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

Penang: Once Cosmopolitan, Always Cosmopolitan

By OOI KEE BENG, Penang Monthly Editorial, October 2022

URBAN CENTRES, by their very nature of having concentrated populations, tend also to place people from different backgrounds in close proximity to each other. These people have to share space; they have to share smells, sights and sounds, and they have to tolerate differences.

Tolerating differences can only go a certain distance, however, after which one has to start understanding each other, and cultivating mutual respect. If that is done successfully, one may begin happily to do business with each other, concoct new dishes from each other’s favourite food items, and even inter-marry.

In a phrase, if nothing goes wrong, one begins to celebrate the cultural diversity of the city, and delight in the multitude of cultural goods and colours on offer. Where there is no majority culture demanding dominance, this co-existence of cultures—of civilisations, in fact—has a strong chance of becoming a stable social tapestry, and as with the appreciation of a woven tapestry on the wall, one does not prefer one section to another and one does not seek to cut off any bit from it.

One does not imagine having the right to do such a thing.

There are lucky places like this in the world—ideal cosmopolises. Penang appears close enough to be one of them.

Most cities in the world today that are recognised as cosmopolises tend at the same time also to be the urban icons of whatever majority culture populates it, and whatever country it is situated in. That is the most common kind of cosmopolis—a partial one where a majority culture calls the shots in the long run.

Can Penang Remain Cosmopolitan?

Being a natural cosmopolis, Penang tends to be inclusive, open and global. The evolution of its cultural core remains a common undertaking, and not the prerogative of any privileged ethnic group. It may all seem chaotic and anarchistic at times, but it functions in its own charming and cogent manner.

Whether Penang can remain that way in the future is a tough question to answer.  Much depends on its economic role in the world, on trends in Malaysian nationalism, and on its population’s continued appreciation of its socio-economic fabric, hybridised culture and political vulnerability.

Cosmopolises are crossroads, and Penang started out as such. Given its shifts in fortune, it appears almost an accidental creation. Its importance was taken over by Singapore just half a century after it was established by the East India Company. This left it to develop in a bottom-up fashion, taking advantage of impulses from regional societies and economic opportunities in the vicinity.

As a geostrategic location, its importance diminished after the founding of Singapore in 1819, losing its presidency status in 1830; and especially after the British managed to break the China curtain in the 1840s.

For the emerging country of Malay(sia), Penang played an extremely important role—albeit one that may be denied by many nationalists. It was where the first municipal elections were held, and its role as an economic powerhouse, a cosmopolitan cultural hub, and a haven for intellectuals seeking a modernist configuration for the future nation cannot be underestimated.

Penang was in fact granted city status by the departing British in January 1957, in preparation for Malaya’s declaration of independence.

The removal of local elections and of its free port status in the mid-1960s by the national government put Penang into economic and cultural shock. Losing its international role threatened to end its cultural exceptionalism and its cosmopolitanism.

Penang’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it is strongly connected to the world, economically, demographically or intellectually. You take that away, and you have taken its essence away. In that sense, the success of the free trade zones started by Lim Chong Eu in the early 1970s was a vital lifeline. It signalled a new era for Penang which guaranteed continued international roles for the small but significant Malaysian state, one that was facing the dire future of becoming a peripheral urban centre, and a cultural has-been.

A Green and Friendly Future

Now a strong destination for foreign direct investments, Penang’s past and present cosmopolitan nature continues to attract global attention.

That nature has naturally held potential for it to develop a strong tourism industry as well.

After being officially recognised by UNESCO for its cultural and socio-economic heritage in 2008 and for its biodiversity in 2021, Penang now has great opportunities to prepare for the experiential tourism and eco-tourism trends that many believe, especially post-Covid, will define global travel in the near future.

How comfortable a place feels about its cultural diversity is a measure of how cosmopolitan it actually is. And Penang is nothing if not cosmopolitan—in its self-image and in fact. No doubt, it is a small place. But it has always punched above its weight, thanks to its history and its location, to its highly hybridised culture and beautiful natural ecology. And to the openness and innovativeness of its people.

Today, it remains an education centre for the region—and a source of professional talents and innovative entrepreneurs.

Being recognised for this biodiversity alongside its cultural heritage, Penang is now well placed to champion environmental values alongside its multicultural ideology. Indeed, sustainability and multiculturalism should be the basis on which it can build a strong and exemplary future.



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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