City of birds


“ Zero tolerance” is not the way things seem to get done in our part of the world. In striking ways, a “look the other way” policy is more common. George Town’s chutzpah has encouraged enterprise and innovation but often at the cost of good longterm planning and sustainable development. Urban swiftlet breeders are the latest group to come under fire — victims of their own success.

George Town, the far-flung outpost

OVER 200 YEARS have passed since Captain Francis Light of the British East India Company established Penang’s capital city George Town, and it would be fair to say that the city’s character has remained virtually unchanged. If George Town were a person, he would be a dishwasher in the morning, an illegal 4D seller in the afternoon and a pimp by night. George Town is a hustler who has stayed true to the DNA of his founding “father”. History books reflect kindly on Light’s efforts to create a new outpost in the Far East, and indeed George Town’s rise as an entrepot is a larger-than-life tale of blood, sweat, tears… and greed.

According to many historians, ye olde George Town on the fringes of the British Empire was a haven for money laundering, drug trafficking and prostitution. For eight years, the new settlement was administered by Light who was hardly a stickler for rules and regulations. Attracting trade and following the money trail was the Holy Grail of Light’s administration and if by some happy coincidence this led to development then so be it. Long-term planning was sacrificed for economic expediency as Light and George Town had to prove their worth to a twitchy East India Company board unsure of the new outpost’s potential.

Wandering around today’s George Town is the best way to observe the darker side of Light’s legacy. Open drains are conveniently used by hawkers (some operating without licenses) to wash away food debris, encouraging rats; streets are clogged with traffic thanks to motorists who park wherever they like; shophouse owners add illegal extensions to their heritage buildings on a whim; prostitution and small time drug dealing are carried out openly; and illegal taxis toot expectantly at people waiting at bus stops. All this activity goes on under the sanction of the authorities “closing one eye” and George Town’s inhabitants not wanting to “break another’s rice bowl”. It’s exciting, it’s vibrant, it’s “authentic” and it has helped to perpetuate a shoddy physical and social environment that straddles the past and the present. It might be even what helped George Town achieve its Unesco heritage status.

As swiftlets enjoy humidity and the dark, all the windows and doors of swiftlets houses are blocked up. Small air vents are created with plastic piping to allow some fresh air in.

Swiftlet uproar

The current hot topic to have caught the attention of Penang’s outspoken NGOs is urban swiftlet breeding (or urban swiftlet farming as its detractors like to call it) in George Town. Swift lets are small birds that create nests for their eggs with their own sticky saliva. Swiftlet farmers collect these nests once they harden, clean them and then sell them. The nests are then boiled and consumed as a soup and have been highly prized for millennia by Chinese emperors for their medicinal and health properties. The export market for bird’s nests is enormous, with China being the world’s largest consumer. By today’s prices, a kilo of bird’s nests is worth from RM2,000 to RM10,000 (approximately US$625 to US$3125), depending on the grade.

Malaysia’s exports of this exotic item are worth RM1.5bil annually (and rising). Estimating the contribution of Penang’s bird’s nest suppliers is difficult as no accurate data exists, even the president of the newly formed Association of Swiftlet Nests Industry Pulau Pinang (ASNI), Carole Loh admits that it is difficult for her to provide numbers without the full cooperation of ASNI members. Given that the industry is so lucrative, many ASNI members (and non-members) are reluctant to share information for fear that their swiftlet houses may be burgled or sabotaged.

Swiftlets that build their nests in swiftlet houses roam freely. Large entry points are maintained to allow the birds to come and go as they please.

Swiftlet houses are not new to George Town, and have been there for decades. According to Loh, “Numbers began to rise sharply after 2000 with the repeal of the Rent Control Act. At that point there were many empty shophouses in George Town that were eyesores. The conversion of these into swiftlet houses was an adaptive reuse of the properties.” Adding to the proliferation of urban swiftlet houses was the then state government which encouraged the enterprise in 2005. Pressure from NGOs resulted in a moratorium on new swiftlet houses from 2008; when the current DAP-led state government swept into power the moratorium was extended to the end of 2010. Now the current state government finds itself with the unenviable task of dealing with an inherited issue that is being fought out very publicly.

Opponents of urban swiftlet breeding believe that the mushrooming swiftlet houses need to be removed for a variety of reasons. They feel that the growth of the industry has aff ected George Town’s cityscape and will eventually jeopardise the city’s Unesco heritage listing; health and safety reasons have also been cited and there is a fear that swiftlet houses will eventually take over the heritage area and locals will be pushed out. For Rebecca Duckett - Wilkinson, council member of the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT), the issue of urban swiftlet breeding boils down to sustainability and safety, “The Unesco heritage core and buffer zones consist of approximately 3,800 houses, of these an estimated 400 are swiftlet houses which make up over 10%!”

Duckett-Wilkinson who lives with her family in restored shophouses in George Town’s heritage zone has had her share of problems with irresponsible swiftlet breeders. One interior wall of her house suffered considerable water damage due to an adjacent swiftlet house. “Despite the City Council inspecting the damage and agreeing that the damage was caused by the swiftlet house, the owners never paid for repairs.” Duckett -Wilkinson’s art gallery also used to be an illegal swiftlet house and it took her two years to repossess the building. When she finally took over, many of the building’s steel beams were rusty due to the watering system and there were plenty of mites and insects left behind. “My husband and I invested in the property and took the time and money to restore this on the basis that the swiftlet farms would move out. The state government has not only misled us, but also other investors, hoteliers and even the swiftlet farmers. The large flocks of swiftlets make considerable noise and also make a mess with their droppings. For people who have homes in town, swiftlet farming is very difficult to live with. I think 10 houses can be dealt with provided they do not effect nearby residents but 400 is a different issue, surely the industry has to be viewed in a different light?”

This red extension built on top of a shop house for swiftlets is given away by its small air vents.

Obtaining accurate data on George Town’s swiftlet houses to ascertain the scale of the industry is no easy matter. YB Chow Kon Yeow, State Exco for Local Government Traffic Management places the figure of swiftlet houses with premise licenses as low as 29 and according to him, MPPP data estimates the total number of swiftlet houses in George Town in the region of 150. Statistics published in the June 2005 newsletter of the Malaysian Swiftlet Farmers Association are as high as “400+”. Based on these discrepancies it appears that the majority of urban swiftlet breeders operate outside local council by-laws which require various licenses for commercial operations. “I can honestly say that I don’t know exactly how many (swift let houses) there are in George Town. I don’t think anyone knows at the moment,” said Loh.

Swiftlet breeding – a lucrative venture or risky business?

Swiftlet houses in George Town are an interesting phenomenon and many are easy to spot with their ugly bricked-up windows and doors, tiny air vents and loud recorded bird calls. Other breeders make more of an attempt to blend in with their surroundings and except for the birds chirping, passers-by would never know that the houses host hundreds of swiftlets.

Swiftlets are fussy little birds and there is no scientific reason why swiftlets will nest happily in one property and not another. According to Loh, “The success rate for swiftlet breeders is only in the region of 20—30%. So you could say that our industry has a natural attrition rate. Swiftlet breeding is definitely not a get-rich-quick scheme either as it can take up to three years for breeders to see a return. It is impossible to replicate success in one swiftlet house to another, there is no magic formula and the failure rate is high. I’d estimate that most people invest at least RM50,000 to renovate a swiftlet house and there is no guarantee or formula for success.” Interior renovations involve removing floor boards and creating perches for the swiftlets (the birds have such short legs that they need special ledges). Mist systems are needed to keep the area humid (swift lets like the humidity), sound systems are installed to play bird calls and security CCTVs are set up as an extra security measure.

Loh insists that swiftlets do not pose a health threat to the urban population and cites over 5,000 tests carried out by the Department of Veterinary Services that have all come back negative for h5n1 and salmonella among others diseases. However Duckett-Wilkinson believes that not enough research has been carried out to gauge the impact of urban or rural swiftlet breeding on the human and animal population. “No one has talked about the ratio of land area to the number of farms. Why is this? The industry has to look after itself or it is in serious danger of imploding.”

A newly hatched swiftlet inside a nest. Once the hatchling matures, it will return to the swiftlet house to set up home.

Loh was not convinced. “Look at it this way, swiftlet houses are more like hotels and the birds are guests. They can check in any time and leave any time. We don’t feed the birds and they are free to roam so it’s unfair to label us ‘farmers’. I agree that there are some bad apples in the industry but the key to solving the dispute is good management. Swiftlet breeders need precise guidelines that are practical, we do not want to be seen to be flouting rules. Many of the health and safety issues raised are baseless and it is unfair to say that swiftlet houses threaten George Town’s Unesco status when we were here before the listing came about.” Changing the public’s perception of swiftlet breeders will not be an easy task for ASNI and now the Association has a new battle to fight; in early September 2010, the Deputy Prime Minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced that the National Council for Local Government has decided that urban swiftlet breeding will be banned in Penang’s heritage areas and the industry will be given three years to pack up and move out.

Here today, gone tomorrow?

Chow clarified that the reason for the state government’s ban on urban swiftlet breeding had less to do with possible health issues, which he felt were controversial. “This issue relates more to town planning and making good use of the land that we have. No one is against the industry, but it should be located in the right place,” he explained. “It has taken us (the Penang state government) time to act because we needed to understand the whole picture.

We waited for the national swift letlet industry guidelines (1gp) to be formulated before deciding on a course of action. All along, in the few meetings we have had with ASNI, we made it known that there should be no new bird houses in George Town and that eventually all urban swift let houses will have to be relocated.”

According to Chow coming up against the swiftlet industry has been difficult as “the industry has lobbied hard to the extent that various guidelines on swiftlet breeding have been drawn up to suit industry needs. Even the head agencies have been changed and swiftlet breeding now comes under the purview of the Department of Veterinary Services.” For Chow, his next step is to call a meeting for all stakeholders to discuss the removal of urban swiftlet houses. Acknowledging the ban, Duckett -Wilkinson felt that finding a long-term solution that offered the urban swiftlet farmers some respite was essential. “The state government needs to offer alternative subsidised land, etc. and give the first right of refusal to urban swiftlet farmers. They need to have a proper evacuation plan in mind and to involve the swiftlet farmers in these negotiations. I do believe that urban swiftlet farmers have to be given a chance to move their business and be given a say.”

The timing of the latest announcement baffled Loh. “I feel that we’re getting some very mixed messages. At a meeting to establish the Committ ee for the Regulation of Swiftletlet Houses in Heritage Zones on August 23 that included representatives from ASNI, Federal Department of Town and Country Planning and George Town World Heritage Inc., no objections were raised against the swiftlet houses. It was even agreed that the existing houses would be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Is it right that the state government should shut down all the swiftlet houses because of a few errant owners? Good management and self-regulation are areas that ASNI can play a role in. If the state government insists on moving out the swiftlet houses from George Town they will need to ensure that every single bird is relocated and not harmed in the process.”

Under the new ban (the mechanics have yet to be worked out), Penang’s urban swiftlet breeders will have until the end of 2013 to relocate. Given that the various moratoriums have not hindered the growth of the industry, it seems probable that this matter will not be settled any time soon. Is time finally up for the urban swiftlet breeders or will Light’s laissez-faire legacy silently jam the wheels of enforcement again?

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