The paralysis of Georgetown after a torrential storm yesterday, causing flash floods in various parts of the city, cripplying traffic, causing the closure of schools and a substantial number of workers reporting late for work, as well as creating sporadic power breakdowns, is the latest reminder to Penangites of the advanced state of urban decay in Penang and the serious decline in the quality of life in a state which was once its greatest attraction.
Penangites are very tired of promises, whether by state or municipal officials, claiming that such problems would be resolved in the distant future – which had in fact been made since the 80s and would continue unresolved into the next century.
Penangites should give serious consideration to the latest article in the Asiaweek under the heading "A STATE OF DECLINE - Penang once led Malaysia, but it has fallen behind. Where did it go wrong?"
The Asiaweek article in part reads:
"THE ISLAND OF PENANG, several kilometers off the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia, once seemed blessed. It had a strategic location and deep-sea port, glorious beaches, an industrious and well-educated workforce. Penang was Malaysia's Silicon Valley: forward-looking, vibrant and prosperous. It overcame the loss of its free-port status in the late 1960s and developed into a successful entrepot. By the early 1990s, its growth rates were well above the national average.
"But that was then, this is now. Today Penang is adrift. Its industrial base is languishing; Malaysia's high-tech future is rooted in the Multimedia Super Corridor, in the state of Selangor. The once-mighty Penang Port cannot match Johor, Port Klang or even Bintulu in Sarawak. The state will not be the site of a new international airport. Fewer tourists visit -- put off by polluted beaches, health scares and poor service. Many say the state administration is complacent, even ineffective.
"Citizens are fuming at how once proud Penang has been allowed to decline while its neighbors -- notably Kedah, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's home state, and its tourist island of Langkawi -- appear to receive special attention…"
The article referred to the classic case of Penang losing the Northern Regional International Airport to Kedah and how the people of Penang are still at a loss as how "a bird in hand" could have flown away as this was one of the promises of the Penang Chief Minister, Tan Sri Dr. Koh Tsu Koon in the last general elections.
The Asiaweek article continued:
"Other infrastructure problems threaten the island. Access from the mainland is limited; the Penang Bridge simply does not have the capacity to accommodate current traffic levels. Two new bridges and a tunnel have been proposed. But on July 5 it was announced that plans for the tunnel had been scrapped because public financing was not available. Deputy minister Ibrahim Saad, an UMNO heavyweight from Penang, wonders: ‘If the airport is not there, if all the industries are not there, why build another bridge?’
"Indeed, industry woes are expected to worsen as Malaysia's focus switches to Mahathir's pet project, the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) in Selangor. Penang has been totally left out of this development. Meanwhile, layoffs in the state's electronics industry have become routine. Philips Audio just announced it will relocate its plant to China and let all 1,500 workers go. Koh tried to reassure flustered Penangites that there was ‘no reason for the state to panic.’ But 11 factories closed last year, and 3,740 jobs were lost. Some wish the chief minister would panic.
"Although Koh says most of those workers have been absorbed by other factories, it is clear that Penang's industrial base is in trouble. The reasons are varied: the downturn in the electronics sector, the decision by some major Taiwan companies to return home, and rising costs which push firms to relocate in countries where it is less expensive to operate. Says Ibrahim: ‘Penang has to move up a niche to compete. Penang should be doing a lot more higher technology.’ But, as even he points out, many of the latest developments -- at least those not earmarked for the MSC -- are being set up in Kulim, a new high-tech park just over the border in Kedah.
"Penang's energy is flagging. Blackouts in the state's industrial zone continue to dissuade new investment. The since-retired head of the national electricity board placed some blame on Koh's team for a disastrous ten-day blackout in June 1995. Koh's people apparently had nixed a proposed alternative supply network. All power comes from the mainland because the island has no primary power station.
"Penang's University of Science Malaysia has also slipped in the ratings. Says Ibrahim: ‘USM is not aggressive enough. It is not setting up alliances like other universities.’ Worse, it appears to be decaying. In May, the varsity's computer system totally crashed and all admissions, exam results and library borrowings could not be processed for several days. It was the second such embarrassing breakdown in Malaysia's Silicon Valley -- in December the computer system failed, wiping out all the students' files and data.
"The malaise is not limited to those industries or projects that require substantial investment. Even tourism is suffering. In fact, it was all but devastated in May last year by a cholera epidemic. The island does not enjoy the best reputation for hygiene, especially at its hawker centers. Dr. M himself once called Penang's capital, Georgetown, ‘the dirtiest city in the country.’ Even before the outbreak, reports about polluted beaches, poor infra-structure, lousy service, and over-development of Penang Hill, a popular hill station, were keeping people away. So too were Kuala Lumpur's efforts to promote Langkawi, an isle off the coast of Kedah. In the first half of this year, almost 11,000 fewer tourists visited Penang compared even to the same cholera-affected period last year.
"If that weren't enough, Penangites have to put up with regular flooding and increasingly shoddy construction. Whenever the rain is heavy, Georgetown streets are filled with knee-deep water. Local legislators complain that the central government does not allocate enough funds for flood mitigation plans. In February workers were spotted fixing cracks in the concrete supports of the Penang Bridge, opened in 1985. Even the new $4 million Tanjung Bungah market complex, built by the local council, already has required expensive repairs.
"’Penang has come to a plateau,’ says Ibrahim. And local politicians don't seem to be able to nudge Penang much higher. The consensus is that things are only going to get worse until Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, a Penang native, takes over as prime minister. Then Penang may receive the attention that Kedah, and Langkawi in particular, now gets. Perhaps even at the expense of other states."
Penangites are entitled to ask the Penang Chief Minister and the Penang State Government whether they agree with the former Penang Deputy Chief Minister, Datuk Dr. Ibrahim Saad that Penang has come to a "plateau" in her growth, and will have to see other states and regions advance ahead of Penang – and that the only hope is in the future when a Penangite becomes Prime Minister.
The time has come for Penang to stop its political, economic and social decline in the past two years.