Komtar’s Hidden Gems


Away from the offices and shops are some curious – and fascinating – nooks.

At its most basic level, Komtar is the administrative heart of Penang’s state and local governments. While the 65-storey (soon to be more) tower is recognisable to all, only a few know it well. Penang Monthly peers into three hidden spots in the state’s famous monument.

An Icon of Glamour

It was 1985, and the construction of the Komtar urban renewal project had been underway for over a decade. The structural work for the 65-storey, 232m-high tower block had been completed, and to mark the occasion, the top brass of the state had gathered for a “capping” ceremony at the very top of what would be the tallest building in the nation.

Karen Lai

Komtar's electrical chargeman, Wong Khee Cheong.

Along with the 100-odd people present was Wong Khee Cheong, then a 25-year-old Penang Development Corporation (PDC) technician on standby during the event. “The ceremony started at the podium block on Level Five, then we adjourned to the top. As the technical team, we had to be around for any eventualities. It was very exciting for all of Penang. As I stepped on top (of the tower), I could see the whole of Penang Island and for the first time in my life, I felt like I was up in the air! It felt almost like you were in heaven,” Wong jokes.

The geodesic dome under construction.

He says the top of the tower was merely an open space bordered by a low railing, with a helipad on a raised platform where the day’s guests stood. “I think the most memorable moment was when the (then) TYT (Yang di-Pertua Negeri Tun Dr Awang Hassan) signed the cement block in the middle of the helipad. That was the only time I’ve ever been to Komtar’s helipad,” says Wong, who is currently Komtar’s electrical chargeman. To his knowledge, the helipad itself had been used less than five times in the entire history of Komtar and all in relation to army exercises. 

Karen Lai

PDC Setia Urus CEO Datuk Ang Choo Hong.

PDC Setia Urus CEO Datuk Ang Choo Hong, who is in charge of the management of Komtar, says that is of no surprise. “There is a misconception that helipads are used for fire evacuations. People think of towering infernos and they get the impression that in the event of a fire, they should head upwards. In actual fact, when there is a fire, you always walk down – no matter what. Fires can take only five minutes to go from something smothering to complete destruction. By the time the helicopter comes, it will be too late,” Ang says.

He adds that, generally, the idea of helipads on the top of buildings is to add to the glamour of the structure and to perhaps serve VIPs, though the Komtar aerial landing site has so far not served to welcome a single head of state, celebrity or notable figure.

Currently, the helipad is not in function, due to the extensive revitalisation project launched in 2013. The project, awarded to Only World Group (OWG) Holdings, will add an additional floor (Level 66), along with retail and F&B outlets covering the structure’s new pinnacle.

Stairway to Discovery

Linking the ground floor (also known as Level One) to Level Five, where the geodesic dome is located, is the “grand staircase”. Many may remember conquering its climb in the late 1980s and 1990s to reach the squash courts, food court or amusement arcade that were then operating on Level Five. The stairs were also in the thick of the action during the 2000 Sukma Games – the first and only time to date the state has hosted the sporting event – when promotional activities and celebrations were held in adjoining areas.

Despite its charm, Ang says the site gradually saw dwindling foot traffic: “Over the years, the grand staircase fell into disuse With our Malaysian weather, the place was like a hot plate. Even if you went there at 7pm or 8pm, it was still hot. You would need to wait until around 10pm (to be comfortable). Under the Komtar Revitalisation Project, OWG has totally transformed the area into an F&B hub,” Ang says.

Now, escalators have been added to parts of the staircase, which itself has largely been preserved and given a well-needed facelift. Tiny, twinkling lights line each and every polished step which leads to the newly constructed banquet hall, posh shopping arcades and swanky F&B outlets. The “new” grand staircase will also point the way to the upcoming Tech Dome Penang, a science and discovery centre that is taking over the historic Komtar dome.

A Shining Beacon

To Telekom Malaysia Berhad (TM), “100” means help and assistance; under the tagline “Call us at 100”, the number is the general helpline for all TM customers to report service faults, inquire about billings or explore the integrated information and communications corporation’s many products. Every Malaysian with a landline will probably recognise the number. Few, however, know that the calls go to Komtar.

The VADS Contact Centre Services moved into the Komtar tower in 2006 and occupies the entire 58th floor. The company, which is owned by TM, is unique in the sense that it is one of only two private entities that have premises in the state icon – the other being OWG.

Karen Lai

Senior operations manager Mohamad Jilani Mustafa says the centre receives calls from all over the country on matters relating to billing and provisioning. “TM has four contact centres in the country – in Kuching, KL, Malacca and here in Penang. We have about 200 people working at our office here in Komtar,” he says.

As someone who has grown up in the state, working in Komtar has a special allure and the 56-year-old says the convenience of working in the city centre is a major plus point. “Here, we have parking, food and security. We are also in the heart of a transport network, which is something essential for our workers.”

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Under the Komtar Revitalisation Project, escalators have been put into the grand staircase.

And although his work, like any other job, may sometimes become routine, Mohamad Jilani is assured of one thing that will never get old: the bird’s eye view of Penang. “Here on the 58th floor, the view never gets boring,” he says with a smile.

Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.

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