Observers of Penang's modern history cannot help but notice that the island always has a knack for bravely forging its future, even when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds.
Francis Light, hailed as the founder of modern Penang, established George Town (in honour of King George III) in 1786 when he found the area, at the upper reaches of the Melaka Strait, strategic.
In the years that followed, the colonial government managed to procure more land from Kedah (and a little bit of Perak). In 1800, the first Lieutenant-Governor of the Prince of Wales Island, Sir George Leith, acquired 189.3km2 strip of land facing the island, and renamed it Province Wellesley (Seberang Prai).
When the British signed the Pangkor Treaty with Perak in 1874, Province Wellesley’s borders were realigned, and in the process, absorbed the town of Sungai Acheh and areas on the southern banks of the Kerian River under its jurisdiction.
Currently, Seberang Prai’s land mass is at 751km2, and even then, recent land reclamation around Batu Kawan area helped boost the acreage of land needed for industrialisation and other needs.
In March, Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow said the land in Batu Kawan and its surroundings had been earmarked for industrial needs and are “mostly taken up already”.
Thanks to reclaimed land, Ikea was able to build its first outlet in the northern region of Peninsular Malaysia, lending a much needed buzz to the area, other than providing employment.
Of course, reimagining the future of Penang took on great urgency in the early 1970s, when Penang Port’s status as a free port was revoked by the Federal government.
Then-Chief Minister (now the-late) Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu envisioned the creation of the Penang Free Trade Zone in Bayan Lepas (then known as the Bayan Lepas Industrial Estate), as well as industrial parks in Seberang Prai for heavy industries.
Bayan Lepas FTZ, which focuses on many electronics and other value added and technologically advanced manufacturing to the extent that it was nicknamed the Silicon Valley of Malaysia at one point.
Today, Bayan Lepas continues to be home for a variety of high tech manufacturing, boosted by its proximity to the airport, and the availability of human resources living nearby.
Currently, Penang island is at 293km2, courtesy of several small-scale reclamation over the past three decades to fuel its march to its highly developed status.
Continued development of Penang, or anywhere else, is always tied to the availability of land. No matter how advanced or efficient any society is, no municipality has demonstrated that growth can happen without suitable land being made available through reclamation.
To put it into perspective, if there were no reclamation in Penang, the following would not have existed: the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone, Straits Quay, Gurney Drive, Weld Quay, Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway, Queensbay Mall or Karpal Singh Drive, just to name some.
Moving Beyond Heritage and Tourism
George Town and surroundings is already gridlocked. For example, a bus ride from the ferry terminal to airport (and by extension, Bayan Lepas) could take at least 1 hour and 15 minutes (or more) during peak hours. Under this scenario, driving a car will not be much faster.
Looking beyond the gridlock, Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow pointed to the economic indicators for the past two decades.
The GDP growth in excess of 8% p.a for Penang during the early years of this last decade has slowed considerably, whereby the electrical and electronics (E&E) and manufacturing sector growth accounted for half of the local economy; with the other half on tourism and the services industry.
This clearly indicates that Penang needs to do something to ensure it does not regress within an era characterised by so many disruptive forces ranging from 5G, artificial intelligence, Big Data, the Internet of Things, all the way to Industrial Revolution 4.0 (IR4.0), other than cheaper manufacturing bases in emerging Asean economies or elsewhere.
In 2018, the state responded by unveiling Penang 2030, a document that outlines things that needed to be done to boost the economic engines, while uplifting the wellbeing of the people at the same time by tackling traffic congestion, housing issues, haphazard developments, among others.
Potential foreign investors are keen to know the future support provided for a vibrant ecosystem needed for high-end manufacturing bases and workplace. This is on top of multinationals who are currently benefiting from the Bayan Lepas ecosystem and Penang’s investor-friendly policies.
Industry captains are more straightforward, pointing out that there is actually no more land in Bayan Lepas for further expansion of their operations.
According to real estate valuer Henry Butcher Malaysia, a tract of commercial land in Bayan Lepas was transacted at RM300ft2 (or RM3,339.17m2) last year, testament to the value of locations near an international airport and other infrastructure.
Penang South Island
Penang’s long-term solution is to introduce urban rail in the form of light rail transit and several new roads, backed up by reclamation at the southern tip of the island to eventually add 1,821ha or 4,500 acres of land across three islands, over the next 20 to 25 years.
This state-owned land known as the Penang South Islands (PSI) is a catalytic development project for Penang 2030. The phasing of PSI will be drawn out sequentially for each of the three islands. The first phase will involve developing the first island – 2,300 acres over 10 years, and will host a 324ha (800 acres) Smart Industrial Park.
For world-class mobility, the island will feature a multi-mode transit system ranging from the LRT, trams, water taxis, as well as connected to the Pan Island Link. With this, residents will be able to save time on travel, and in turn, increase their productivity and efficiency.
This Smart Industrial Park is planned and designed to cater to the next generation of E&E investors. These targeted investor organisations are further up the E&E value chain, with emphasis on design and development activities and software services. These investments in turn will create higher value jobs for a higher skilled workforce.
The Smart Industrial Park will have features such as flattened premises for multinational and local SMEs looking to start-up quickly, learning institutions, and software services hub, all within a campus-like environment.
It will also have smart city components like digital 5G connectivity and centralised management services such as waste disposal, water treatment, intelligence traffic management and emergency services management.
Infrastructure planning is key to the creation of such a highly livable and green environment. Taking into consideration existing development constraints, the focus of the first island’s design is on creation of an idyllic setting by the waterfront with focus on provision of public areas that encourages community engagement.
This includes over 13km of public beaches, 57ha (140 acres) of coastal parks and open green spaces, 12km of cycling tracks, and other recreational activities. PSI will deliver up to 20,000 new homes for all segments of society, offering affordable housing, mixed-use residential and landed residential units.
Such an environment would be attractive to talent, whether global or local, who will populate the next generation E&E companies on the island.
On Nov 6, the state government launched the International Masterplan Design Competition (MDC), which is an urban design ideas competition for PSI. This open competition is organised by Penang in collaboration with the northern chapter of the Malaysian Institute of Architects under the auspices of the Board of Architects Malaysia.
The MDC is a platform to elicit the most creative and strategic propositions towards the development of a compelling master plan for PSI that meets and exceeds the expectations and aspirations of the state.
“In view of this, Penang looks forward to exciting proposals from the world’s most talented architects and planners to help usher the state into the next era of sustainable growth,” said Chow.
International Masterplan Design Competition (MDC) for Penang South Islands
Structured as an open international single-stage competition with a qualification process, MDC is a platform to elicit the most creative and strategic propositions towards the development of a compelling master plan for PSI that meets, if not surpasses, Penang's aspirations.
The registration of interest for MDC received 124 entries when it closed on Nov 25, comprising qualified Malaysians and foreign architects and planners leading multi-disciplinary consortia with diverse expertise in smart cities, economics, engineering, technology and innovation, mobility and transportation, landscape, sustainability and environmental design. Each finalist is set to receive an honorarium of RM510,000 (approximately USD125,000).
- Closing date for submission of entries – Dec 30, 2019
- Shortlisting of 5 finalists & commencement of design – Jan 8, 2020
- Final judging – Apr 20, 2020
- Launch of exhibition – Apr 21, 2020
- Announcement of winners – May 8, 2020
Note: The organisers reserve the right to adjust the timeline in accordance to circumstances. For more information, visit https://pg-mdc.com/.
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