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

Noses don’t grow back


Editorial, Penang Monthly June 2015


It is very sad that the state of Penang is being ignored in the 11th Malaysia Plan (2016-2020). None of the infrastructure projects the Penang government presented for financial support has been accepted by the federal government. Putrajaya seems to imagine that Malaysia will reach advanced nation status by 2020 without Penang’s contribution; instead KL, Johor Bahru, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu are declared the growth catalyst cities, and will therefore receive central support.

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng was right to be outraged, as all Penangites are.

They do not seem surprised by the fact that the federal government is willing to lower the country’s chances of achieving advanced nation status just for the pleasure of punishing its stepchild state.

Cutting your nose to spite your face is not something sane people do.

Among the first things to happen following Malaysia’s first general elections in 1964 was the suspension of local government elections. This affected Penang greatly. Local government in the state had been responsible “in advancing progressive policies such as social housing and major public infrastructure projects such as drainage, public toilets (a novel idea at that time), mobile clinics and even a dam.” (See Penang Monthly’s cover story for April 2015, p35).

This was followed by the steady withdrawal of the free port status that Penang had always enjoyed. This spiked further the unemployment that the state was already suffering in the late 1960s, exacerbated by the crisis that followed the huge devaluation of the British Pound on November 18, 1967. The Penang riots of 1968 were very much a result of severe economic dejection.

We forget today how bad things actually were for Penang back in the days, and how many of the state’s sons and daughters had to leave for what they could only hope were greener pastures, either to the Klang Valley or beyond.

The depressed socioeconomic situation of the times sufficiently explains the Gerakan phenomenon – how this party, Partai Gerakan Rakyat, founded only on March 24, 1968 by a hotchpotch of failing politicians and idealist academics, could take power in Penang in May 1969, less than 14 months after it came into being.

Obviously, the time was right. The fruit was ripe and ready to fall.

Penang’s people had to suffer high unemployment for another few years, however, further overwhelmed by the New Economic Policy initiated under the Second Malaysia Plan (1971-1975). Things looked really gloomy then.

It was thanks to the resourcefulness of the new Chief Minister, Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, that Penang’s economy could turn around. He managed to create the free trade zone that ever since then has been the main driver of growth in the state, alongside tourism.

Datuk Seri Chet Singh, the general manager of the Penang Development Corporation formed then to industrialise and modernise the state, remembers how getting permission to establish a free trade zone was practically impossible. It was only through direct dialogue with Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, who was then running the country while Parliament remained suspended, that it could be achieved.

“He came up for a visit and we took him out to the area designated for the free trade zone. He called his officer over and sternly told him to take note. He pointed with his cane a few times to mark out the area we had suggested and there on the spot, he declared the area a free trade zone. That was that. He cut through all the red tape and all the institutional resistance, literally in one fell swoop. On realising that success in Penang would bring greater success to the country, he fully supported us.”

A wise man knows that there are good reasons why his nose is placed right in the middle of his face. And cutting it off is not something one should ever contemplate.

In any case, speaking of Vision 2020, what has been forgotten is that the national dream as presented by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad 25 years ago was more than simply a hope of economic advancement. It was about the attainment of a society – a Malaysia – that is at peace with itself, and that is proud of its inevitable diversity.


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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