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

The Future is in Our Own Hands


By Ooi Kee Beng

Editorial, Penang Monthly February 2016.

They call it Paradise
I don’t know why
You call some place Paradise
Kiss it goodbye
“The Last Resort” The Eagles, 1976.

Let’s be upfront about it. Anyone concerned about the survival of the planet has to struggle with the deduction that the greatest threat to the environment is Man himself.

This paradox is a painful one, especially for those who love Mother Nature passionately: to know that you are out of sync with the life processes of the Earth. No quick effective retreat from Mankind’s ruthless hunt for material resources and endless search for recreation seems possible, and therefore we settle for individual solutions that we know will not make much of a difference, or we do whatever little damage control we can as a collective.

Most common among approaches to damage control is the belief that technology, which bears much of the blame for the unhealthy state of the environment to start with, will also be the salvation. Equally embraced is the hope that Nature will heal itself if we only rein ourselves in somewhat. And then of course there are those who do not even feel that there is any environmental problem at all.

Setting an example is a common strategy to adopt as well. The plan is that if enough of us Reduce Reuse Recycle, and if following generations inherit this attitude as their core value, then we can at least postpone disaster. The changes to our daily behaviour would not be unrealistically enormous, and positive effects can be obtained.

Not perfect; but perhaps that is the best modern communities can do. What may yet grow out of this could be huge, though. Movements do gain momentum; if sustained, they can snowball, and over time, surprising results can be achieved.

Glibly but truly, the longest journey starts with the first step; after that, you just keep putting one foot ahead of the other.

In that sense, we are seeing the birth of a new mentality in the world, one that does not deny that Nature is ill and that realises that we are reaching a point where being shortsighted is to be blind.

Even in a small place like Penang, a consciousness that market forces can be steered has been rising. Acknowledging local values and needs and putting these in the centre constitute the alternative path. As global attention comes to George Town through its growing reputation as a place to visit and a place to retire in, a stronger sense of ownership and agency is emerging in its people. Whichever state authority or political party that denies this, and that does not seek to represent it, is bound to get a surprise or two in coming years.

Now, Penang lives off manufacturing on the one hand and tourism on the other. This will not change for some time to come. While the first is about the state economy being part of the long supply chain of the global economy, meaning that Penang is bit player, the second has Penang taking centre stage.

In tourism, Penang has much more say in what it can sell and in controlling how it is affected.

In a phrase, the nature of tourism will decide the culture of Penang. Medical tourism, ecotourism, heritage tourism, food tourism, beach tourism – you name it – all these have as much to do with economics as with ethics. Now that Penang has caught the eye of world travellers, the fear is that the sheer volume of tourists coming to the island will drown out its unique culture. And this will be through how Penang’s people and government choose to react.

Given the proven innovativeness and passion of its people, and given proper management of tourism by the state government, Penang can still hold on to the baton and still direct where the music is to go. It does not have to be a passive player.


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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