Developing the hill is an uphill climb

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The luxuriant backdrop that Penang’s central hill range provides, hits any visitor to the island immediately. It softens much of the haphazard development that happens on the flatlands. And so, Penang lovers love Penang Hill most deeply. Developing the hill is therefore not something to be attempted by the meek, or the overly ambitious.

Penang Hill remains one of the state’s more politically sensitive issues today. With renewed development efforts coming under fire from activists and the press, this is not about to change.

The hill was recognised as a good retreat destination as soon as the British arrived. The construction of the funicular train in 1923 saw a boom in bungalow properties, which ended with World War II. Penang Hill was then left as it was and no major development was carried out on the hill until today. Development around its foothills, including residential developments, on the other hand, never ceased.

Attempts to redevelop and revitalise Penang Hill have consistently been met with strong resistance. Berjaya Group’s development intentions in the 1990s, which included the construction of high-end condominiums on the hill, led to the formation of Friends of Penang Hill, comprised of several Penang non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and activists, and the “Save Penang Hill” campaign. Throughout the campaign, public forums and petitions were held, urging the state government to review the Berjaya plan.

The proposal’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report was twice rejected by the Department of Environment. Penang Hill eventually became one of the biggest political issues in the 1990 elections, ultimately one of the issues that led to the downfall of Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu as Chief Minister.

The local authority realised the importance of controlling development on the hill. In April 1997, the Bukit Bendera Local Plan was gazetted, which took public opinion into consideration via public hearings.

But developers were spooked by the prospect of another backlash, and no new developments have been carried out until revitalisation initiatives led by the Penang Hill Corporation (PHC) were proposed recently. The new plans include the development of infrastructure and facilities and even the restoration of historical buildings on the hill. Central to this are the upgrading of the funicular train system and the construction of a new hawker centre.

Lim Chong Keat..

Looking back at major development proposals on Penang Island, many have failed under public pressure. This is especially true when it involves any development or even rumoured development proposals on Penang Hill. But how much of it is genuine fear of Penang Hill being ruined, and how much of it is simply a knee-jerk reaction? Is the resistance against development – any development – justified?

“The people are being cautious, like all concerned parents who have daughters,” said architect Jimmy Lim. “The moment they hear ‘hill’, they think something terrible is going to happen.”

Lim was tasked with designing the hill’s new hawker centre. Mindful of how any development can be perceived by the public, how did he approach the project? “The whole building is meant to be covered up by greenery eventually, so that it forms part of the hill landscape,” he explained. “Why should a building stick out like a sore thumb?” The hawker centre, he reasoned, should blend in with its surrounding environment, using the terrain to hide its existence so that visitors can still enjoy the scenery without having a man-made structure obstructing their view. “Whatever we do up on the hill has to be done with humility. It is very important to respect nature.”

The new hawker centre on the hill.

The blame for poorly developed projects, said Lim, should not just be pinned on developers or politicians, but architects as well. He argued that local architects served as little more than "rubber stamps" for development projects. “I really find the architects in Penang to not have the moral fibre to stand up to a lot of things. The consultants don’t say a thing, because they want to be paid.”

So how do you develop Penang Hill? “You must bring consultants who are passionate and sensitive and understand the environment. And you must be prepared to pay a good price.”

According to PHC general manager Datuk Lee Kah Choon, the long-term goal is to turn Penang Hill into an ecologically friendly destination and maintain its status as the largest green lung within George Town, as well as provide more infrastructure and amenities to visitors.

“Whatever negative news that you hear (about Penang Hill) is actually historical,” said Lee, who attributed many of Penang Hill’s existing problems to poor urban planning by the previous state administration. “When they allowed all these apartments and buildings at the foothill, they didn’t take the place into consideration. They couldn’t care less about the place as a tourist destination. I mean, a place that has been neglected for 50 years, you expect it to be rejuvenated within five months? It cannot be done.” He added that there were no plans to revive the Berjaya plan or to have another mega project on Penang Hill.

While some may, in view of how sensitive Penang Hill is, take a slower approach to developing the hill, Lee notes that the PHC has another problem to deal with: Mother Nature herself. Less popular footpaths are covered by thick bushes, while heritage buildings and the canopy walkway have been plagued by termites. While a rushed restoration attempt would have a negative impact on the hill’s biodiversity, a slower restoration could find itself hindered by nature. “We are fighting a constant war with the environment,” said Lee. Striking the right balance has proven to be a challenge; and there are so many things that need to be done and there is too little time, Lee believed, for PHC to prove itself to the public.

Mindful of how sensitive development on Penang Hill is, PHC invited a team of professional consultants to work on a Special Area Plan in 2011, which will act as a development and maintenance guideline for the hill. With this document, even if the hill’s operator were to be replaced, its development concept will not be altered.

PHC also invited a separate team of consultants to work on the Strategic Development Plan for Penang Hill, headed by Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat, a highly regarded architect and urban planner.

Jimmy Lim and Lee Kah Choon.

“The whole failure of the hill,” said Lim, who was also responsible for designing Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak (Komtar), “is due to the absence of political will, which led to it being neglected by the local government and the state.”

Among the recommendations of the Strategic Development Plan is that restoration of the heritage buildings and the change of use from accommodation to other facilities will be more beneficial to both the heritage buildings and to the value of Penang Hill as a tourist destination. Additionally, uphill development should also focus on infrastructure to allow the hill’s rich biodiversity to be more accessible to the public, researchers and academicians.

For these recommendations to take place, however, several supporting studies must be carried out first, including a topographical survey, a geotechnical study and an environmental impact study. Lim believes that the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) must be responsible for the essential upgrading and maintenance of the infrastructure before PHC can effectively function, and emphasised the need for competent personnel, which he said is “badly lacking at the moment.”

Penangites are understandably protective of Penang Hill; hence the need for a clear presentation of any rejuvenation or development plans. The rejuvenation proposal should be clearly explained to the public in order to avoid treating the hill as yet another political football for local players to kick around, especially in an election year. With potential misunderstandings avoided, it will be easier to arrive at a consensus about the hill’s rejuvenation as a successful ecotourism destination. Penang Hill is too important to Penangites for anything less.

Ong Siou Woon was an assistant town planner, and is currently a research analyst in the City, Urbanisation and Environmental Programme in the Penang Institute.
Mohd Firdaus Mohd Habib was involved in the preparation of the Penang Hill Strategic Development Plan, and has also participated in various projects involving housing, local governance and urban planning at the state level.



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