By Ooi Kee Beng, editorial for Penang Monthly, December 2015.
Natural resources are always good to have. If rightly used, they are the basis not only for an economy’s path of growth, but also for its international identity.
Having said that, it is not always easy to recognize a valuable natural resource. Something that is an asset one day, may not be so the next. It all depends on values, and these change over time, as we know. A piece of useless land can become desirable if some mineral for mining is found on it, or if it turns out that the soil is suitable for some newly introduced cash crop. Thus, tin and rubber were what defined Malaya for decades.
What are Penang’s chief natural resources then?
A quick look at any geographical map of Penang Island will tell you that the island is largely about its hills. The plains to the east and to the west gain visual prominence in relation to the elevated backdrop that these hills provide.
One may fly in from anywhere in the world to Bayan Lepas, or one may drive in from the mainland across our two bridges, and it is always the hilly backbone of the island, which are the imposing feature to one’s eye. One may be living on the island for that matter, and at every point, the hills act as the broad stage on which the daily lives of Penang’s inhabitants are played out. For those people living on the peninsula, Pulau Pinang is visibly its hills, the way San Francisco is its bay. For boatmen fishing off the coast, the hilly ridge of the island provides comfort and orientation the way Kedah Peak for two millennia attracted sailors from across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
West of the hills, the island faces the uncompromising Indian Ocean, and we see endless seas and awesome clouds. East of the hills, shelter is offered, and we see the easy plains and low knolls of the peninsula, and we note the proximate little twin island of Pulau Jerejak. These define Penang in a real and physical sense. They are the cosmic yin and the yang of the island.
The hills are therefore Penang’s core in a more intrinsic way than George Town is. They are its soul. They are a greater heritage than our hawker food and our lively streets. It was not by accident that Penang Hill came to be called Seng Khee Suarh in the local Hokkien parlance—literally, The Hill Where the Flag is Raised. Flagstaff Hill in English. All eyes used to centre on the Penang Hill peak.
It was the focal point of Penang society, and should be again. The hills are in essence Penang’s centre of gravity, and its sub-consciousness. Its Id. Simply put, to love Penang is to appreciate its hills.
But Penang’s people have been too busy to acknowledge this simple sentiment, too distracted by external mediations.
My broader point is this: Natural features define human identity and are the foundations of a society’s self-image. This is a simple enough point to argue. But it is not always easy to recognize such obvious resources, and the world is full of cases where such assets are devastated for immediate gains before their profound importance is recognized. Recognizing assets is a rare virtue that allows for their development and preservation to be rationale and effective.
Penang’s given assets are therefore not only its built heritage. They include our geographical features. Our beaches are practically gone as attractions. Our coastlines are badly compromised. Our rivers are a smelly embarrassment. For now, our luxuriant jungles and our leafy hills still remain. For the sake of present and future generations, these have to be realised as the riches that they are, so that they can be properly cherished and relished.
Often enough, we don’t know what we have until we have lost it.
Happily, there are signs that awareness of our intrinsic assets is rising, perhaps stimulated over the last few years by global recognition of our urban heritage and by local retrieval of political empowerment. Articulating the importance of the hills will help us preserve them both as a psychological good and an economic asset. We must not take them for granted.