such as water transport and Southeast Asia’s first under-seabed tunnel.

Despite many challenges and financial limitations, the Penang state government has signalled its commitment by pressing ahead with its ambitious plan. Currently, the public transport portion is in the tender stage for a Project Delivery Partner, while some of the highway improvement projects are scheduled to be completed in two to three years’ time.

The Federal government’s attitude towards Penang is, on the one hand, regrettable, and on the other, ironical. Treating the state as an unwanted stepchild is akin to cutting their nose to spite their face. And while they may feel smug about it now, they will regret it in the future when they realise that Penang will, as it has in the past, prove its resilience as the prodigal child of Malaysia.

NB: This article was originally published in the July 2015 edition of the Penang Monthly.

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