The Motorbike – Symbol of Penang and its Economic Vibrancy


SEE THE AUNTY puttering on the three-wheeler Honda C90, dragging a cart of triple-mixed iced soya bean, “leong fun” and milo; the beverages slushing around violently as she zips her way to an after-school stop? Or that uncle selling piping hot bowls of yong tau foo on the Honda EX-5 to satiate late-night cravings?

Photo: chrispictures©123RF.COM.

The humble motorcycle, or kapchai as the locals fondly call it, is one very essential – albeit underrated – vehicle. A typical comment when the newly inducted arrives in Penang is that “There are motorcycles everywhere!”. The late Tan Sri Loh Boon Siew must be thanked for this. As the sole agent for Honda, he imported into Malaysia the first fleet of Super Cubs from Japan in the late 1950s.

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The motorcycle was a real status symbol then. In fact, the colloquial name kapchai comes from these millions-sold- worldwide Super Cubs. Other household names including Hong Bee Yamaha, Guan Hoe, Chang Motor, Taycon, Sum Sun and Lik Lau Motors continue to bear the local motorcycle industry torch forward.

Powering the Economy

The motorcycle is a critical cog that whirs Penang’s economy, ensuring the livelihood of its people and sustaining the supply chains of local industries. Purposeful and efficient, the most obvious example perhaps is reflected in the increase of delivery service riders since Malaysia succumbed to Covid-19. But prior to this even, everyday items from gas tanks and charcoal to tiffin meals were delivered to customers on motorcycles.

Look closely and one would notice that the hawkers that line Lorong Baru, Lebuh Chulia and even at the pasar malam peddle their food and wares on and from the two-wheeler. Food trucks may be all the rage at the moment but comfortingly, Penang is not witnessing businesses on motorcycles riding off into the sunset anytime soon.

Food trucks may be all the rage at the moment but comfortingly, Penang is not witnessing businesses on motorcycles riding off into the sunset anytime soon. Photo: Kenneth Ooi.

A roti man in George Town. Photo: Maitree Boonkitphuwadon©123RF.COM.

When in Penang…

Penang has made great strides in elevating the cycling experience. But it is personally, and highly, recommended that visitors take in the sights through the visor of a motorcycle helmet.

Riding around the periphery of Penang Island feels very similar to rides along the scenic routes of the Pacific Coast Highway in California and even the beautiful coastal stretches of Honolulu, Hawaii. And entering the Unesco heritage enclave, with its tight alleyways and old shop houses, weaving through traffic is a breeze.

It is interesting to see how motorcycles in Southeast Asia have evolved and integrated with the metropolitan areas that share between them similar development constraints in land use and cost for new infrastructure. That said, however, development for motorcycle friendly traffic systems and usage of the vehicle here in Penang can be bettered, especially when compared to the situation in Phuket, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta and Bali where motorcycles are a primary mode of transport.

With the good, comes the bad. Here, we see motorcycles obstructing a five-foot way. Photo: Regina Hoo.

A great recent success and positive leap forward is the free passageway for motorcyclists across the Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge. Active promotion of motorcycle use by the Penang state government could also mean a significant reduction in the overall traffic volume of the city. The state might also save a few pennies in the process if city and state officials make their civic rounds and attend meetings using the two-wheeler. Furthermore, the motorcycle is cost-effective; it consumes less resource than a car and covers more ground than a bicycle can manage. Extrapolate the cost compared to owning and maintaining a small car and the benefits of commuting via the motorcycle quickly outweigh the former.

Riding as a Hobby

The Round Island Tour

Riding can be enjoyed in any number of ways. The “Round Island” is a popular riding tour along the scenic routes of Penang, and takes a leisurely half-day to complete. You can start from any point on the Island, the first Penang Bridge perhaps. You can zig-zag around George Town, grab a hearty breakfast before continuing along the seafront promenade of Gurney Drive, through to Tanjung Tokong and Tanjung Bungah, before riding the winding coastal stretch of Batu Ferringhi to the Teluk Bahang Dam and down to Balik Pulau.

In Ho Chi Minh City (left) and Bali (right) where motorcycles are a primary mode of transport. Photo: Regina Hoo

Since these motorcycles are not ridden on roads, there is no need for official licenses, registration and insurance. Photo: Kenneth Ooi.

Balik Pulau, this quaint little town colloquially named Lik Lau, introduces avid riders to the breath-taking village roads around Sungai Pinang, Sungai Rusa and Sungai Air Putih. From Pulau Betong and the town centre, the rider can travel on the southern route to Teluk Kumbar, pass the Penang International Airport, Batu Maung, Bayan Lepas and the Tun Dr. Lim Chong Eu Highway, before heading back to George Town. There is also the option of a shorter route through Farlim and Air Itam; this takes a little more than an hour to complete.

If cultivated properly, motorcycle tourism may well become a state attraction. In some ways, it already is; just observe the number of motorcycle groups and convoys that turn up in Penang during the holiday season. The state is usually a compulsory pit-stop in almost all motorcycle tour schedules around Malaysia.

Urban growth and development have somewhat altered these routes though; for safety reasons, riders now have to sit through quite a few traffic lights. In fact, from just a handful back in the 1990s, the Northern Coastal route now has 16 traffic lights that stretch from Gurney Drive to Batu Ferringhi.


Photo: Kenneth Ooi.

Another lesser known motorcycle hobby is the motocross, or MX for short. It is popular among the young rural demographic locally. In Seberang Perai’s lush jungle terrain, riders from all age groups gather to experience the thrill of flying over bumps and kicking up dirt. Organised “jaguh kampung” races are held almost bi-weekly around Malaysia; and since these motorcycles are not ridden on roads, there is no need for official licenses, registration and insurance. A quick run with a tractor over unused land, either to pile on some dirt or to level the ground in between oil palm trees, and a makeshift motocross circuit is formed.

Outside of George Town, near the Mengkuang Dam in Permatang Pauh is the Padang Ibu Motocross Racetrack. Riders (some as young as 10!) compete in organised Cub and MX races – these are held regularly by the local clubs. Die-hard fans of the sport have even retrofitted box trucks and lorries to house a mobile garage complete with tools, beds to sleep in, and electricity and filtered water built specifically to attend races in the more remote locations around the country. These local cowboys enjoy a good rodeo once in a while.

One might infer that it is because of the natural exposure and prevalence of the motorcycle that Penang boasts a great number of talented riders.

Though prize winnings are modest, ranging from a few hundred Ringgit to a few thousand, along with hampers and trophies; it is the “jaguh kampung” bragging rights that fire these riders’ pistons.

Die-hard fans of the motocross sport have retrofitted box trucks and lorries to house a mobile garage. Photo: Kenneth Ooi.

Local talent Aidil Ashraf, a 19-year-old Mandarinspeaking MX rider, turned competitive when he was 15, having won organised races in areas like Tikam Batu, Sungai Petani, Ekor Kucing in Pinang Tunggal, in Yan, Kedah and even as far as Kemaman, Terengganu. “I learned how to motocross from my peers and relatives, on the dirt roads and fields where my father works in construction,” he says.

Aidil is diligent in his training, but laments that sponsors and good races are few and far between. Indeed, prizes are more attractive with factory-sponsored competitions. But he is thankful for his mentor Tommy Soo Xi Zhuang of Lik Lau Motors, where Aidil also works, for his continued sponsorship, training and encouragement in honing his skills. “The ultimate goal is to compete in international MX open races in China and Germany come 2022,” Aidil says, adding that he hopes to carve out a professional career, just as Malaysian rider Hafizh Syahrin of MotoGP has done.

To be sure, there are many young talents of such impressive calibre scattered around the northern region just waiting to be discovered and be groomed for bigger and better things.

Will Penang See a Revival of Its Town Circuit?

One might infer that it is because of the natural exposure and prevalence of the motorcycle that Penang boasts a great number of talented riders. In fact, Penang was once home to the northern region’s race circuit; races were held right in the city centre and around the Esplanade and Padang Kota Lama. But alas, these have petered out.

Though prize winnings are modest, it is the "jaguh kampung" bragging rights that fire these riders' pistons. Photo: Kenneth Ooi.

The local motorsports industry is, however, still spirited and lively, despite having – to some extent – rebranded itself as illegal street racing and mat rempit-ism. Redressing these social ills would certainly take time but perhaps the building of a racetrack – albeit not as grand as the Sepang International Circuit – can be given due consideration as a viable solution, providing an avenue for local riders to blow off steam and channel their need for speed in a much safer and “official” setting. Town circuits are also where multiple MotoGP World Champion Valentino Rossi and Michael Schumacher of Formula One grew up sharpening their skills.

Vocational students, too, will be able to enhance their learning by acquainting themselves with the variety of motorcycle makes and models on the circuit and by extension, encouraging the increase of more motorcycle mechanics in Penang.

Kenneth Ooi is a Xavierian and an avid motoring fan. He enjoys riding “Round Island” discovering Penang with friends and remembers vividly when Gurney Drive’s roundabout did not have speed bumps.

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