The guardian of the hill


Penang Monthly recently took a trip up the hill, guided by Penang Hill Corporation’s general manager Lee Kah Choon.

Lee briefing visitors at the reopening of the bypaths.

With its magnificent panoramic views and its cool climate, Penang Hill has always been a popular retreat, both for locals and tourists. Fortunately the hill has escaped major development plans that once loomed menacingly over it, including a plan from the 1990s to massively develop the hill by building hotels, high-end condos and a theme park. Such excessive development would have destroyed the biodiversity of the forests and could also have led to environmental disasters.

In 2010, the Penang Hill Corporation (PHC) was set up to look into the wellbeing of the Hill. Led by general manager Datuk Lee Kah Choon, the PHC sets every 365 days as a milestone, keeping themselves in check on the progress of the hill. Last month, they celebrated their second milestone.

One of the very first challenges was to solve the problem of the now famous “Kancil car park” to cater for the increased volume of visitors. With the car park now under re-construction, the PHC has acted swiftly to replace it with a parking space between the lower station of Penang Hill and the famous Thee Kong Thua temple.

The space between the car park and the railway station has been transformed into a new garden. The walking trail – which was created from recycled old railway metal – passes underneath the viaduct trail the funicular trains run on. “At Penang Hill, we do it the ‘green’ way,” said Lee. To achieve their commitments, the PHC has also launched the zero-waste concept by introducing composting on the hill.

The new Swiss funicular trains are able to transport 100 people per trip to the top of the hill in only six minutes, unlike the old trains which took about half an hour and required passengers to change trains. All along our journey, CCTV cameras kept a close watch on the trains and track to ensure that these were clear of fallen branches or animals.

This change has not been to everyone's taste, and the speed of the train is considered by some to be a danger and also detrimental to the enjoyment of the trip.

Up on the hill, much has remained the same but with upgrades. The old familiar hawker centre has been given a major facelift; the stalls are now housed in a beautiful threestorey building. Public space has been created for activities, children can now run and play freely and there are plans to host orchestra performances.

One of the hill’s lesser known attractions are bypaths that connect different parts of the hill ecosystem. Previously, the bypaths were closed to visitors due to lack of maintenance, but now, thanks to the PHC’s coordination with the MPPP, some of the bypaths are once again accessible, allowing visitors close encounters with the hill’s rich flora and fauna. “That’s the beauty of Penang Hill, you can be near to nature without going through the dangers of the jungle,” said Lee.

So, nature lovers will find themselves at home, while architecture fans can entertain themselves with the bungalows on show. But a warning for those who are determined to explore all the trails – this is not for the fainthearted!

Recent additions to the hill are the prominent signages in different colours to ensure that visitors do not get lost. Approximately RM10,000 is spent every month on grass cutting, drain and sump clearing, tree pruning and clearing of fallen trees to maintain the bypaths. A further RM330,000 has been allocated for the upgrading of the bypaths, including installing the signages and providing maps. The PHC is working with the Forestry Department to label all the trees with their species and common names.

Creating a culture of maintenance is an important part of the PHC’s mandate. Erosion, for example, is a major enemy that requires constant monitoring. Thanks to the good drainage system created in pre-Merdeka days, the roads were built with a slight incline to lead the water to drains, ensuring that they would not be flooded after heavy rain. Tree branches are another common problem, often snagging electricity wires and disrupting power.

From Penang Hill, the view of the island remains beautiful. Up here, the PHC’s decisions determine visitors’ experiences– are there enough benches for the weary, are trees blocking the view? Are there enough binoculars?

These might appear to be small details, but it takes someone who can appreciate the hill to develop the hill, sustainably and appropriately. Some of the standalone projects are commendable, and the PHC has excelled in looking after “small details”. As it turns two, the expectations for it to rejuvenate Penang Hill have never been higher.

Ivy Kwek writes to seek answers. Her interests include socioeconomic development, politics and human rights issues.

Related Articles

Feb 2014

New housing policies to help Penangites cope

Rising prices of properties call for housing policy interventions. 55 Penang Palette

Jun 2016

Where Students Return to be Teachers

At SMJK Sacred Heart, dedicated teachers inspire future generations of the school.

Jan 2015

All that glitters in George Town

The Hars have been making traditional votive paper flowers in George Town for over 70 years. Soon-Tzu Speechley documents their story, and that of the city's doubled-edged gentrification.

Nov 2017

Making Maths Accessible – and Fun

Penang has a new equal-opportunity platform for mathematics.