The Ghost of Penang Future: State govt should establish “green” credentials fast


hillslope development

Cover-up job: The rape of hill-slopes continues (Photo credit: Rhino)

Last Friday, another mud slide struck Penang on the stretch of road between Tanjong Bunga and Batu Ferringhi. It was not surprising given the sort of hill-slope development taking place. This one occurred in the vicinity of the Ivory building project. You can see from this picture the sort of hill-slope development taking place in the northern part of the island. They must be crazy if they believe those plastic sheets will stop erosion.

In the event, tractors had to be called in to clear the mud from the road. And traffic was backed up for quite a bit. Here’s what it looked like even after the mud had been cleared from the road.


Penang turning into one huge parking lot (Photo credit: Rhino)

Not much fun for all those motorists caught in the jam.

Yesterday, it rained again, and one concerned resident in Tanjung Bunga told me the sea looked a mess of angry brown – probably from the silt. If you are flying above Penang Island, you can easily notice the water off the immediate coast of Penang looking a murky brown before it blends into the stunning deep blue and green hues of the Andaman Sea further north.

It’s time for the Penang state government to assert strongly that it will defend the environment and ease traffic congestion with more sustainable solutions. It has to rein in developers and tell them in no uncertain terms that the rape of the island and its beaches and hillslopes is not on.

But I fear that politicians, being politicians, will plan only for the next five years – instead of looking for more sustainable long-term solutions.

Such short-term solutions are aimed at winning again in the next general election. This means atracting more investors (never mind what kind) and promoting “development” (with just lip service to protecting the environment) and quickly building bridges and highways and outer ring roads to ease traffic congestion on existing roads. This is what the state government is doing by supporting the second road bridge etc.

But the problem is these short-term solutions might not be in the best interests of Penang and its people in the longer term, say beyond 10 years.

I dread to think what the traffic on the island will be like with five lanes of incoming traffic pouring into the island – three lanes from the expanded Penang Bridge and another two from the proposed second bridge. As it is, Green Lane and Scotland Road are congested during peak hours. What happens when the second bridge too gets congested? We build a third bridge? And when that gets congested too, then what? Only then do we think of more sustainable solutions? How will the narrow streets of George Town ever cope until then? And considering that the oil price is now over US$130 plus per barrel and rising, how many ordinary people will be able to afford commuting on these bridges (let’s not even think of the tolls!) in say ten years?

So why not think of the sustainable solutions now – instead of deferring that to the future, when it would be too late? Shouldn’t we be laying the groundwork now to move away from private vehicle ownership? We should be shunning – not embracing – infrastructure projects that will lead to more road congestion and entrench private vehicle ownership. Instead, we need to be looking at more sustainable and cost effective public transport solutions, perhaps a cross-channel rail link integrated into a comprehensive bus, guided-bus, and street-level rail system.

It was only last week that Penang civil society groups called on the state government to come up with a transport masterplan for the whole state before plunging into irreversible mega projects that would have long term damaging repercussions for the state. So it is a huge disappointment to see the Penang state govt working closely with the BN federal government to permanently entrench private vehicle ownership through bridge infrastructure – even before we can work out a sustainable transport masterplan, as recommended by the leading civil society groups in the state. Can’t we, at least, wait a few months until a progressive transport masterplan is prepared?

One Penangite, concerned about the environment and looking at the hasty arrangements being struck, said, “This is a black day for Penang. Is this government any different from the BN government in terms of the direction it is taking us?” You can see how much the road congestion – even now – has already drained the charm of the island and sapped it of its vitality.

Actually, the new Penang state government has an enormous reservoir of political goodwill from the people following its overwhelming mandate in Penang – which it should not squander on the wrong solutions. If it was to lay its cards on the table and tell the people, this is the new direction we would like to take towards a more sustainable Penang that would be a model for other Asian cities – much like Curitiba is a model for South American cities – it would create such a buzz of excitement and enthusiam among Penangites who value their environment. Many would volunteer their services to sit down and conceptualise a green and sustainable Penang we could all be proud of. This requires a willingness to come together to plan, to engage with the most progressive urban planning and public transport experts (those without vested interests in transport infrastructure firms or projects) and to listen to public views.

George Town now is still one of the most liveable cities in Asia. But, at this rate, for how much longer? Even if we are thinking only of attracting investors, the “liveability” of a city is a major “pull” factor. Would investors – would any Malaysian, for that matter – really want to live in a polluted, congested island that is no different from any other anonymous, overcrowded city.

Penang today is at a crossroads. We can choose to go down a more sustainable path towards a green heritage city with parks, lakes, pedestrian malls, trees, shrubs, flowers, organic vegetable farms and street-level rail systems such as trams and guided buses. Or we can crawl down the congested highway of heavy, unsustainable infrastructure projects that will turn Penang into one huge parking lot shrouded by smog and silt. The choice looks easy to me.

We will live with the consequences of our choices now for generations to come – generations who might one day curse us for the choices we make now. So choose wisely with future generations – not just the next general election – in mind. We need long-term strategies formulated in the best interests of the people of Penang – not politically expedient short-term solutions.

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Kah Seng
14 Jun 2008 2.06pm

Stop work order issued to 5 sites in BF! Article by NST. Cited here:

9 Jun 2008 1.15pm

everytime I drive through that stretch of road and past the development going on there, I curse. it is dangerous not only for the environment but for motorists. I recall nearly ramming into a back of a car that braked suddenly because a lorry was turning out from the construction site. conveniently enough, the entrance to the construction site was at a dangerous bend. development in penang badly needs to be controlled. it wouldn’t be wise to follow the example of Selangor and KL of cutting hills. The areas of Klang Valley are desperately in need of fresh air. Unfortunately… Read more »

2 Jun 2008 11.59pm

dear sir,

used the first pic above at it’s fully credited and linked back to this site. hope that’s fine.

i’ve also created an email forward that i’d like to show to you but couldn’t find your email contact in this website. hope you could drop me a mail.


Anak Malaysia
Anak Malaysia
27 May 2008 10.23am

I am sure most Penangites will concur with me that we do not need the Second Bridge nor the PORR and have voiced my reservations, NO, my objections to both in my comments in several blog sites and Yes, like you, I am very unhappy that the present state government is fast burning away the political goodwill they have gained since march 8th by their continued “eagerness???” to work with the Central Government to carry out both projects. It must be clear to all that the savings accrued by calling off both projects can be more wisely used (and at… Read more »

27 May 2008 10.04am

the penang government should really undertake to rejuvenate the inner city to attract more people to live there….it will bring back the vibrancy to the city…as it is the city resemble a ghost town at night…creepy!

Juan Taman
Juan Taman
27 May 2008 9.23am

A long time ago Penang used to have many green hills, historical heritage and clean beautiful beaches and those were the envy of other States in Malaysia. It was a favorite tourist destination for local and foreigner. Now the beach is smelly and polluted and the hill slope harbours haphazard apartment and condor development.Landslide becomes a common occurrence. Tourists favour Langkawi to Penang. DAP now rules Penang. What is DAP’s vision for Penang? Isn’t it high time to review all the development plans for Penang Legislate and enforce the stoppage on pollution and hillside development.Preserve all green areas and make… Read more »

Jeffrey Chew
27 May 2008 6.12am

The key word here is balance….delicate balance that the govt must strike to ensure its manifesto is being kept intact.

27 May 2008 12.42pm

As i am from sel have penangites seen any difference in the standard of cleaniness after the election.As in sel have noticed a change[marginal].Just a thought far u anil.

Kah Seng
27 May 2008 12.35pm and have compiled 222 (updated) questions for the Penang EXCO meeting in July. Only some of the 222 will be selected and presented to the EXCO. The rest are meant to serve as a basis for continuous discussion about issues in Penang. The questions are divided into 7 categories: (A) State Governance (37) (B) State Revenues, Expenses and State Land (20) (C) Development Projects and Housing (28) (D) Transport Systems (54) (E) Economy and Business (19) (F) Tourism and Culture (32) (G) Environment (32) Specifically, these questions concern hill cutting, landslide, and related issues: Questions C3 to… Read more »

27 May 2008 10.25am

I think one of the solutions for Penang is to eliminate ‘tourist traffic’. Get rid of the need for tourist to use taxis or buses to go from one place to another. Use a rail system like tram to do it. Even if it means a one way traffic for it. Tram system allows for managable timetable.