Why I support the Penang Transport Master Plan (3 April, 2016)
I was born in Penang and have lived in Penang all my life. Over the past 15 years, I have been researching and documenting Penang, and freely sharing the information on my websites TimothyTye.com and Penang Travel Tips. I have documented hundreds of streets, hundreds of residential properties, thousands of sights and over two hundred different types of businesses in Penang. But more than that, I have also observed Penang upclose, studied the movements of people and goods in Penang, get to know every Penang neighbourhood, and saw how Penang evolves. I see the stress and suffering endured by hundreds of thousands of Penang people, just to commute to work. I have thousands of photographs on the web as evidence that I do my homework to understand Penang. I do not belong to any political party, whether in Pakatan Harapan or in Barisan Nasional. I am just a layman who happens to understand Penang inside out.
In Penang we are blessed to have a State Government that cares for its people. I am seeing the State Government doing all within its capability to give the people a good standard of living, for today and for the future.
Unfortunately, not everybody knows that. In Penang, there are people who do not have much knowledge of what is going on. Because they lack knowledge, they are often afraid when they see rapid changes going on. When they encounter changes they could not control, they become suspicious of the State Government's intention. In their mind, the Government is doing those things to benefit "someone else" - developers, croonies, etc. Changes happening in Penang make them doubt that the Government is sincere in looking after their welfare.
Within Penang, there is a group of people whom I will call the "self-appointed Big Brothers to the community". Many of them are academicians - historians, authors, PhDs. These people consider themselves very knowledgeable, and as such, they have a very high regard for their own opinion. In actual fact, these people have book knowledge but are not necessarily street smart. They travelled widely, and have gained a desire for what they saw in other cities, often far removed from Penang. If it looks good in their eyes, they want it implemented in Penang. They often have such an intense sense of superiority, that their opinion is right and others' are wrong, that they couldn't see their attempt to shoehorn a square peg into a round hole. And of course, they could not see that they are being idealistic, naïve, romantic, egoistic, and ultimately, harmful.
To maintain Penang as a highly liveable, economically vibrant and socially inclusive community, the State Government of Penang introduced what is known as the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). It is a transport plan that includes public transport, highways, roads and an undersea tunnel. To fund this mammoth undertaking, the State Government plans to reclaim the sea off the coast of Permatang Damar Laut and auction off the land for various forms of development.
However, the plan is not in alignment with what the so-called Big Brothers have in mind. As such, they boisterously opposed it, and are canvassing support from the people of Penang to oppose the PTMP. They wanted their way in its totality, and nothing less. To be exact, they are opposed to LRT and monorail, wanting these to be replaced with either bus rapid transit or tram. They are opposed to a pan-island link highway, they are opposed to the undersea tunnel, and they are opposed to the planned land reclamation.
The present PTMP is actually - in my own words - an improvement to the original plan that the Penang State Government adopted in 2013. The original plan was based on recommendations of a renowned UK engineering consultancy. However, these so-called experts made recommendations that, from my perspective, are not suitable for Penang. They include bus rapid transit and trams, the latter in particular a major fondness of Big Brothers. Such recommendations reflect a poor understanding of Penang. That's what you get, when you ask people from far, far away for their recommendation, people who have not experienced Penang for long periods like yourself.
As 21st century trams align nicely with their idealised vision of an environment-friendly city, Big Brother expected the experts' recommendation to be rigidly observed. What they refuse to accept is that the State Government should have the liberty to decide as it wishes, and that includes declining the recommendation of experts, or to be exact, take what it feels to be right, and putting aside whatever that are not. Recommendations are, after all, not law.
To prevent the PTMP from moving forward, they employ tactics which include stalling for time, implanting fear in those without adequate knowledge, meeting with the Council of Eminent Persons, and even calling the attention of UNESCO and jeopardizing George Town's World Heritage Site status.
Big Brothers do not play a fair game. They even insinuate that the State Government was being deliberately opaque in its handling of the PTMP, in order to sow doubt among the people of Penang and to instigate them into hating the government. That's the level these Big Brothers are willing to stoop to get their way.
It is fine to have an opinion. It is not fine to shove your opinion down everybody's throat. When Big Brothers decided to meet with the Council of Eminent Persons, they are not just going over the heads of the State Government, they are also overruling the rights of the people of Penang. The Big Brothers should remember that the people of Penang voted for the State Government. We did not vote for Big Brothers. Big Brothers do not represent everybody's opinion. Big Brothers somehow believe it is within their right to dictate their will over everybody in Penang.
From the point of view of Big Brothers, the State Government has dismissed their opinion and ignored their concern over the potential impact the PTMP will have on Penang. In fact, the State Government has noted their opinion but has not accepted it. (The State Government has even made a lengthy presentation to respond to them. See the PDF here.) Pay special attention to slide 3 in the PDF, for it encapsulates the State Government's reply to Big Brothers. In Simple English, the State Government is telling Big Brothers, "You want us to do it your way, but you don't show us how your way is possible. Did you actually go and measure the road? And where do you expect us to find the money to build it your way?"
The Penang State Government has all this while demonstrated incredible tolerance and restraint over the abuse hurled at it by Big Brothers. All in the name of upholding the freedom of speech. Only in Penang. Singapore would have sued; Old Malaysia would have insisted on treating Big Brothers to an all-expense-paid holiday at Kamunting Hilton.
Big Brothers' action has split Penang society into two camps, those who support the PTMP, and those who don't. If this were a question of, "Do you believe in evolution?" the people of Penang can simply agree to disagree, and none would come away the worse. But with the PTMP, the consequence is the future of Penang - our future and the future of our children. By right, the State Government which the people of Penang have collectively voted in should be the one stirring the direction of our destiny. If a minority group should come along and hijack our destiny, we should be collectively incensed. That's what Big Brothers are trying to do: impose their will on the State Government, ergo, on the people of Penang.
I have weighed the arguments laid out by the State Government and by Big Brothers, and after careful evaluation of the proposal from either sides, I wholeheartedly throw my support on the State Government's action plan for the PTMP. I say so not because I am blindly supporting the State Government, but because there are serious flaws in Big Brothers' argument, which I will explain in this article.
A People with Misplaced Priority
Big Brothers are a people with misplaced priority. That is the root cause of their opposition to the Penang Transport Master Plan. They thought they got things right, and that's why they are fighting vigorously to "save" Penang. What I want to present to you, are the flaws committed by Big Brothers, and supporting their opposition to PTMP will be a calamity for Penang.
But first, what is this misplaced priority? I call it "not seeing the forest for the trees". Big Brothers are so focused on concerns that are visible to them, that they neglect or are not aware of even greater harms their very action is bringing to Penang.
To explain this more clearly, let me draw you an analogy.
The Story of The Window and The Roof
Imagine Penang as a house. An old house, over two hundred years old, that has a beautiful window offering a lovely view. It appears to be a very nice, comfortable house, but unless you explore it from top to bottom, you might not realise that the house has a problem.
It's with the roof. The roof has structural problem. At any time at all, it could come crashing down.
The Government is aware of this problem, and is sending workmen to fix it. When the work got started, dust and debris began to fall into the house soiling the window. This marred the otherwise pristine view, and it made some occupants quite furious. They demanded that the workmen stop work immediately. They accused the Government of doing things that purposely destroy their beautiful view, turning their window unsightly. What they fail to comprehend is that the Government is doing the very things for their own well being. If the work were to stop, the roof might crash down, crushing them and destroying their precious window.
Some occupants of the house do see the problem on the roof and try to point it out to the vocal opposition. Unfortunately, the opposition is a bunch of short-sighted people. They couldn't see long distances. When they look up at the roof, they only see a blur. As far as they are concerned, the window is the thing that matters, and the Government is at fault for making it unsightly.
That's the analogy.
Have you ever tried to rescue a puppy that has fallen into the drain, and instead the puppy growled and tried to bite you? That's Big Brothers' response to PTMP. The Government of Penang is trying its best to fix the roof while at the same time trying to placate a noisy, vocal but largely myopic bunch of people. Unfortunately, this bunch of people not only does not believe in the Government's sincerity, it is also misleading other people to support them.
The Penang Transport Master Plan is the State Government's action plan for fixing the roof. To understand why these actions are important, we need to look beyond our immediate field of vision towards the consequences of not implement the PTMP in its current incarnation. From my explanation, you will see that these concerns are more serious than those raised by Big Brothers.
Big Brothers' Playbook
A frequently used tactic of Big Brothers is to scare people into supporting them. This is done by feeding their followers with selective information, showings imageries and data that boost their argument, planting seeds of doubt over the government's intention, while sidestepping arguments that contradict theirs. In the absence of counter argument, their followers do not have a chance to compare the pros and cons, and are converted into opposing the PTMP, even brainwashed into hating the Government.
People who already harbour a negative prejudice or resentment against the Government, for myriad reasons of their own, are easy recruits into their camp. And the nervous Nellies in Penang are so scared out of their wits, they cling to Big Brother like some modern-day messiah, believing that the State Government has completely betrayed them. Unless you have a clear understanding of things, and are able to do your own independent study of Penang, you will fall prey. But the moment you understand why implementing the PTMP is the best hope for Penang's future, all the answers will fall into place.
In the above analogy, the Big Brothers' ideal is a pristine, unblemish window - a Penang without elevated highways, bridges, tunnels or LRT lines. They also generate fear that building a highway right through Penang Hill, or under the the sea, is unsafe and harmful to the environment.
Now see The Roof
If your judge the Penang Transport Master Plan as merely a plan to ribbon Penang with highways, you are not seeing the big picture. Instead, you need to evaluate the PTMP as a plan to build a future for your children and your children's children. Think of it as a plan to ensure that Penang does not lose out to its local (think Taiping, Kulim, Sungai Petani, Alor Setar, Ipoh) and foreign (think Phuket, Medan) competitors. Are our neighbours our competitors? Alas, yes. Many people in Penang take for granted how blessed they are to be living in Penang. Thanks to the foresight of our late Chief Minister Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, who welcomed multi-national companies to build plants in Penang, Penang is blessed with a great variety of high-paying jobs to feed its dense population. What Tun Dr Lim put in place would not last forever, if we do not take it upon ourselves to safeguard the advantage.
Look around you. See all the condominiums being built in Penang. Here's my list of apartments and condominiums in Penang. (Yes, I do my own homework. I walk every street and take photographs of all the apartments and condos. And I looked at who stays where. I am aware of where the roads get jammed and where are the traffic bottlenecks.)
Do you know who stay in most of the newly built apartments and condominiums in Penang? Big Brothers are fond to scare people by saying, "Look, foreigners are buying up all our property!" I invite you to visit all five hundred apartment complexes in Penang, and take a good look for yourself, how many are actually occupied by foreigners. You will find that the vast majority are actually bought by Penang people, or people from neighbouring states.
Do you know, Penang has a ruling that forbids foreigners from buying any apartment or condominium on Penang Island costing less than RM1 million? (read here) How many apartments and condominiums in that list is worth RM1 million and above? Some yes, but a good many are below RM1 million, and so they are available only to locals.
But who are the buyers?
When your children grow up and get jobs, what's the first thing you encourage them to do? "Buy your own place." And that's exactly what they do. Those who have the means even buy two properties, one for their future home, and another for investment. On top of that, young people from neighbouring states also get jobs in Penang, and they too want to buy properties here.
Why is Penang property so expensive? Because Penang is a desirable destination. There is a lot of jobs in Penang, many are high paying, and the variety of jobs is also wide. And then there's people like me who is actively promoting Penang to the world. As a result, we have people from all over northern Peninsular Malaysia converging on Penang to work and to find a place to stay. Yes, retirees from Western countries also come here, but they are in fact a small minority compared to the thousands who fill the multi-national companies in Penang's industrial zones.
Have you ever been caught in a jam in Penang? Who are all those people caught in jams in Penang? Look at their faces. Yes, it's Malaysians (Penangites and Malaysians from other states) - the same people who bought the high-rise apartment units, the same people disgorged by the multi-national companies in Bayan Lepas at rush hour.
When you deliberately suppress infrastructure and property development, you make Penang less competitive. When the demand for housing cannot be quenched by the supply, we will drive property prices to exorbitant level. If you think it is already high right now, control the supply and price will go through the roof. It's all the law of supply and demand.
For the same reason, I am supportive of land reclamation. The State Government cannot allow the state's landbank to be depleted, as this will overheat the demand for properties, residential and commercial.
If you refuse to allow more highways to be built, the growing traffic will eventually cause a standstill. Penang would a less desirable location to do business. Everything becomes more expensive. Transporting your raw material and finished goods takes a longer time and cost more because the roads are jammed up. If this happens over a prolong period, companies contemplating a location to set up their plants may opt for cheaper locations with less congestions - like Taiping, Kulim, Sungai Petani, Alor Setar and Ipoh.
One of the pet arguments of Big Brothers is that building more highways only leads to more congestion. It's an argument not based on logic. How many people decide to buy a new car because the Government has just finished building a new highway? No. People buy cars because they need cars to take them places. It only exists in Big Brothers' convoluted mind that more highways creates more cars.
Once the companies move away, they are not coming back. Job opportunities will be affected. Your children and your children's children will not be able to find the type of job they want in Penang. And because you also oppose allowing developers to build more apartments, property prices in Penang will be driven to such unimaginable heights, your children won't be able to afford anything but a miserable pigeonhole. Only the very rich will be able to afford living in Penang. Everybody else will have to commute long distances just to reach their jobs every single day.
Penang was once ahead of Phuket and Bali in terms of tourism. Nowadays, these two destinations have surpassed Penang, and yet they are better able to look after their environment than we can. We are not Phuket or Bali. We are a densely populated, highly urbanised location.
Big Brothers are fond to say, "Oh, I don't want to be another Kuala Lumpur or Singapore." We should take a good look at ourselves. Whether we like it or not, we share characteristics with these two places. We do not have much natural resources, but are densely populated. So we better be a little less condescending and get lessons from them.
Maintaining our competitiveness does not resonate with Big Brothers. Big Brothers are composed of academicians and members of non-profit organisations. Theirs is an idealised world of green nature and heritage buildings. Economic competitiveness and creating jobs do not register with them. They are vocal for their own good, but not that of everybody in Penang.
As I see, Big Brothers do not appear to be in touch with reality. They possibly have not experienced long commutes to work every day, and so they could not sympathise with the plight of office and factory workers. Moreover, they seem to think that the PTMP is something that happens in isolation, that can be removed without causing any detrimental impact on Penang. That's naïve, of course. The PTMP is the conduit for Penang's mobility. To not have it is like to refuse to have legs. Even their pet phrase, "sustainable development", is a mere rhetoric that is hatched from idealism, but not grounded on present-day realities.
In constrast, business people are not as vocal as Big Brothers, but they hold the key to Penang's competitiveness. Theirs is a world of revenues, costings, expenditures and profits. Rejection of PTMP may cause such a huge negative impact on businesses, that businesses may be forced to consider relocating to more conducive locations. Not immediately, but in years to come, when the traffic situation comes to a complete gridlock.
Who are the job makers - academicians or businesses? It's the busineeses, of course, and if businesses are forced to move, the jobs follow.
Why I Support the Penang Transport Master Plan
I support the Penang Transport Master Plan because it is the best response so far to maintain our competitiveness, and to remain relevant in the future. We have already lost tourism to Phuket and Bali. We cannot afford to lose manufacturing and services industries to our neighbours like Kulim, Sungai Petani, Alor Setar, Taiping and Ipoh.
Big Brothers proposed buses and trams rather than the LRT. No matter how fast buses and trams can travel, LRT will always be able to travel faster. Speed matters. By helping to reduce commuting time, you help improve people's quality of life. You give them more time to spend with their family and more time for recreation. And that's not once in a while. It's five days a week, for the rest of their work lives.
All our neighbouring towns are beefing up their infrastructure. Their broadband is as good as Penang's, all the hypermarkets and shopping malls that we have in Penang, we now also find in Sungai Petani, Alor Setar, Taiping, etc. Yet they have more land, and at a lower price.
If our public transport is slow, workers will spend more time commuting to work. Even if the trams are built in place of the LRT, travelling from George Town to Teluk Kumbar will take such a long time, after the novelty of a leisurely ride is past, most commuters will acknowledge that it is just more practical to drive or take the motorcycle. Big Brothers might say that it is cheaper and faster to introduce trams, disregarding that we need to allocate space for two tram lines - one to and one back, which will consume the precious space in our already congested roads, from George Town to Bayan Lepas. Aren't these the same people who lobbied against chopping trees? What a contradiction. In comparison, the elevated LRT lines overlap the existing road space, so they occupy a much smaller footprint.
Respond from the State Government regarding trams
What baffles me is why some people are continuing to ask the same questions, when these questions have been raised before, just to get the same answers repeated to them once again, the latest being at the Penang 2030 Session.
The success of public transport is dependent on the willingness of the public to use it. Let's not make a costly mistake of building a tramline across Penang Island which nobody wants to use, which we later have to tear down to build the elevated LRT. Listening to Big Brothers, we would end up with a Big White Elephant.
Big Brothers are also persuading the people of Penang not to accept a highway right across their neighbourhood, and right through the spine of Penang Island, saying that it will cause a big damage to the hills and the environment. Again, these are mere scare tactics hatched out of an idealistic vision. Earthquake-prone Japan and Switzerland built plenty of tunnels right through their mountains, even decades ago, before present technology is available, and the majority is safe.
Even with 1970s technology, we were already able to build the East-West Highway through the rainforest of Peninsular Malaysia, connecting Gerik to Jeli. The East-West Highway is much longer, and reaches a height that is twice that of Penang Hill. The Pan Island Link (1) highway pales in comparison. If the East-West Highway truly brought so much destruction to the rainforest, there would be no Royal Belum State Park today. Big Brothers are simply acting like Chicken Littles.
Rejecting the PTMP would not make our problem go away. Our main problem is not PTMP. Our main problem is the very survival of Penang in a competitive environment. That, Big Brothers overlook. Worse is, they do not realise or even believe that Penang has such a problem in its hands, that Penang cannot allow itself to lose out to neighbours, not just to Alor Setar, Taiping or Ipoh, but also to Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Medan, Phuket and Singapore.
The reality is, every town wants to safeguard its own development and prosperity. Even a city as developed as Singapore has plans in place to maintain its competitiveness. We cannot reject progress and expect our neighbours to be so charitable, that they would shun businesses wishing to relocate from us. We need to develop Penang so that Penang could continue to be the mainstay for northern Peninsular Malaysia's economy. To deny that such a problem exists is like shutting our eyes at the sight of a runaway bus barreling towards us, and expecting that by shutting our eyes, the bus would simply disappear.
When Lee Kuan Yew died, there was a torrential outpouring of grief in Singapore that the democratic world has never seen before. How could they mourn a man who governed Singapore with an iron fist? Because, in the end, all Singaporeans acknowledge that this is a man who gave his all to protect the roof.
Now we stand at a crucial crossroad. We need to do what is necessary to secure Penang's future. Protect the roof. Always protect the roof. Opposing the Penang Transport Master Plan will cause a lasting negative impact that could not be easily overturned. Think of your future and that of your children. Throw your support behind the Government's Penang Transport Master Plan.
Finally an ally
It is no fun being a lone crusader supporting the Government's effort. People who refuse to understand often dismiss you as mad, a Government Yes Man, or a lackey. They could not see that they are allowing Big Brother's scare tactics to brainwash them. I am therefore joyful that I got to know Joshua Woo. Joshua has written a wonderful series of articles that voice a point view in complete alignment to mine. It is my pleasure to share his articles, to help you get the bigger picture and gain a clearer understanding of the situation at hand.
Further support for the Penang Transport Master Plan
The Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce, representing local Chinese business people, issues a statement in support of the Penang Transport Master Plan on their website (read here).
Another independent organisation, Penang Property Talk, conducted a survey among its readers, and the result shows that 85% of the respondents support the PTMP. (see here)
If you have any friends who have been supportive of the idea to oppose the Penang Transport Master Plan, please share this message with him. It is important for every one of us to understand our State Government's action. We, the people of Penang, have to stand together for our future. The moment is now.
Show Your Support to the Penang Transport Master Plan
It's time all Penangites band together to show their wholehearted support to the State Government that they voted in, a government that is truly doing its very best for the people, by adding your name to the petition in support of the Penang Transport Master Plan.