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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

Can Penangites discover Penang?

logo_pmBy Ooi Kee Beng [Editorial in Penang Monthly June 2012]

I am sure it has not escaped anyone’s notice. Even at a long distance away, it cannot be ignored.

Penang is buzzing – more and more.

And this year, the third George Town Festival in a row is taking place. Typically of Malaysian adaptability, instead of being held throughout the month of July, this year, it is scheduled for June 15 to July 15; and for the simple reason that Ramadan starts on 20 July. By moving it forward by two weeks, Muslims can enjoy all the festivities and events without having them clash with their fasting month.

All involved should be commended for this continuity and flexibility. We should not take it for granted that an event so huge and complex can be kept going year after year. It requires a lot of effort and dedication from all involved. Undoubtedly, Penang is feeling good about itself. The optimism is almost tangible. The streets are cleaner; house facades are looking grander; and people walk a micro-second faster.

Whatever it is that is happening – be this because of ASEAN Open Skies that kicked in 2009; the UNESCO Heritage listing in 2008; or the change in government in 2008 – Penang has come onto the radar screen of international writers. For starters, Penang Assam Laksa was chosen the 7th most delicious dish in the world by CNNGo, which provides “news, guides, advice for travel in Asia and beyond”. This was on July 21, 2011.

Since then, finding things to praise in Penang has continued as a journalistic pastime.

You cannot have escaped noticing that Penang made it into the March issue of the trendsetting global magazine, Monocle. The same month, the top French magazine Le Figaro also noticed Penang, declaring that La ‘Perle de l’orient brille à nouveau.  For those whose French is rusty or non-existent (like mine), that means “The Pearl of the Orient Shines Once Again”.

Also that same month, the Australian food magazine Australian Gourmet Traveller discovered Penang hawker food. Their correspondent Pat Nourse found out that “Penang establishes the benchmarks and resets your perspective on just how good hawker food can be”. Glowing praise.

These are just some latest examples of writing about George Town and Penang. Discovering Penang is the “in” thing.

Penangites should take an easy ride on this wave and also discover it anew, for ourselves. But just as it is more difficult to see the plank in one’s own eye than to see the speck in the eye of others, it is harder to be awed by the wonders close by than to appreciate those far away. It requires a distancing from the familiar that is beyond most of us.

But with some effort, we can learn to see the wonders and the warts alongside each other; and love them both because that is how things always are.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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