An idea comes into being
Travellers on the North-South Expressway to Penang often whizz through Seberang Perai without pause, taking no notice of the mainland that makes up the other half of this northwestern state in Peninsular Malaysia.
It’s not just that the scenery is nondescript. Penang’s mainland does not inspire curiosity simply because it has always remained in the periphery, with the island hogging the limelight.
After all, Penang is used interchangeably to mean the island as well as the state. It has been such for as long as anyone remembers, and Seberang Perai residents have always lived with the island’s eminence.
Linking the two halves
Penang Island’s status is rooted in its colonial past. In 1786, Englishman Francis Light set up the East India Company’s trading post on Penang Island. The British only acquired the strip of mainland across the island from the Kedah Sultanate 14 years later, and only because they needed to protect ships from pirates stationed there.
They named it Province Wellesley, after the Governor-General of India Richard Wellesley. It’s still the gazetted name and used in all official documents in English. But at some point in the 1970s, Seberang Perai replaced Province Wellesley as the commonly used name.
The island was developed as an urban and commercial centre but the mainland was left mainly to agriculture. The mainland’s relative neglect continued into the post-independence years. Though there have been efforts to step up Seberang Perai’s development in recent decades, it has lagged behind the island.
However, there is a growing urgency to bridge the gap between the state’s two halves. Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has said that he envisions a Hong Kong-Kowloon type synergy. It’s an idea that has been mooted by previous chief ministers as well, from way back in the 1960s.
The proposal for the Penang Bridge was laid out during the state’s first chief minister Wong Pow Nee’s tenure (1957-1969) for he saw the importance of linking the mainland and the island. Yet the bridge was only completed in 1985.
The second chief minister Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu reiterated in his 2005 Penang Lecture that “we must think of Penang Island and Seberang Perai as a single entity.”
In 1967, 53% of the population of 777,777, lived on the Island and 47% on the mainland. But it was predicted even then that there would eventually be more people living in Seberang Perai as it has almost three quarters of the state’s total land mass.
The 739sq km hinterland is divided into the Northern, Central and Southern districts, and administered under one municipal council.
The shift in population has happened. By 2004, out of a population of 1.4 million, 53.7% lived on the mainland and 46.3% on the island. In 2012, the mainland had 872,600 residents or 54.2% of the state’s population, compared with 738,500 on the island. Seberang Perai’s population is estimated at 1.02 million now.
As land becomes scarcer and property prices skyrocket on the island, more will choose to live on the mainland, especially with better job opportunities, facilities and linkages.
CM Lim’s goal is to join the two halves that make up the state by increasing connectivity between the two. A ferry service and two bridges now link the mainland and island, and Lim’s proposals include an undersea tunnel or a third bridge, as well as a sky cable car service across the sea.
The opening of the second Penang bridge, the Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge, in 2014 is a significant milestone. The bridge connects Batu Kawan on the mainland to Batu Maung on the island. Though there’s not much traffic on it now, it is set to be a catalyst of growth in Seberang Perai Selatan.
The Batu Kawan dream
It will soon be impossible to be indifferent to Seberang Perai, with Batu Kawan being the buzzword. It is a 6000-acre plot of largely unoccupied former plantation land that was acquired by the Penang Development Corporation (PDC) in the 1980s.
Politicians and developers are promising that it’ll be transformed into a modern, eco-friendly and meticulously planned mixed township and retail paradise with friendly public spaces, efficient transportation links and top-notch amenities.
The island’s pride is its nostalgic colonial past but Seberang Perai’s ace will be in boldly reinventing its identity and building its future, brick by brick. The mainland’s trump card is its vast expanse of undeveloped land. It is on this blank canvas that Penang will enter into a new phase of growth and set new benchmarks for modern living.
Away from the limelight, Seberang Perai has laid a solid foundation for its future. Although the pace is slower here, progress has been steady. Plush corporate jobs were mostly on the island, so mainlanders have survived and thrived by being enterprising and resourceful.
Agriculture is still an economic mainstay but the mainland has also developed the biggest industrial belt in the country. It stretches from Bertam up north to Perai and Batu Kawan – so jobs are plentiful here. There are also many homegrown small and medium scale businesses and enterprises scattered all over Seberang Perai. Some provide support services to the bigger factories, and some produce to meet local needs.
Apart from its links to the island, Seberang Perai also has a good network of highways and roads within its districts and across state lines. It has good rail links and sea connectivity via Penang Port, which is located in Butterworth.
The completion of the Penang Sentral transport hub in Butterworth in 2017 will further strengthen its infrastructure.
Set to soar
Datuk Seri Chet Singh, PDC’s general manager from 1969-1991 who worked closely with then Chief Minister Tun Lim to build Penang, said acquiring Batu Kawan was all part of the state government’s plans to develop the mainland.
“We did not forget Seberang Perai,” he emphasised. “As far as we were concerned, it was going to be the base of the future of Penang.”
Seberang Perai’s transformation seems like a lofty aspiration. But Chet, who led his team at PDC to build Penang’s industrial hubs from scratch in the 1970s and changed the state’s fortunes and future, believes in Batu Kawan’s promise of transforming the mainland.
“It’ll take perhaps 20 years for Batu Kawan to be fully realised, but this will be Seberang Perai’s flagship. When you look ahead 20 years, it seems like a long time and you wonder if you will be around to see it. But now when you look back, the time has just gone by,” says Chet.
Seberang Perai stands on the threshold now, poised on the brink of exciting times.