By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial for Penang Monthly, January 2015
No one can doubt that Penang is going through a very dynamic period today. It is evident in how the cityscape and the street life are changing, and in how vibrant the economy and the art scene have become.
Much has been happening, and even the popular state government cannot claim that it has full charge over how the island or the city of George Town is changing – or claim full credit for it. For one, its political control is not complete – far from it. The federal power apparatus, which is not exactly a friendly power, exercises great influence over Penang’s affairs.
For another, its economy is not a complex one. It is two-legged, running on tourism on one side and its industrial free trade zones on the other. Needless to say, both of these are heavily dependent on external forces.
In times of great change, such as the present, there is always much to fear and much to hope for at the same time. Some will emphasise the positives and others the negatives. But what one should ask is this: why does the state have these two areas of growth, which have been sustaining Penang for four decades now, in the first place?
An international female rock star was recently quoted as saying that the hardest thing she has had to do was find her own voice. These words may have come from a juvenile, but they certainly are profound. And like all profound things, the idea does not provide the answer; it just intimates what the problem is. The pursuit of one’s own voice can of course be easily overdone, and one can fall into a vain search for a non-existent level of authenticity within a world that is forever changing.
But it is exactly because things change so quickly that individuals and cities feel the strong need to stay authentic. Change has to be managed. In fact, managing change is the secret to survival.
For Penang, knowing why tourists come to walk our city, admire our hills and savour our food is to know ourselves. Knowing why industrialists from all over the world invest billions to build factories on our paddy fields is to know our potential.
Well, Penang has a cosmopolitan culture strongly anchored in its past, which has not been overwhelmed by modern changes. This is evident in our hybrid and distinct cuisine, and in our hybrid and distinctive people. Also, we have been – and are – an educational centre for the region, with schools that have produced talented students who have gone on to excel in science and technology, and in the arts. The two legs grown from the same body.
But to be honest to ourselves, we also need to realise that tourists and industrialists are in Penang despite many things which are obviously not attractive about our state – be these the bad traffic, the crime rate, the income gap or the sad state of our beaches.
What is also interesting is that the two legs do not always develop at peace with each other. Too much industrialisation can hurt the tourism industry, while too much focus on tourism can leave the state excessively vulnerable to global economic fluctuations and hamper the development of broader skills among the population. That is essentially why the two are geographically kept apart.
These apparent contradictions – between tourism and industrialisation; between state and federal power; and between change and authenticity – are manageable, however. With proper planning, they can definitely be made to generate complementary dynamics instead.
I have heard it said many times that back in the 1970s, when Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew visited Penang, he was so deeply impressed by how our ancient streets were beautifully shaded by giant trees with spreading branches, that it led him to envisage modern Singapore as a garden city with roads and walkways shielded by thick foliage and lined by lush hedges, and with urban areas interspersed with water parks and green zones.
To whatever extent this is true, Penang is now becoming more self-aware (something you do by observing how others perceive you) and conscious of its rich assets, and it is learning to throw its voice further and louder.
How it develops further down the road will depend, as it always has, on its inhabitants and their strong belief that they live in a blessed place.