Penang’s Special Area Plan

by Thomas Lee

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has invited the public to help provide input, meaning ideas and suggestions, to the state government as it seeks to prepare a special area plan (SAP) for Georgetown, a requirement as a world heritage site under Unesco

Guan Eng said the feedback from Penangites was important as they are the biggest stakeholders as residents of Georgetown, which was listed as world heritage site in 2008.

The SAP provides for the protection of the heritage sites and would be prepared by Putrajaya according to Section 16(B) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1976. The plan covers an area of 259.42 hectares within the city of Georgetown, and must be submitted to Unesco on or before 1 February 2011.

The massive area has more than 1,700 historic buildings in hundreds of sites, representing the different stages in the historic development of Penang.

In view of the extensive and expansive scope of the whole SAP, with wide-ranging socio-economical implications, it is obvious that the state government would not be able to go it alone in this undertaking. Certainly, the private corporate sector and concerned individual residents of Penang must be enlisted to participate and be involved to make it a resounding success.

I suggest that the state government should consider embarking on the SAP with a new strategic preservation, maintenance and development schema involving a sort of decentralized pursuance of the SAP based a tripartite set-up involving the state, the residents of the particular site, and a private development company.

Let me give an example, using the famous Chew Jetty in Penang as a model.

Penang has many attractive heritage sites which can be turned into the tourist magnetic field for the country, and the state would be wise to focus on the preservation and promotion of the heritage provenance through joint development programmes and projects with the private sector, especially the property owners and residents of the heritage sites.

The famous Chew Jetty on the island’s seafront is one good example of how the state can work in co-operation with the TOL property owners and residents of the seafront village to turn the area into an enchanting tourist attraction.

The Chew Jetty is the largest of eight existing Chinese clan jetties along Weld Quay on the island. These water villages have been in existence since the 19th century, when migrant workers came from the small coastal communities in Fukien province in China to settle in Penang. Most of them were fisherman and gatherers of oysters.

Each jetty comprises of rows of timber houses with zinc roofs, linked by plank walkways over the water. And each jetty is almost self-contained with the bare essential services like the chai tiam mah (small sundry shops) providing the basic provisions of rice, oil, sugar and other dry or preserved foodstuff, the kopi tiam (small coffee shops) as a place for snacks and social gatherings, and some home industries like tailoring, hair-dressing and carpentry works.

Today, more than a hundred years later, the jetty village area remains almost unchanged, untouched and unaffected by the fast development taking place all around. However, due to neglect and negligence, the place is now rundown, unkempt and disheveled, although many tourists to Penang, both from other Malaysian states and overseas, still visit the place.

Of the existing eight jetties, the Chew Jetty is the only one maintaining and continuing to organize and hold on a large public scale its traditional clan-related activities, such as the annual festival of the birthday of the Jade Emperor (Tee Kong or God of Heaven) on the 8th night of the Chinese New Year, the Hungry Ghost Festival during the seventh lunar month, and the 10-day long dramatic temple festival of the birthday of Kew Ong Yah (Nine-emperor gods) from the eve before the start of the ninth moon in the Chinese lunar calendar to the ninth night. In addition, the Chinese New Year is celebrated usually in January or early February for 15 days, climaxing in the Chap Goh Meh (15th night) festive celebration.

With such a lively mix of traditional, religious and cultural activities taking place throughout the year, life for residents of the Chew Jetty and the surrounding jetty villages is never boring or dull.

However, the one sad and unfortunate fact is that most of those still living in the jetty villages are the elderly ones, the young ones having almost all opted to live in the modern urban homes elsewhere, leaving only the old folks in their ancestral homes. And, with the departure of the young ones, the preservation and maintenance of the traditional heritage homes, customs and culture are left to neglect, as the old folks have neither financial resources and energies to continue taking care of them well.

Perhaps one way of arresting the declining youthful population in the waterfront villages is to have a challenging and creative cum enterprising and economically viable programme to retain them.

And this is where the Penang state government comes in with its resourceful and beneficial policy and project to rejuvenate, renovate (note, not modern development) and restore the area to its old-time charm, retaining the traditional façade but creating new attractive uses for them to become a vibrant magnetic tourism hub in the state.

The house on silts can be transformed into enchanted charming chalets to be used for home-stay by tourists. Old-time kopi tiams can retain their traditional character but with the addition of the popular Penang hawker fares and other famous local dishes in their menu. Fascinating souvenir and craft stores, delightful antique shops, and nonya fashion and batik boutiques can be set up along the plank walkways. Colourfully decorated motorized trishaws can be used to transport the home-stay tourists to visit other parts of the island. And boat rides along the harbour can also be arranged. Occasional food and fun fairs could be held during long weekends when a public holiday falls either before Saturday or after Sunday. Perhaps, even a museum on the island state’s history could be considered.

All these small business enterprises could be owned and operated by the young ones from the individual clan families. With such a lucrative scenario and economic prospect at their ancestral homeland, the young ones will think twice before opting to live and work elsewhere.

The rejuvenation and revamp of the heritage site Chew Jetty is an example of what I mean by the strategic preservation, maintenance and development involving a sort of decentralized pursuance of the SAP based a tripartite set-up involving the state, the residents, and a development company.

The tripartite co-operative thrust can assist in the development of Penang into an attractive dream holiday resort for both local and foreign tourists. There is great potential in the Chew Jetty area when it is transformed into a major magnetic tourism hub in the state and nation.

The need for human and financial resources is obvious in such an ambitious undertaking, but the investment in the project will bring long-term benefits to the state and its people.

The tripartite strategy for the SAP involves the state government forming a co-operative joint-venture company with the TOL property owners of the Chew Jetty and a development company to initiate this regeneration project to use the old world charm to attract the new budget-conscious travelers.

To kick-start the project, a state heritage development task force, comprising state government officials, tourism industry players, representatives of the jetty TOL property owners and a development company should be formed. The task force should come out with a viable master plan for the project which should be able to take off as soon as the plan is approved. All physical infrastructure revamp should be completed within a five-year period. Meanwhile, promotion should start with artist’s impressions of the Dream Destination for an Enchanting Holiday in the Pearl of the Orient. The year the Seafront Jetty resort is to be launched should be declared the Visit Penang Year.

That, in essence, is what the decentralized pursuance of the SAP for one heritage site is all about. The same strategy can be used simultaneously at other heritage venues, involving a similar tripartite partnership of the state, property owners or residents, and a development company.

Such a decentralized arrangement will generate not only financial benefits for the people, but also enhance commitment and dedication among them because they have a vital stake in the state.

  1. #1 by dcasey on Tuesday, 24 August 2010 - 8:19 pm

    To kick-start such an ambitious project and to make it not only workable but also sustainable in the long run, the Penang Govt must get it right from the start. A good place to look at is the “state heritage development task force”. This task force must be independant and not be bogged down by little napoleans. It’s members must be people who knows what they are doing, industry players, people who understands what local and foreign tourists wants, definitely not cronies, family members etc. The place developed must be clean and free of unsightly rubbish as well as smell. Basic amenities like toilets and bins should be made available at reasonable distances. The list is long… but good luck to Penang and hope it does well with the project.

  2. #2 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 24 August 2010 - 8:52 pm

    Hv a good vision do it properly
    D FIRST step of an excellent project is d most important step
    One possibility is to identify a plot of existing land n hv an open competition – invite interested parties 2 submit plans 2 develop d area with a view 2 fit in a master plan 2 redevelop Pg
    Look at how others redevelop (eg Singapore, London, Tokyo, etc) n Pg can do it too(without corruption), good luck

  3. #3 by undertaker888 on Tuesday, 24 August 2010 - 9:00 pm

    whatever needs to be done, please keep it clean. Not only at the jetty, but the main road as well.

  4. #4 by sudokuku on Tuesday, 24 August 2010 - 9:59 pm

    how about a banned on motor vehicle – use only bicycle, tricycle and others human power transport?

    any comments?

  5. #5 by yhsiew on Tuesday, 24 August 2010 - 10:08 pm

    The Penang government can consider renting out heritage sites to Hong Kong or Singapore movie producers on a short term basis for them to make movies.

    The rent collected can then be used to maintain the heritage sites.

  6. #6 by tunglang on Tuesday, 24 August 2010 - 10:55 pm

    Old world charm Penang was proposed in the 1999 Visit Penang Year campaign. And it took 11 years to recognize its strategic significance in terms of cultural heritage conservation and tourism. What a waste of opportunities that Penang didn’t maintain, grow and mature with its 1999 branding!

    As with past experiences, in the name of national tourism, Penang’s unique brand proposition was hijacked without any due consideration to its unique tourist attractions that continue to bring back tourists year after year. Conformity to blase uncompetitive brand propositions by non-Penangite tourism experts became the standard practice.

    If Penang Gomen is really, really serious about SAP for heritage conservation, it must make a stand on independent management of its own heritage affairs involving the state Gomen, private corporate sectors, residents, cultural bodies and NGOs.

    And planning, implementation and evaluation of its strategic heritage plans and site promotions should be undertaken by Penangites, not KLites who may not know the essence of Heritage Penang. I agree with Thomas Lee’s proposal of decentralized SAP. We should be given autonomy in our heritage management without outside ‘pollution’.

    Rojak is only good taste for cuisine, not branding.

  7. #7 by dagen on Wednesday, 25 August 2010 - 9:07 am

    Leave it to independant professionals and minimise policians’ interference. And of course set up proper and effective channels for public opinions to filter though.

You must be logged in to post a comment.