Presentations: Vision for an international liveable city

MPPP Councillor and Penang Forum representative Lim Mah Hui’s presentation on what constitutes an international liveable city:

Mah Hui’s presentation: A current view of development in Penang (.pdf file)

A current view of development in Penang: Rhetoric and reality

People must be at the centre of the planning process and must participate in it. They cannot be relegated to a footnote or as an after-thought.

I will begin by referring to two recent and important publications on the direction of Penang as a liveable city.

First is the state government’s Penang Blueprint published by Penang Institute and the second, ‘Cities, people and the economy: A study on positioning Penang’ by Khazanah and the World Bank

What is a liveable city (p. 135 of Blue Print)

“Although there is no internationally recognised definition of liveable cities, these can be defined in broad terms as:

  • people centred with emphasis on well-being of their residents
  • strengthening of community relationship
  • increasing civic engagement and building environment facilitating human interactions
  • need for well-functioning public realm for meetings and encounters
  • public places must be appropriately human scaled
  • liveable cities characterised by short travelling distances achieved with
  • pedestrian network, bicycle networks, efficient transport system

The second study, in the section on ‘Improving Geoge Town’s liveability’ (pp 58-62) says:

  • Penang offers a lifestyle that is relaxed, cosmopolitan and balanced…
  • Most attributes summarised by “liveability” have depreciated along with economic growth
  • Air and water quality have deteriorated, traffic congestion soared in absence of plan to manage growth in private cars
  • Absence of public transport
  • Urban amenities like libraries neglected
  • Lively civic participation suffered (today’s event is an exception)
  • A commitment to improve liveability must start with a discussion and measurement of its key attributes that citizens are concerned about.
  • Last study on people’s views was – Penang People’s Report of 1999
  • Lower stress, open spaces, convenient access to shopping, heritage sites, medical care, bookstores and libraries, sports and social facilities, cultural events are features of liveability that young professionals cited as most important. These must be incorporated into the design of Penang’s development strategy.

Two major conclusions:

1) Significant is what are not mentioned as attributes of liveable city:

  • More roads, highways, cars
  • More high rise luxury apartments
  • More trees being cut down for more roads
  • More hill slopes being cut for “development”


Greater emphasis is given to social and cultural infrastructures rather than physical infrastructure, except for public transport.

Yet what we witness today in Penang is the over-emphasis given to build more and more non-human scale concrete structures along established residential communities. Best examples are along Kelawai, Gurney, now Macalister and Burmah Road

2) Both studies emphasise the human element and the need for people to be at the centre of planning and that people must participate in the planning process. People cannot be relegated to a footnote or as an after-thought.

Planning is at the heart of a liveable city. The private sector cannot be assigned this role. But right now, it looks like planning is fragmented and outsourced to the private sector. It has been said that developers are treated as clients and people as complainants

Local Agenda 21 and this public forum by civil society is a step in the right direction. We must have more of such events.

Is the current ‘development” in Penang moving in the direction of liveable city? Let’s measure it against the objectives spelt out in the above two documents. What is the rhetoric and what is the reality?

1) People-centric, civic engagement, public places for meetings, well being

Is our “development” more people-centric or property-centric?
Who has more access to government officials and politicians?
Are people regarded as “clients” or as “complainants”?
Why do surveyors, planners, architects, engineers, developers have dedicated committee (SPEAD) to meet regularly with MPPP directors to expedite development projects but why no such regular meetings with the rakyat? Should not the rakyat also be represented in SPEAD?
Why the increasing number of resident associations who are complaining of ‘development’ that is threatening their liveability and environment ?
How often are people consulted before a project is done?

I must say that with public awareness and pressure, this government has become much more responsive than the last one in engaging with the public as witnessed in the Botanic Garden Special Area Plan, the MPPP budgeting process, the Penang Transport Master Plan, and the Chowrasta market renovation.

But I hasten to add that these came about because of public diligence and clamour for participation. This should give our audience encouragement that participatory democracy (i.e. people participating in decisions that affect their everyday lives) is paramount and we must continue to build on this

But this journey is just beginning, not the end.

2) Availability of public amenities – libraries, pedestrian walkways, bicycle networks, more green and open spaces like pocket parks, linear parks, public transport.

The city is sorely lacking in these amenities and we would like to see the state and the local councils set concrete objectives, budget and resources with time-lines to provide these amenities.
Open space is an important measure of a liveable city. The Structure Plan calls for 4ha of open space for every 2,500 persons but MPPP plans for only 2ha per 5,000 persons (1/4 of target). The present policy of requiring 10 per cent of land of a development for open space is inadequate.

The campaign for a cleaner and greener Penang is good, but there is no integrated master plan to plant trees or to clean up rivers and beaches. The MPPP has 22 acres of prime land around SP Chelliah. Should it be another site for an MPPP headquarters as well as commercial and mixed residential houses? What about an international class urban park? Can Penangites be consulted publicly, as in the case of Botanic Garden, before it is built upon? Sungei Pinang flows across the site. In any rehabilitation scheme, this should be the first priority – to rehabilitate the river as they have done it in Singapore, Kaoshiung and Taipei.

Penang, the Pearl of the Orient, is known for its beaches and hills, among other things. The beaches are close to dead and the hills have been encroached upon dramatically. Shouldn’t the authorities make it a top priority with a master plan to clean up the beaches and to protect the hills? The hills with their luxuriant forest form the green lungs of the island, producing oxygen and cool air that flows down in the morning to refresh the city. It also provides an aesthetic backdrop for the island and gives the island its character. Hill slope development cannot be evaluated simply from a technical-engineering point of view; environmental and cultural sustainability is equally important.

The Blue Print shows there are 66 km of coastal shoreline in Penang island of which 20km are beach, 8.5 kn are new reclamation, 2.3km of properties built along shoreline and 3km are listed as public amenities. The Penang Blue Print highlights that recent private developments are making sandy beaches and foreshores less available to common folk and this trend must be reversed as quickly as possible. The first 100m of any reclaimed coast must be made public. The Structure Plan of 2007 gazettes no development above 250 ft or more than a 25-degree gradient; yet ‘special projects’ are passed on the basis of 1996 zoning guidelines. Which supersedes which?

Reality must match rhetoric.

3) Planning and public transport

One of the most urgent problems facing Penang is traffic congestion. Penang has 1.6m inhabitants and over 2m vehicles. The population growth rate is about 2 per cent but the growth rate of vehicles is about 10 per cent per year. Building more roads alone will not solve the problem. The solution lies in managing the growth and use of vehicles and linking this to urban planning. The draft Local Plan for Penang island, with its proposed density and plot ratio is based on the assumption of 50 per cent public ridership. But today the public share is only 4 per cent.

Under the draft local plan, a policy of 87 units per acre density is allowed only in public transport nodes. Why are these approved when such public infrastructure is not yet provided resulting in traffic congestion? The recently completed Penang Master Transport Plan envisages that if a balanced approach is adopted this percentage could reach 30 per cent by 2030 and if the building roads approach is used, it could be 10 per cent. The state government has spent RM3.2m on the master plan and a survey showed that the majority favour a balanced approach. Will the state government give more emphasis to road building or public transport?

4) Preservation of heritage and culture

It is fortunate that George Town has been named a world heritage site and all buildings in the enclave are preserved. What about the buffer zone and the other parts of the city where there are buildings, and also communities, with rich architectural and historical value? Several recent episodes highlight the fragility of our heritage. The mansion of Khaw Bian Cheng on Pykett Avenue was illegally demolished, two historical houses where the first Prime Minister of Thailand, Manopakorn, lived were torn down and only one left standing. Another beautiful mansion in 177 Macalister Road was razed overnight. There is a case in the Appeals Board to demolish 425 Burma Road.

Even if not demolished, many of these heritage or beautiful buildings have been mutilated and suffocated by 30-storey structures surrounding the so-called ‘preserved’ building. Many foreign tourists have lamented this state of affairs. Planners and local and state authorities must give immediate attention to addressing this issue. I have proposed that a temporary moratorium be placed on the demolition of buildings of architectural and historical value until a complete inventory is done.

When we speak of liveability, we must keep in mind, liveable for whom? For the rich, for the expatriates, who are able to afford good and expensive schools and health services, or for the ordinary people who increasingly cannot affordable housing, or for the foreign workers who build our roads and our houses but are shunted in society?

Finally, I will touch on the idea of an ‘international’ city.

What is an interational city? Should “international” be the primary or secondary adjective?

International place of abode – cosmopolitan cities like New York, London… Hong Kong, Spore (nation states). Recent developments in Spore, where locals are left behind in the internationalisation of the city, has left political authorities in a quandary. Be careful of what you wish for.

International place for a visit – Bangkok, Kyoto
International place for foreign investments
International place for arts and culture – Hong Kong
International place for foreigners to invest in property e.g. Dubai

We should be clear about what we want and what are the consequences – positives and negatives.

The Chief Minister will spell out his vision of an international city to us this afternoon.

Dr Lim Mah Hui is a Penang Island Municipal Councillor and representative of Penang Forum.

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s vision of Penang as an international, intelligent, liveable city:

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

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 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.

‘Penang Leads’

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 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 commnity. 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 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.

Managing pressure

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.

One Comment on “Presentations: Vision for an international liveable city

  1. Pingback: Penang an international liveable city? »

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