What is it Like Living in Penang’s Southwest?

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“LIVEABILITY” is quite a buzzword these days. But what does it mean really when we say that a city is liveable? What factors come into play? Generally, this covers the usual suspects of: access to education, health and safety; economic prosperity; the ease of getting around; and the availability of recreational facilities.

Penang Island’s northeast district is usually targeted for benchmarking against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS), specifically in the areas of Pulau Tikus, Tanjung Tokong and Tanjung Bungah.

In George Town itself, amenities abound and are situated often only a short walk or a drive away. The capital is reasonably walkable, and one can easily hail a Grab or rent a LinkBike to get around. Significant efforts have also been taken by the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) to improve the city’s walkability and cyclability indices, including the installation of bicycle lanes and the planting of trees to provide respite from the tropical heat.

But where the population has been growing most on the Island is in the southwest district. Some 50 years ago, this was Penang’s “hinterland”. The residential development of Sungai Dua, though technically still within the northeast district, flourished following the establishment of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in 1969. With the coming of the Free Trade Zone, now the Free Industrial Zone, of Bayan Lepas in the 1970s and 80s, the township of Bayan Baru grew.

Read also: Liveability in Numbers

Each of these was planned for very different purposes, and have their own unique set of challenges. What makes these localities work for their residents and businesses? And what does not? What existing infrastructure and services need upgrading? More urgently, what is still lacking in the event of another Covid-19 district lockdown? Penang Monthly investigates how liveable is Penang’s burgeoning southwest district.

Sungai Dua

Universiti Sains Malaysia. Photo: www.malaysiachinainsight.com

Named after the eponymous river that flows through the suburb, Sungai Dua was a farmland which slowly transformed into a bustling neighbourhood following USM’s formation, complete with schools, clinics, food courts, wet markets and a hypermarket.

Vice-chancellor of USM Dr. Faisal Rafiq. Photo: USM.

But a divide is noticeable in the town-and-gown relationship between the locality and the university. Vice-chancellor Dr. Faisal Rafiq acknowledges this to be a real concern,“The school of thought in the past was to decouple universities from the outside world.” Paradoxically, the university is one of the largest employers in Penang; with a 10,000-strong staff spread across four campuses. USM’s economic and socioeconomic impacts are considerable, especially in the spill-over effects to the academe’s surrounding areas.

Stimulating the Surrounding Economy

International and outstation students contribute to Sungai Dua’s economy by grocery shopping at the nearby Tesco Extra or wet markets, eating out at mamak stalls and food courts like Super Tanker, or making trips – sometimes weekly – to Queensbay Mall for leisure activities. In addition, students have the choice to stay on- or off-campus. To illustrate, now in his final year at USM, undergraduate Chua Seong Jinq from Selangor decided to rent a unit outside of campus to experience “independent living” with five other friends. He pays a monthly rental of RM175.

CEO of PDC Telecommunication Services P. Ayappan Pappu Pillay. Photo: PDC Telco.

State Exco for Infrastructure and Transport Zairil Khir Johari.

Meanwhile, senior lecturer at the School of Computer Sciences, Dr. Teh Je Sen has chosen to live in Bayan Lepas which, depending on traffic conditions, is a reasonable 15- to 20-minute drive to work. He cites “a perfectly sized unit in a gated community situated in a pretty good location” as an ideal place to start a family. For many like him who are in the family way, cost is a major concern when purchasing a forever home in Sungai Dua. Such units are readily available, but their prices tend towards the exorbitant side, prompting many to consider other localities, like Bayan Lepas, instead.

Upgrading Amenities

To mend the strained relationship between community and university, Faisal seeks to change campus policy to widen its accessibility to the Penang public. He hopes to achieve this by building more sports facilities, specifically an artificial grass pitch for sports like football. “If USM is to play a larger role in the community, the key point here must be engagement.”

Photo: Datuk Seri Chet Singh.

This facility will be situated next to where the future LRT station proposed in the Penang Transport Master Plan is to be located. But the project is temporarily stymied since USM has had to shut its doors again following another spike in Covid-19 cases recently. “We could engage with the community online, but the impact would pale in comparison to having them physically present on campus to soak up the experience.”

A bane shared by both students and staff is USM’s WiFi connection. While the 4G connectivity is excellent, its WiFi remains patchy around campus. State Exco for Infrastructure and Transport Zairil Khir Johari suggests a simple fix: invest to improve the network infrastructure. But a lack of funds renders the issue difficult to doctor.

A similar problem prevails in the wider Sungai Dua area, where a combination of old, low-cost housing and predominantly terrace houses leads to unwillingness in telecommunication companies to roll out modern fibre infrastructure. CEO of PDC Telecommunication Services P. Ayappan Pappu Pillay explains that while condominiums and newer developments have fibre connections, telcos are generally reluctant to fiberise flats and terrace houses since these do not provide a healthy return on investment.

A potential solution, as suggested by Zairil and Ayappan, is to engage the telcos in a “build, operate and transfer (BOT)” scheme, with the Penang state government covering half the cost. Excitingly, there is a new telco in town, Allo, under Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB). Zairil explains that since houses already have TNB connections, it should not be difficult for the installation of fibre through existing infrastructure.

Ease of Mobility

The introduction of the free CAT bus to Queensbay Mall has been a much welcomed transport option for residents of Sungai Dua, and USM students. But for anyone who likes the freedom to roam, student Gui Kang En suggests that a bicycle rental option on campus would be equally welcome, since it would make trips to grocery shops more convenient. Student Seong Jinq adds that car rentals would be the icing on the cake.

“Both students have valid points,” agrees Faisal. USM is currently in talks with Beam, an electric scooter and bicycle rental company, as well as Socar, to have their vehicles in and around the university. These discussions include a clause for the companies to recruit students for future employment and to encourage the spirit of entrepreneurship.

Also on USM’s list of priorities is the nurturing of a start-up ecosystem. Upon taking up his appointment as vice-chancellor last year, Faisal says he was surprised to learn that the institute had yet to promote such kinds of endeavour. Under his direction, a start-up programme was soon introduced, with eight successful applicants. The Penang public is encouraged to sign up as well.

To be sure, there have been collaborations between the technology and manufacturing sectors and the university in the past, but what Faisal is setting his sights on now is the holistic “transfer of experience” from industry representatives who, having amassed a wealth of knowledge and training, have ventured into starting their own businesses. “Hopefully, this will spur strong entrepreneurism to the benefit of not just Sungai Dua, but the rest of Penang as well.”

Bayan Baru

To understand the formation of Bayan Baru, one needs to revisit the events of 1960s Penang. In 1967 the state lost its free port status and was in the throes of economic recession; per capita income was 12% below the national wage, unemployment had increased to 12%, and tourism had suffered a serious blow (Koay & Wong, 2019).

In order to restore Penang to its former glory and to generate employment, the Nathan Report of 1970, drafted by the economic consultant Robert R. Nathan, recommended the creation of a manufacturing industry, among others. Then-chief minister Tun Dr. Lim Chong Eu took this leap of faith, and the Free Trade Zone (FTZ) was soon set up, one of which is in Bayan Lepas (Koay & Wong, 2019).

Datuk Mohd Bazid Abdul Kahar, the seventh and current chief executive officer, formerly the general manager, of PDC. Photo: PDC.

Headed by Datuk Seri Chet Singh, the Penang Development Corporation (PDC) was formed to oversee the state’s industrial promotion and in tandem, was tasked with “planning for the socio-economic development of the state, drawing up strategies, and implementing the appropriate development projects and programmes.” (Singh, 2019)

One of these projects was the township of Bayan Baru. According to Datuk Mohd Bazid Abdul Kahar, the seventh and current chief executive officer, formerly the general manager, of PDC, “Bayan Baru was built alongside the development of the industrial parks in Bayan Lepas, to cater to the impending influx of investment and labour force.” This dedication remains strong 50 years on.

But have PDC’s visions and goals changed over time? The only difference, Bazid explains, is that the previous general managers had to plan for a greenfield development, whereas his challenge lies in “redeveloping a brown field into a vibrant, trendsetting township, in keeping with the current demand and in line with vision Penang2030.”

Part of the success of Bayan Baru’s development can be attributed to PDC designating parcels of land for civic, social and recreational purposes for relevant authorities to develop, and for private sector participation as well. Bazid compares the development to “a large jigsaw puzzle, with each piece fitting together perfectly.”

The next piece of this puzzle now is the building of the Penang International Commercial City (PICC) by property developer Hunza. Hunza sees Bayan Baru as the future of Penang, forecasting 60% of the Island’s population to be concentrated in the southwest district. With four condominiums and three serviced apartments planned, Hunza aims to provide housing for up to 10,000 residents. In addition, PICC will have office towers, BPO spaces, a 5-star hotel, a lifestyle mall and an F&B boulevard. Future phases include a central park and a medical centre, further boosting Penang’s credentials as a medical tourism destination. With these commercial components, Hunza estimates that PICC is able to create 15,000 job opportunities upon completion.

A typical row of terrace houses in Bayan Baru. Photo: Jonathan Thong.

The Bayan Baru Market Food Court. Photo: Jonathan Thong.

Managing Traffic Flow

Notwithstanding Bayan Baru’s future economic prosperity, an increase in residents would almost certainly exacerbate traffic congestion in the area. Hunza aims to expand and build more roads in its PICC future traffic plan, although this stands in direct conflict with transport planning wisdom, where building more roads would simply invite more vehicular usage. The future George Town to Bayan Lepas LRT may alleviate this problem, but its completion is still many years down the road.

In the meantime, one way of lessening congestion is to encourage alternate forms of transport which realistically speaking, is limited to walking, cycling or public transport. Mayor of Penang Island City Council (MBPP) Yew Tung Seang worries that there simply isn’t enough incentive to wean people off their reliance on cars.

But a grassroots initiative of employers subsidising their employees’ trips to work via the use of public transport or cycling might do the trick. Yew’s own staff is a testament to this. But he also acknowledges that with only two LinkBike stations within the Bayan Baru area, this does not make for much of a bike sharing network.

Likewise, walking around Bayan Baru, it is easy to note the unevenness of pavements or how they can abruptly end. Safe pedestrian crossings are nonexistent in some intersections as well. This impedes mobility especially for residents with disabilities and the elderly. Bicycle lanes are also noticeably absent. To address this shortcoming, the MBPP is pushing their Business Improvement District scheme (BIDs) into Bayan Baru and the Free Industrial Zone (FIZ). Part of the scheme is to improve pavement conditions and introduce more cycling lanes to make Bayan Baru a walkable and cycling township.

Business Opportunities

The nature of Bayan Baru’s development is such that it allows residents to open businesses close to where they live. This was what encouraged Yew Meng, the owner of Reframe Coffee Roasters to open his cafe at Arena Curve.

Mixed-use development in Bayan Baru. Photo: Jonathan Thong.

Formerly from Green Lane, he cites convenience and affordability as reasons for his move to Bayan Baru. But since the township’s demography comprises mainly of young families who work in the nearby FIZ, traffic congestion during peak hours, usually when parents are either dropping off or picking up their kids from day-care centres, can be trying. Despite this, Yew Meng says he still chooses to drive because he is “used to it”.

Omar, an international student from Egypt, however, prefers to walk when running errands within Bayan Baru. This USM post-graduate student and part-time freelance data analyst is able to study and work remotely, and can usually be found at Reframe since it is across from the condominium where he lives. “I love the convenience of living here. I walk to Giant for groceries, or to SPICE for Muay Thai, boxing and jiu jitsu,” he says, adding that when he needs to go beyond Bayan Baru, his choice of transport is a scooter, to weave through the congestion with ease.

Flood Mitigation

The area where Bayan Baru now sits used to be a paddy field, adjacent to wetlands, and with two rivers flowing through it, namely Sungai Ara and Sungai Relau. With land reclamation reducing water drainage to the rivers, flooding becomes a big challenge to people in the area.

Measures have been taken in the past to reduce the severity of floods, and the state government is investing in more projects to tackle the problem. According to Zairil, two of these projects, collectively called Rencana Tembakan Banjir (RTB), focus specifically on Bayan Baru. “Their total cost adds up to almost RM40mil. The state government is taking the issue of flooding seriously,” he says. Flash floods are hard to eliminate for now, but risk mitigation and management should reduce their frequency and severity significantly.

Digital Infrastructure

“The Covid-19 pandemic has popularised the work-from-home concept, and so we have to look into fitting Penang with cutting-edge technology to accommodate this development,” says Bazid. He adds that he would like to see not just Bayan Baru, but the whole of Penang fiberised with 5G or even, 6G in the future.

Figures provided by Ayappan indicate that 3G (100%) and 4G (97.8%) coverage is quite extensive in Penang. Newer condominiums are also equipped with fibre internet connections. But as is the case for Sungai Dua, old apartment buildings and terrace houses in Bayan Baru are still utilising the old copper network. “Some of these buildings are almost half a century old, perhaps it is time for an urban renewal. This is also a top priority for PDC.”

But Bazid admits that this undertaking can be complex since the affected land parcels are no longer owned by the Corporation. Instead, they now belong to individual stakeholders; and for the purpose of development, negotiations need to be entered into by both parties, and with the Penang state government, before consent can be attained.

Yew Meng and Omar discuss coffee at Reframe. Photo: Jonathan Thong.

Nevertheless, precedence has been set before in the 1990s, when PDC engaged and obtained the permission of residents of a dilapidated block of flats for their demolition and consequent rebuilding. Bazid explains that the affected residents were properly compensated, and were provided alternative accommodations in and around Bayan Baru until the new buildings were completed.

Not only will such rejuvenation elevate the aesthetics of the area, new technology can be utilised as well to provide a better quality of life for residents, and perhaps then telcos will be motivated to upgrade their existing digital infrastructure.

The two mature developments of Sungai Dua and Bayan Baru began simultaneously when Penang was in a severe economic crisis; and though both have flourished, many problems persist. To raise the liveability of the district, and of Penang in general, significant cooperation between different stakeholders is required.


References

  • Koay, S. L. & Wong, Y. T. (2019). From Munro to Nathan: The Rise of a Modern Economy in Penang. In C. Singh, R. Rasiah & Y. T. Wong, From Free Port to Modern Economy: Economic Development and Social Change in Penang, 1969 to 1990 (pp. 37-56). Penang Institute.
  • Singh, C. (2019). Penang Development Corporation and Penang’s Catalytic Transformation. In C. Singh, R. Rasiah & Y. T. Wong, From Free Port to Modern Economy: Economic Development and Social Change in Penang, 1969 to 1990 (pp. 57-92). Penang Institute.

Jonathan Thong is a funemployed individual who has recently made the move back to Penang from Melbourne. You can catch more of him on his podcast, the KC and JonJon show, available on all popular streaming networks like Spotify and Apple Play.



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