Building on the past


Penang’s major think tank has now existed for 15 years. With recent major changes in socioeconomic and political conditions, the focus of research has changed, bringing with it a need to reorganise. George Town is now on the Unesco heritage list; the state has a new government; South-East Asian integration has opened up air travel; and there is a shift in economic power globally; all of which require new perspectives. Penang Institute has a lot of work to do in the near future.

The Socio-Economic & Environmental Research Institute (SERI) has now changed its name to Penang Institute. The launch of the new moniker took place on December 9, 2011.

It seems a good time for the institute’s magazine to take a quick look at its veritable history.

SERI was established in March 1997 as an independent nonprofit research organisation to supply the Penang government with strategic knowledge about the state. The original idea for such an organisation was first mooted in the first Penang Strategic Development Plan (PSDP1) which foresaw the existence of a Penang research and development institute “consistent with the need for effective research and planning activities”.

Officially launched in November 1997 by the then Chief Minister of Penang, Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, its founding members, Datuk Noor Ahmad Mokhtar and Dr Lim Pao Li were joined on the Board of Directors by Datuk (Dr) Anwar Fazal and Datuk Dr Leong Yueh Kwong. SERI’s first home was a rented single storey bungalow at No. 10A, Persiaran Bukit Jambul, Bayan Lepas (International College Grounds). It began with less than eight staff members.

The vision for SERI at the outset was to be an institution for change, delivering far-reaching but realistic policy solutions that would produce a fair, more inclusive and environmentally sustainable Penang. It was to be a policy and action research institute that involved a wide spectrum of society and that could derive practical and workable local solutions to new challenges.

From its inception, SERI provided a progressive forum for the state government, local councils, government-linked agencies, international organisations and the public by way of research and dialogue. Its strong networks in government, academia, corporate and voluntary sectors enabled it to deliver well-researched and clearly argued policy analyses, reports and publications.

The Sustainable Penang Initiative

The Sustainable Penang Initiative was SERI’s maiden project, funded by the Canada-Asean Governance Innovations Network Program (Cagin) with the support of agencies including the Institute on Governance (IOG), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Unescap).

The project was the first of its kind in Malaysia if not the region, and involved consultative processes that were new to the country at that time. The initiative has been widely quoted by international institutions as a good example of participatory engagement with society at large. The process itself spawned five citizens’ organisations that continue today, including the Bureau on Learning Difficulties (Bold); the Penang Association for Continuing Education (Pace); Sustainability, Independence, Living and Access (Sila); Sustainable Environment for Penang (Step) and Water Watch Penang.

In general, SERI focused broadly on the following areas of research:


SERI’s work since 1997 involved conducting socio-economic studies, such as the Penang Strategic Development Plan and recently the Penang Blueprint – a Blueprint for Change (2011-2015). The economic section also published the annual Penang Economic Outlook and the Penang Economic Monthly (PEM), which documented, and reported findings from SERI’s research projects. It also collated, tracked and published Penang statistics on a quarterly basis. A socioeconomic databank was maintained which supported economic research and data requested by the state government. In addition to its research functions, SERI, also served as the secretariat for the Penang K-ICT (KnowledgeInformation and Communication Technology) Committee, and was involved in the preparation of the Penang K-ICT Blueprint which assisted the state in implementing the five strategic knowledge economy initiatives.

SERI also served as secretariat to the Penang Local Government Forum which regularly met to discuss issues related to local government such as traffic management, solid waste management, urban development and good governance. It also undertook a Citizen’s Survey on Local Government in 2000, and recently (2011) undertook a Core Welfare Indicators Questionnaire (CWIQ).

SERI worked closely with a range of United Nations development agencies, including UNDP and Unescap, in the field of disability, which was groundbreaking work for this field in Penang. This started off with the Training of Trainers for People with Disabilities for the Promotion of NonHandicapping Environments (1998-1999) sponsored by Unescap. This later led to other projects of national and international significance. More recently, SERI delivered a report for UNDP for the State of Johor on Encouraging Increased Participation by Persons with Disabilities in the Workforce.


Many important projects on environmental protection and conservation were also undertaken, spanning from resource conservation to solid waste management. Most were carried out jointly with international agencies such as UNDP, United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), Japan International Cooperation Agency ( Jica) and Danish International Development Agency (Danida).

From a Community Waste Recycling Programme (2003/04), to an EcoYouth Programme on Environmental Conservation and Education (part of a Toyota environmental activities grant programme) (2004/05), to a Jica Study on National Waste Minimisation in Malaysia (2005), SERI was involved in many pilot projects. It also acted as consultant for the UNDP-Economic Planning Unit study on structuring and institutionalising solid waste management in Penang (2007) and is currently formulating an Integrated Solid Waste Management (ISWM) implementation plan for Penang. This was a consequence of the state opting out of the privatisation effort under the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Act 2007. 

More recently, SERI revisited the Sustainable Penang Initiative after a lapse of 10 years; Sustainable Penang Initiative 2, a series of consultative roundtables, was held to look into issues that had emerged since 2000 and the first initiative. The institute is also involved in an ongoing project which designated an eco-town in the Bayan Lepas area of the island, working with partners such as Unep, Division of Technology, Industry and Economics (DTIE) and the International Environmental Technology Centre (IETC). It also supports the state government in the planning of projects such as the Cleaner, Greener, Penang Initiative and assists with local projects such as making Jalan Macalister and Jalan Benggali, Butterworth model hawker centres, and turning food waste into liquid bio-fertiliser at the Bayan Baru Hawker


Important studies on education included a Study on Penang’s IPTS (Private Institutes of Higher Learning) (2001), a survey of Computer Literacy of School Teachers & Assessment of IT Facilities in Penang Schools (2001), a survey on preschools in Penang (2000), the study on Learning Difficulties among Primary School Students (2002) and a study on the Competitiveness of IPTS in Penang (2005).

SERI was secretariat of the Penang Educational Consultative Council (Pecc) which involved a pool of resourceful and committed community-based professionals coming together to contribute to the betterment of non-formal and continuing education in the state, to complement the federal government’s efforts in formal education.

The Pecc was instrumental in setting up Bold and Pace which promotes the culture of continuous learning among adults and provides learning experiences which can stimulate new interests, widen intellectual horizons and enrich cultural lives through short courses, talks, forums, and workshops. ArtsEducation (Arts-ED) is dedicated to stimulating greater interest in the arts and heritage among school-aged children outside the classroom, while Help4U – an online helpline has been established to help with the emotional, social, personal and learning-related issues and problems experienced by young people.

EDUCATION@PENANG is a collaborative effort to promote private higher education in Penang to the international market. Pecc has now become an independent unit and continues to enjoy strong support from the present state government.

SERI morphs into Penang Institute

With the current fluid scenarios in economic, environment and social structures, both globally and regionally, new challenges have emerged. In order for the institute to remain relevant and work at the cutting edge, it must adapt. Responding to these dynamics, SERI underwent a transformation process which included a change of name. As of August 1, 2011, we became known as Penang Institute.

Building on SERI’s tradition to meet challenges head on, Penang Institute aspires to be one of the best policy research institutes in the region, one that will provide both the Penang state government and the people of Penang with far-sighted, creative and out-of-the-box policy options in order that Penang can lead again. It aims to deepen Penang’s understanding of its place in Asia, while attempting to be the gathering hub where great thinkers can converge and exchange views, with Penang as an experiment site where good ideas are put to work. Our focus is being expanded to cover and promote interdisciplinary and multifaceted studies of Penang; while also looking at the dynamics of and interplay between governance and economics at the sub-national level.

Finally, the study of cities is demanding a great deal of attention. Understanding what makes a successful city in the near future becomes the major focus for Penang Institute.

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