Quietly rising


In an exclusive interview, Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow talks about his vision on how Penang can bounce back after the Covid-19 pandemic.

THE typical image of a political leader is one who is loud, brash and assertive, but Chow Kon Yeow is completely the opposite.

The Penang Chief Minister speaks little, preferring to let his work do the talking.

Most Penangites, including his political enemies, acknowledge that he is affable and an easy person to work with.

In an exclusive interview with The Star recently, the former journalist-turned-politician talks about his vision for the state in the post-pandemic era.

Even on a public holiday (Thaipusam), it is all work for Chow as he shares his plans on how to put Penang, which has been badly impacted by the pandemic, back at the top where she belongs.

One of his top focus is to help accelerate Penang’s economic recovery, which is mainly driven by both the manufacturing and service sectors – two areas badly hit by Covid-19.

Below is an excerpt from the interview:

> How do you see 2022 panning out for Penang in terms of development and recovery process?

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a great impact over the economy in the past two years. The situation is getting under control, in terms of the number of cases and also the vaccination rate. The economy has opened up after the lockdowns and restrictions, and we are now at Phase 4 of the National Recovery Plan.

We are cautiously buoyant on the economic recovery for 2022. Penang’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate is 3.5% and the fundamentals remain intact, with gradual recovery of the economy.

There are also foreign direct investment (FDI) and domestic direct investment (DDI). Despite the pandemic, we had the best ever investment figures in the state’s history in 2019 and 2020. We had RM14bil in 2019 and RM16bil in 2020. It surpassed all previous yearly investment figures.

In 2021 and 2022, we get to see the implementation of the investment decision made earlier. If you visit Batu Kawan Industrial Park today, you’ll get to see more than 10 to 15 sites where the construction of factories is being carried out as a result of the investment recorded in that two years.

At the height of the pandemic, the manufacturing sector was still allowed to operate under restriction. Our manufacturing sector – the electrical and electronics – is part of the global supply chain. This sector had to be kept open to reduce the disruption of global supply chain. We are happy that there are more new job opportunities compared to the number of job loss during the pandemic period. It is a positive results overall.

If you talk to the industry people, everyone is talking about not having enough workers. As the industry here moves towards offering high-tech and high value jobs, we are looking at different categories of knowledge workers, particularly those in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education. Even for technicians, there are ample job opportunities in this sector. According to the 12th Malaysian Plan figure, we are on track to achieving a 5.4% GDP growth by 2025.

We have just announced the programmes to celebrate our 50th anniversary of industrialisation in Penang. While we celebrate the achievement, we also need to look beyond the roadmap, include finding the right direction and looking to the adoption of Industrial Revolution 4.0 (IR 4.0). That is the outlook for 2022 and beyond.

With international borders still closed during the pandemic, our tourism sector has been impacted very much. In 2020, we saw a loss of 2.3 million international tourists and 3 million domestic tourists. But with the domestic borders open since November, it has given some hope to the local tourism sector, and helped to revive the hotel industry, food and beverage and other tourist-related sectors. Hopefully we can keep the situation under control and be on the road to better recovery.

> Penang2030 Vision is now in its fourth year since the launch in 2018, are you satisfied thus far? Is the state able to achieve all its goals – family-focused, green and smart state – by 2030?

Penang2030 vision was launched in August 2018... just about three months after I came in as chief minister. The main consideration at that time was that since there was a change of leadership in the state, the new chief minister had to lead the state with a vision statement.

In the past two terms prior to 2018, we focused on tackling the 3Cs – crime, congestion and cleanliness – with the tagline “Cleaner, Greener Penang”. It then evolved to include “healthier”, “safer”, and so on, so forth, which focused on social welfare programme reaching out to the schools. All that brought us into the third term.

From there, we improved on what we have done and added new initiatives like a smart state, smart city and family-focused into the vision. Social development is very important. We see Penang2030 vision as a short-term future. I personally know that I can only serve two terms if the support is granted. But to sell and get buy-in for a vision is not easy. After the launch, our team continues to work on the various strategic initiatives. We had a lot of stakeholder sessions with government agencies. The first year or so, we spent quite a lot of time fine-tuning the strategic initiatives.

I believe the buy-in from the people is not prevalent yet. This year, we may have a public communication exercise. Going into the next term, we should ensure that it remains the foundation of our growth and trajectory. After 2030, whoever is leading the state can look at what 2030 has achieved and improve from there. Getting the buy-in, support and ownership will be the focus for this year.

On the second phase of the Penang2030, dubbed Accelerating Penang2030, we will be looking at placemaking initiatives, climate change issues, industrial engagement, which is industrialisation and strengthening the ecosystem and human capital development. That will be the focus from my office.

> Any major projects that will take off, or will be completed this year? What can we look forward to in 2022?

Penang people are well aware that we have a full basket of infrastructure projects. The Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) is one of them, which covers so many big projects that will keep us busy if it can be implemented:

The Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) is one of them, which covers so many big projects that will keep us busy if it can be implemented:

A) Ayer Itam-Lebuhraya Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu bypass (Package Two)

We visited Bandar Baru Ayer Itam recently, where construction has commenced at Section 1 (Lebuhraya Thean Teik) with bore piling works for the ramp’s foundation leading to the main line of Package Two. The tunnelling work should start around June and hopefully by then, all the land acquisition issue will be resolved for the contractor to move full steam.

We also visited the depot (in Jalan Bukit Gambier), which houses all the machineries. It was rather impressive. But there are still land acquisition issues that need to be ironed out. The contractor can only start work on portions where we have cleared for in terms of land acquisition.

The targeted completion is 2025, and we will be monitoring that. It is in their timeline. They will only start the following Package One project (12km North Coastal Paired Road between Tanjung Bungah and Teluk Bahang), a year after they have started the current one. They need to schedule their resources.

Chow visiting the Ayer Itam-Lebuhraya Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu bypass project site recently.- LIM BENG TATT/The StarChow visiting the Ayer Itam-Lebuhraya Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu bypass project site recently.- LIM BENG TATT/The Star

B) Undersea Tunnel

The feasibility studies of the tunnel has been completed and will be tabled for the state government to consider on when we want to start or hold on. For this, the financing of it has been resolved. (Reclamation of) the 50 acres (20.23ha) of land off Gurney Drive, which is part of the Gurney Wharf, has been completed and will be handed over to the contractor when it achieves a certain milestone or a percentage of work.

The first parcel (of land) has been given to the concession company because they had spent a big sum on land acquisition. The land was paid as an reimbursement to that claim. The contractor is working with a third party to develop the parcel of land that they had received from the state government as payment for the various achievement milestone in the project.

I have not seen the feasibility studies yet. The state exco will invite the consultant to come and present, probably after Chinese New Year. The state will make a decision whether to proceed after that. According to the timeline, construction for the tunnel will only begin once the three paired roads are completed. Now the timeline will have to be revisited.

(Package One and Two projects, and the 4.2km Gurney Drive-Lebuhraya Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu bypass, are the three major roads and tunnel project awarded to Consortium Zenith Construction Sdn Bhd in September 2013. The project is seeing good progress following ECK Development Sdn Bhd’s take-over of major shareholding of Consortium Zenith Construction Sdn Bhd, which is the design and build contractor of the project.)

C) Pan Island Link 1

We want to start work on one section of this highway project, from Bukit Gedung that connects to Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway in Bayan Lepas, along the Sungai Keluang corridor. It will cut across the industrial area.

This will be helpful to residents of Sungai Ara and Relau. This is the parcel we want to start with SRS Consortium, our project delivery partner for PTMP. But again, we will have to look at the financing part because land acquisition and construction involve a lot money.

We must be mindful that all these projects are state initiatives. We need federal funding but we are not getting it. We have to try out some of these projects with our way instead of just waiting.

(The RM10bil Pan Island Link 1 (PIL 1) is a highway project that connects Gurney Drive to the Penang International Airport)

> You said the Bayan Lepas Light Rail Transit (LRT) component of the PTMP is your priority. Where are we so far?

We have obtained the environment impact assessment (EIA) approval for the line from Komtar to Bayan Lepas Penang International Airport. But because the LRT depot that we propose will be on the first island of the Penang South Reclamation (PSR), we have not submitted (our EIA) as the island itself has not been approved. We need to address that.

One big hurdle which we have resolved is the location of the LRT station at the Penang International Airport. The SRS Consortium and the state government want the station to be as close as possible to the airport terminal. But the Malaysia Airport Holding Berhad (MAHB) has its own idea of how it should run. It wanted it to be located at the other end of the airport where a shopping mall will be built later.

Finally we secured the understanding of MAHB, which agreed to our location – the nearest to the airport terminal, just beside the new multi-storey carpark. Otherwise, the station will be located 200m to 300m away. Right now, it will be a more ideal location, which is only about 100m away.

I have also asked state exco member Zairil Khir Johari to call for a Request for Proposal (RFP) on the LRT itself for possible funding. From time to time, there are parties who express interest to finance the LRT, and we always have this idea of tying it with the Penang South Reclamation (PSR). But since there are some interest from other parties, Zairil will be working on calling for an RFP for the LRT alone just to explore the financing aspect.

(PSR is the state government’s funding model for the PTMP, which includes the state’s first LRT line from Komtar to the Penang International Airport. SRS Consortium is the state’s project delivery partner of the PTMP. The main shareholder of SRS is Gamuda Bhd)

Chow: 'The pandemic has been a setback but I also see the opportunity of learning valuable lessons from it... There are positives on how we respond to the pandemic, how we disrupt the disruption.'Chow: 'The pandemic has been a setback but I also see the opportunity of learning valuable lessons from it... There are positives on how we respond to the pandemic, how we disrupt the disruption.'

> What are the plans that you intend to see through during your first term?

We recognise industrialisation is the engine of growth in Penang as we do not have other natural resources. Industrialisation, manufacturing, SMEs, local large companies are the way forward for Penang. We need to bring them up the value chain as we used to be a low cost production centre for multi-national companies (MNCs). But today, it is transforming into higher tech that will be the way forward, such as the adoption of technology.

Foreign direct investment will continue to be important, but there should be technology transfer for local companies and talent development of local people. There have been several large local companies where their workers used to work in the MNCs. After a few year years, they ventured out on their own. This should be the way forward.

More local companies can evolve and support the supply chain with technology transfer and human capital development. The state should transform itself into a higher income society that provides better quality jobs, housing, quality of life, education and medical services.

Towards the end of my first term, we are launching the next 50 years of industrialisation that will encapsulate what I said just now. We recognise Penang has to look beyond the state for talents.

This year, InvestPenang director Datuk Seri Lee Kah Choon will be looking at how to retain our talents, and at the same time, attract talents from neighbouring states, even from Sabah and Sarawak. We want to be attractive enough by offering job opportunities, housing, education facilities, medical services and lifestyle in Penang.

We hope to be attractive enough for graduates from universities, technical institutions and vocational schools to come to Penang and see for themselves that human capital development is taking place here

> Almost four years into the top post of Penang, for sure there are be ups and downs. What is your single most memorable achievement?

One of the highlights is the Penang2030 vision. We hope to ensure that it is a strategic vision that lays a good foundation for Penang to ensure we remain competitive and become a sustainable city by 2030.

Our focus on family, social development, green and smart state, all these are things that can propel Penang to greater heights. We want to increase liveability, upgrade the economy and household income, encourage civic participation. We want to be open to the community through engagement, and work with non-governmental organisations and private sectors.

We also want to invest in new environment and flood mitigation projects. To overcome the basic problem we face in Penang –municipal services, infrastructure bottleneck, telecommunication services, the roll out of 5G. As the state government, we want to be part of it and facilitate them.

If you have a state and local government working hand in hand with the Federal agencies, especially when they are appointed concession companies. We want to leverage on Federal projects so that the state can benefit. We would not be able to do projects or undertake initiatives that are costly and run into tens of billions of Ringgit, like the 5G rollout.

We cannot rely on our limited resources and we have to play our role well, that is to collaborate on Federal initiatives to ensure that they are implemented in the state well and probably well ahead of schedule.

The downside, if I can pick, is the pandemic, due to the disruption it caused to the economy. It is not a personal setback in that sense. It is a setback for the whole state including myself. But I also see the opportunity of learning valuable lessons from the pandemic. It accelerates digital adoption.

There are positives on how we respond to the pandemic, how we disrupt the disruption. A lot of new business evolves from coping with the disruption. We see new segments coming up and new business opportunities, and quite a major shake-up of how to do things, especially in the business sector. People are responding to it, embracing digital economy.

Human capital development has to be in line and it is a major springboard for change. Without that, it will take many years to achieve this type of result. But the pandemic has shortened the process. It has leapfrogged, rather than the normal progression. This is the positive out of the negative.

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