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

The View Gets Better the Longer the Journey Lasts

By OOI KEE BENG. Penang Monthly, November 2019.

There are tipping points. Key instances past which the world changes. The effect is often immediate, shocking and irreversible. And then there are changes that happen at a seemingly glacial pace, some lasting so long that a human can live his whole life and not notice them.

But both of these are nevertheless, in essential ways, equally momentous.

Then there are the changes that take place at a pace that is somewhere in between. Most in life are of this type, I would venture. They are those we notice when we have occasion to glance back and to contemplate upon, and which overawe us in how much things change while we are busy not looking.

When did my head turn so white? When did my children grow to be so tall – and hairy? How the tree in front of the house has grown; it’s practically dying! I have a grandson?!

And so it goes… on and on.

Penang Monthly is now 10 years old. It has changed, as have its many subjects over the decade. Arisen in response to dramatic social and political changes in Penang, the magazine aimed to reflect and contribute to these changes. We wished to contribute to a Penang Renaissance – a raising of public consciousness and participation in politics, in economics and in culture. A regaining of pride in being a unique and beautiful place.

Liew Chin Tong, then Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera, Penang, now Deputy Minister of Defence, Malaysia, was the firebrand behind the project. He brought together Lim Siang Jin as magazine mentor, Ooi Geok Ling as marketeer, and me as editor, to kick things off. He also crucially secured steady funding for it from Penang Institute (then Socio-economic and Environmental Research Institute, SERI).

The magazine was called Penang Economic Monthly, based as it was on an earlier SERI brief, and the first issue saw the light of day in late 2009. It sold for RM8 per issue. The subject matter was to be Penang-centric, and would seek to inform the reading Penang person about political, socio-economic and cultural matters pertaining to the state.

We soon dropped “Economic” from the name following feedback from bookstores that the word discouraged potential buyers from even browsing the magazine. However, the economic statistics section remained, and has gained greatly in popularity and significance among readers.

Several years later, we decided that the purposes of the Penang Monthly would be better served if it went digital (though with 3,800 hard copies still published for circulation through chosen hot spots in Penang) and gratis.

The magazine was also to act as an outlet for government authorities and agencies to present their ideas and projects. Sadly, this function has, as yet, not developed to the level we had wished for. What did succeed were columns about Penang history, such as “Window into History” and “Lest We Forget”, as well as “Penang Profile” about famous and successful Penangites interviewed to inspire young readers about what is possible if they dare to take risks and seek exposure. We also ran a column called “A Day in the Life” to highlight common people who are very much a part of the Penang street scene but who are seldom noticed, be they a shopkeeper, a hawker or a security guard.

Over the years, my able deputy editors included Roz Chua, Jeffrey Quah and Julia Tan.

Our regular columnists have included people like Penang Exco for Public Works, Utilities, and Flood Mitigation Zairil Khir Johari, Member of Parliament for Bukit Mertajam Steven Sim, the bold and popular journalist Kee Thuan Chye, the amazingly prolific art critic Ooi Kok Chuen, and Liew Chin Tong himself. I wrote all the editorials and contributed occasional articles.

It was also decided along the way that the magazine’s content should be broadened beyond Penang matters to cover anything Penangites as Malaysians, urban dwellers and history buffs, would be interested in.

The basic impulse was the idea that Penang, following the change in government in 2008, and the listing of George Town as a UNESCO World Heritage site that same year, sorely needed a city magazine as outlet and expression of its deep diversity, its rich history and its fervent hope for a better future. Penang, it has always been felt, has a duty to contribute as fully as possible to the development of the Federation of Malaysia.

The change in government at the federal level in May 2018 brought ever greater hope and inspiration that Penang Monthly should continue to grow and function as a free platform upon which progressive ideas about human life and endeavours can be reported and celebrated, knowledge about our own history can be presented competently, and information relevant to enlightened policy-making can be disseminated widely.

Ten years on, our journey continues down the path we all chose so eagerly. And the view is getting better and better.

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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