Our guest contributor is Judy Cheng-Hopkins, who comes up with some criticism of Penang Forum for indulging in ‘group-think’. She raises the larger issue of what kind of Penang we want. These days it would seem there are two (or more) competing visions of Penang. Read on.
Judy Cheng-Hopkin’s view from the “outside-in”:
(I am a Malaysian and Penangite, a St George’s and St Xavier’s alumna, who has worked and lived overseas for over four decades. I have a home in Penang and live here a few months a year. That is why my perspective can be considered “outside-in”.)
Looking around me, sitting here in Tanjung Bungah, it maybe a little late to ask the question, what should Penang look like in say 20 years? To our amazement, multi-storey apartment buildings keep sprouting up. However while I have heard passionate complaining about “over- development”, I have yet to hear a good articulation of what the various segments of Penang society want.
To get straight to the point, doesn’t the ‘Penang we want’ debate boil down to two visions for the future of this Pearl of the Orient:
1) aspire to be Singapore/HongKong or
2) draw on its comparative advantages of cultural heritage, eco-friendly tourism opportunities and thus … a low-key kind of development?
I know where I stand in this debate, but I wonder what the majority think. Has the Penang Forum ever posed this kind of “straight-talk” question to the public before? (Actually, there was the Penang Forum 5 dialogue in 2012 with the chief minister and the public on the vision for Penang. At this event, many questions and comments were raised by the public, which were then submitted to the state for a response – Anil)
OK, one can say that common folk are too busy going about their lives to worry about whether to be Hongkong/Singapore or say… Costa Rica, one of the most successful eco-tourism spots in the world.
Well, then the monumental task ahead of the Penang Forum is educating the public regarding the options and their self-interests: clean air, no more landslides for instance? Or simply, a sustainable future in terms of the environment, their comfort and their livelihoods.
You can start by educating schoolchildren who are good at educating their parents. Sponsor public debates – let the pros and cons of this debate come out in the open, no more living in the comfort zone of talking among yourselves. Stop re-litigating the past. Allow some dissent (or alternative opinions) for that might make your argument even stronger.
And above all move beyond rhetoric. From my perspective, Penang Forum seems to have two operating principles: 1) no dissent allowed, 2) no action required! NATO? (no action, talk only).
I recently attended a public lecture on Pulau Jerejak: Past and Future sponsored by Penang Forum. I noticed how angry and frustrated the audience was at the prospect of yet another grandiose development scheme replete with high-rises, theme parks and bridge.
There was a brave soul representing the developer who, when asked, readily stepped up to the front for the Q and A session. He was asked how and under what structure consultations on development plans will be held with local communities/stakeholders.
When he gave a vague answer, the questioner asked who his company was accountable to. Another vague answer but surely we know to whom a private company is accountable? Its shareholders of course! No one else. The other party, the government, can regulate, if it wants to but the perennial excuse (or maybe it’s real) in this poor stepchild of a state is that the federal govt gives us pittance compared to what we contribute to federal coffers; so we need the revenue streams that real estate development generates.
So it struck me that the palpable frustration in the room is over the extreme asymmetry in power relations between the three parties (Penang Forum, representing a segment of civil society, state government-developers). Who has leverage over whom when decision-making time comes? Take a guess!
To conclude, it is clear where developers stand. Maybe one day we may find ‘enlightened’ developers who look beyond immediate profits but it seems we are not there yet.
The state government claims it is a government under siege by the federal government even though it would help if it would make its vision statement clearer as far as real estate development is concerned.
However, my letter is directed at Penang Forum. As an outsider who is also insider with a stake in ‘the Penang we want, I feel, for better or worse, that I have a responsibility to hold a mirror up to you.
You are frustrated at the asymmetry in power relations. Engaging in group think will not solve it. Get to the root of the problem and start implementing a strategy. My next letter to you could be to share some ideas on strategy going forward, but if you’re not interested, no problem. I will go back to enjoying Tanjung Bungah.
Judy (friend…not foe)
Do you agree? Share with us your own vision of the Penang you want. Maybe the politicians, the developers and civil society groups will take note.