Soon after the watershed 8 March 2008 general election (when five states, yes five, fell into opposition hands), the courageous writer Kee Thuan Chye invited me to contribute a chapter in his book March 8: The Day Malaysia Woke Up. Something about Penang, he said. (By the way, he has come up with a new book You Want This Goonvernment Ah? which should be available in certain bookshops in Penang.)
So in those giddy days, I decided to try my hand at fiction just for the fun of it and capture my sense of expectation – my hope for Penang as a clean, green state – following the ouster of the BN administration, which had ruled for nearly four decades. Hmm, perhaps write something set in the future, in 2018, to give a sense of what Penang could look like to someone returning home a decade after the landmark 2008 general election.
Remember this chapter (reproduced below) was written in 2008, just after the new Pakatan administration put a stop to the Penang Global City Centre (all 40 towers of it), before Halcrow was engaged to come up with a Penang transport masterplan in 2011, while Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest.
Some things I got right such as Halcrow’s proposal for a tram line from the airport to Weld Quay, as well as other parts of Penang; a much cleaner Penang; a more cosmopolitan city; tussles between developers and residents; old nasi kandar restaurants getting a facelift; an influx of MM2H residents from East Asia and Europe.
Some things only partially right: Aung San Suu Kyi becoming leader (“State Counsellor”) of Myanmar but not prime minister and not with much real power; some cycle lanes and pedestrian malls in George Town.
Some things I didn’t anticipate: the proliferation of highrise towers in Penang; massive land reclamation plans, including the creation of artificial islands, that threaten the livelihoods of fisher folk; more controversial land swap deals; the mind-boggling plans for a controversial tunnel, highways, monorail and cable cars; an influx of tourists and MM2H residents from China; the Rohingya refugee crisis; the scarring of the hills of Penang (and the setting up of Penang Hills Watch); the missing Local Plan for the Island; the worsening floods.
Some things have not yet materialised: change of government at the federal level; local council elections; migrant workers being less exploited; community organic gardens (still relying on Camerons and imported vegetables); the Penang Turf Club opening up its space as a sprawling park; actual tram lines; a car-free George Town (at present only car-free Sundays).
This was my own dream in 2008 of what Penang could look like in 2018:
Sleek trams gliding along street-level tracks
Shady tree-lined cycle paths
Flame of the forest trees
offering respite from the mid-day heat
A heritage city, pre-war shophouses,
A gourmets’ paradise offering
Timeless char koay teow
Warm thosais in Little India
Piping hot satay with fresh peanut sauce
Nasi kandar restaurants near
hawkers selling chendol at the street corner
A cosmopolitan city; a pot-pourri of cultures
Shimmering lakes and sprawling parks
Fading charms of a bygone era,
Once lost – but now rediscovered
And this is the book chapter I wrote for Thuan Chye’s book, reproduced here with his kind permission:
Back to the Future in Penang
The rays of sunlight filtered through the tinted glass panes of Penang Airport as Ann peered out into the waiting gallery. It was her first time back to the island after a sojourn abroad lasting ten years.
Until now, she had had no desire to return home. She had tried to wrestle free of fading memories of a happy, carefree childhood playing on the streets with the children from the pre-war double-storey terrace houses along Bangkok Lane in Pulau Tikus. It was a time when the island was still charming, its shimmering surrounding seas a deep blueish green, as it opened out into the Andaman Sea in the north.
Her parents had since passed away, her two older siblings had left to work in Singapore – “to seek better opportunities,” they said. There was nothing left in Penang for her after her parents had passed away.
As a 35-year old, Ann had left Penang to work as a curator in an art gallery in London, rekindling contacts from her undergraduate years. She had a passing curiosity about how a watershed election in 2008 just before her departure would affect the country of her birth, and in particular Penang.
Back then, the island had changed beyond recognition, losing much of its charm. Traffic had threatened to swamp the island as “planners” and compromised politicians talked about mega projects such as a mammoth second road-bridge linking the island to the mainland and the Penang Outer Ring Road. There had even been an outrageous proposal to turn the 260-acre Penang Turf Club land in Batu Gantung into a concrete commercial jungle with 40 high-rise towers. Forty towers! The beaches were polluted, filled with jellyfish which thrived in such waters.
This was not the island she had known in her childhood. The cherished carefree childhood memories of a simpler, less polluted, less congested era had long since receded into the pages of dust-covered photo albums.
Worse, there were too many painful memories in Penang. Ann had sunk in a sea of despair at the way her life had turned out. A broken relationship, long hours in a stuffy office job in a Japanese electronics factory and the massive urban jungle that encroached relentlessly to eat up every open space in its path appeared to have sapped whatever zest for life she once had.
But in London, she discovered a new lease of life, thriving in the cosmopolitan city as her career took off. Buying a cheap flat in Islington, not far from the Manor House tube station, she settled into her new life.
And yet as she turned 45, something had drawn her back to Penang. It couldn’t have been the lure of her favourite Penang char koay teow and the tantalising Balik Pulau durians? Perhaps it was her curiosity at finding out what had happened to her friends and all the old familiar places. Maybe it was a gnawing desire to re-trace her childhood footsteps in the hope of rekindling fond memories and renewing lost friendships.
As she entered the arrival area of the airport, she looked out for a familiar face – and there she was.
Clara, sporting a flashy red handbag, was there, beckoning her with a broad grin.
“Hello Ann!” she embraced her friend with warm hug. “Did you have a good trip?”
“It’s been a long time, too long.” Ann smiled, tears rolling down at the sight of her childhood friend, now looking chic in a large pair of dangling earrings, her tinted hair swept back across her shoulders. “So good to see you again. I am sorry I didn’t keep in touch.”
“Hush….That means we have plenty to catch up on; let’s head for town.”
“Is your car outside – or shall we take a cab?
“No, no,” Clara laughed. “Ann, do you remember the time when everyone drove cars into George Town?”
Ann nodded. “Yeah, it was horrible. How bad has it got?”
“Well, things have changed,” she said. “And just as well; who can afford 20 ringgit for a litre of petrol!”
Outside the airport, Clara stepped up to a counter and bought two tickets. Just then, a tram glided past, outside the exit doors of the airport.
“Hop, right in!” she told Ann, who looked disbelievingly at the sleek, silver-coloured three-carriage tram. She had seen similar trams during a visit to Edinburgh about seven years ago when they were first introduced there a couple of years after she had arrived in the UK – but in Penang? That would take some getting used to…
“After years of pressuring the Penang government, we finally convinced them to bring back the trams! It’s the best thing they ever did and it has enhanced the restored inner city heritage area,” Clara said, as they settled into their seats.
“So you are still an activist?”
“You bet, though it’s not as exhilarating an experience as it once was what with the ISA abolished for good! You know, life on the edge… that’s all gone.”
“So why are you still doing this work?”
“Well, there’s still a lot more to do before we can restore the damage done to Penang and the rest of Malaysia in the past.”
Clara had been active in the Citizens for Public Transport (Cepat) group, made up of a coalition of civil society groups. “You know, we defeated the proposal for a Penang Outer Ring Road that would have sucked the life out of our island,” she said, with a measure of pride.
“How did you do that?” asked Ann.
“People thought we were mad to oppose new roads and bridges, but as the price of oil soared, we gradually won them over to our side. Nothing like oil prices squeezing their pockets to make them realise the folly of private vehicle ownership,” winked Clara.
“In fact, few people in Penang use cars to get to the city these days. Hardly anyone needs a motorbike either with the buses and trams doing a fabulous job.”
Ann peered out of the tram window. It was true – the traffic that had once choked the streets of Penang was gone. In its place were gleaming trams gliding up and down – heritage models alongside more futuristic aerodynamic silver coloured versions that raced to town on street-level tracks.
Fuel-efficient hybrid cars and multi-occupant vehicles appeared to be the only private vehicles allowed, as they slowed down to give way to the trams at intersections. She noticed cyclists pedalling away leisurely on separate lanes under shady angsana trees.
Along the way, they passed by a vast sprawling tree-covered park on the left along Scotland Road. She could see hundreds of people, whole families, strolling in the park, others enjoying picnics near a little stream.
“Isn’t that the land belonging to the Penang Turf Club?” gasped Ann.
“Yes, that was the scene of an enormous scandal that contributed to the downfall of the Gerakan-led Penang state government in 2008. It put to shame several leading politicians and prominent personalities.”
“And so the government converted it to a park?”
“Not immediately,” said Clara, as she recalled the campaigns of the past. “There was still pressure by developers for the land to be handed over to them, but eventually a prolonged public campaign led to the creation of our People’s Park.”
“I had no idea,” marvelled Ann, as the tram glided past the Penang Sports Club.
“Part of it has been converted to a community organic garden where people work in a cooperative to grow vegetables and fruit for surrounding communities. You see, organic gardens have sprung up all across George Town as a result of the rising cost of vegetables from Cameron Highlands, which proved to be insufficient to feed the rest of Malaysia.”
“Yeah, I remember how the vegetable farms of Tanjong Tokong had to make way for property development,” recalled Ann.
“And the prices of vegetables shot up not long after,” said Clara. “But that prompted an initiative to turn back lanes and any unused vacant land into organic farms for local communities to grow their own produce, using compost produced from organic waste. They have been a huge success and we are almost self-sufficient in basic food supplies, with all our rice coming from the Province and Kedah.”
There was one other thing that looked different, observed Ann, before realising what it was. Not a trace of litter, unlike the bad old days. “How did that come about? Old habits used to die really hard in those days, I recall.”
“Well, we got people taking ownership of their own neighbourhoods through elected neighbourhood councils. An elected Penang Municipal Council has also helped tremendously,” said Clara.
“I thought the local councillors were political appointees?”
“That changed after the 2008 general election. Mind you, people had to continue pressuring the new state government leaders to bring back elections for local councils, but the fall of the federal government finally led to the re-introduction of local government elections.”
“And not a moment too soon, I bet.”
As the tram approached George Town, the tree-lined roads gave way to pedestrian malls and cycle lanes. Cars were barred from entering the city centre.
“Is this Penang Road?” asked Ann, incredulously, as she stared at the crowds of people walking in the middle of the road, on either side of the trams. Gone were the cars that once strangled the street life out of the city centre.
“You bet. The only other vehicles allowed here are cyclists, buses, and commercial vehicles outside office hours for loading and unloading of goods.”
“Is my favourite nasi kandar restaurant still around, Clara?”
“It’s still here,” she reassured Ann, as they alighted from the tram. “We’ll go there now, but first let’s leave your bag at the hotel.”
Later they found themselves in the crowded Mutalib mamak restaurant, now tastefully refurbished in pastel-coloured hues.
Ann chose a seat facing the street, savouring the sights and colours from her favourite restaurant in George Town, ten years on. A crowd of Penangites watched television on a plasma screen on the wall. She ordered a roti canai, piping hot to warm up a damp afternoon, along with the signature mouth-watering delicious dhal curry the restaurant was famous for. Clara opted for a vegetarian nasi goreng kampong.
“Ah, some things never change!” said Ann, looking pleased.
But they had. As she looked around the restaurant, she marvelled at the sheer diversity of patrons in the open dining area: there were the usual Chinese, Indians, Malays, mamaks but there were also more than a few Ibans and Kadazans, Thais and Indonesians, Nepalese, Burmese.
It has just been a couple of years since Asean had relaxed the movement of workers in the region, giving exploited migrant workers a huge reprieve. Overnight, Penang had been transformed into a cosmopolitan city, as fringe cultures were brought into the mainstream of entertainment, festivities, cuisine and public life.
Ann noticed a sprinkling of Koreans, Japanese and Europeans among the patrons. Many of them had taken advantage of cheaper housing costs in Penang to buy condominiums in the Tanjong Bunga area, though locals had complained that they were driving up the price of housing.
That would explain the range of ethnic restaurants that she had seen along the way, mused Ann.
How times had changed. It was just ten years ago, that what analysts described as a political tsunami had struck Penang, dumping out the Barisan Nasional government and replacing it with a new People’s Alliance. Out went the the politicians who had abused their positions of power. Penangites instead voted for a new untested slate of candidates in the belief that nothing could be worse than what they had experienced over the four decades before that.
It marked a watershed in Penang’s – and the country’s – history. Clara recalled the day she had participated in the Penang Forum about a month after the general election.
“There was a collective sense of empowerment, a certain electricity, among the Penangites who had gathered there. Working groups were formed and these submitted memorandum after memorandum to the new state government on issues ranging from workers’ rights, the environment, to local government elections.”
But new sets of problems emerged rapidly, she told Ann. There were furious battles fought on a range of issues pitting mercenary foreign investors and greedy developers against environmentalists, heritage activists and trade unionists.
The roti canai arrived.
“Itu saja?” asked the Burmese head waiter.
Ann glanced at him and then squealed. “Min-Tun, is that you?”
He looked at her quizzically, “Ann?”
“Yes, it’s me! Look at you!”
The young Burmese restaurant helper whom she had met for the first time about 15 years ago had turned out to be a supervisor at the restaurant.
He was once a university student majoring in mathematics in Yangon but had fled the country in search of work to support his family back home, living in grinding poverty. One day, he told her about the shock he had received when he arrived in Malaysia to find that a civilian vigilante groups, Rela, had been given broad powers to hunt down undocumented migrant workers and deport them, some of them after being whipped. “From frying pan into fire,” he had lamented.
“How are you these days?” asked Ann.
“I am happy.”
“Good news from home?”
“Aung San Suu Kyi, she’s free now – and win election big,” he said with a sparkle in his eye. “She now our first prime minister!”
“So you will be going home now?”
“Maybe soon, but I make many friends here, so maybe I stay here, but go back for holiday. Twelve years already I never go back.”
This would not have been possible before, Ann thought to herself. But then Clara told her how groups had lobbied hard for migrant workers’ rights to be upheld and for undocumented workers to be regularised. And then when the Asean Community was formed, there was more pressure from civil society groups for open borders not only for white collar workers but also for workers like Min-Tun who had contributed so much to the economies of the region.
Ann gazed at Clara speaking animatedly of struggles fought and battles won, and then tucked into the tantalising roti canai on her plate, a deep sense of contentment replacing her earlier trepidation. Would her favourite satay stall in Bangkok Lane and her old next door ‘aunty’ still be there, she wondered quietly. No doubt she had a lot of catching up to do and there were probably lots of warts and painful memories yet to emerge from the past – but for now it felt good to be home.
Share with us what your dreams were like in the heady days after 8 March 2008. Have they been realised? What do you still yearn for? What should political parties put in their manifestos for the coming general election?