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Julia Tan

Penang has been recognised in city competitiveness indexes as one of the most liveable cities in Asia.

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A City For All Classes

Penang has been receiving wreaths of accolades in recent years. But instead of basking in international glory, we should consider what it is that we ourselves wish for – and need.

There is no doubt about it. Cities are growing with astonishing intensity, and as we move towards an increasingly urban world, a plethora of tools, indexes and frameworks is being developed for cities to compare and benchmark themselves with each other in terms of quality of life and liveability. This can be hugely useful for cities wishing to identify their weaknesses and learn best practices from their peers.

Ultimately though, these tools should encourage citizens to reflect on urbanity itself and its impact on the wellbeing of people and society.

There is a range of approaches to the creation of city-level indexes for wellbeing. The United Nations Human Development Index aims to objectively measure the basic dimensions of human development: education, health and income. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) created a City Development Index for the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) in 1996. The Asian Development Bank also then created a congestion index and a connectivity index. However, given the great diversity of cities, it is extremely challenging to construct a uniform index that is sensitive to local conditions and priorities.

Many of the most well-known indexes of urban liveability – and those that without doubt influence public consciousness on the matter the most – are published by consultancy firms and magazines such as the Mercer Quality of Living Survey, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Liveability Rankings, Monocle’s Most Liveable Cities Index and ECA International. These can all be categorised under a city-competitiveness approach; rather than emphasising human development, they focus on finding the best place for nationally or globally mobile talent to live.

Ivan Lim

High-rise and high value, coming up.

Beginning as indexes of hardship for multinational organisations to determine accurate cost-of-living allowances and to defend the compensation packages paid to employees taking up “hardship” postings, it was quickly realised that by reversing the index, the most desirable places to live around the globe could be shown. Consultancy firms have subsequently been able to capitalise on growing levels of city competitiveness, and a thirst began to develop for evidence of “quality of life” and “liveability” which can be used to promote a city and drive its economic competitiveness. The detailed reports behind the headline indexes are rarely free to access, and in many cases cost hundreds of US dollars to purchase.

What Makes a City Attractive?

Cities all over the world are competing more and more with one another to attract investors and skilled workers, and for them, liveability is a key measure through which they market themselves as attractive places in which to do business. For this reason, these indexes are seized upon by city governments and the media alike as evidence of what their city has to offer, and are utilised to enhance its economic competitiveness and to capture a greater share of internationally mobile capital and labour.

In such a context, quality of life and wellbeing become essentially about lifestyle, focusing on the attributes of a place which would enable the target population to live in their preferred manner. This approach tailors quality of life considerations to the needs and tastes of a fairly narrow band of the socioeconomic spectrum. The downside of these indexes is that the poor, the elderly, the unskilled and the economically inactive are downplayed or excluded. Problems and conflicts caused by inequality are de-emphasised; and people are viewed as consumers, rather than citizens.


International Accolades

Penang has been recognised in city competitiveness indexes as one of the most liveable cities in Asia, piquing the interest and pride of Penangites. In 2012, Penang was recognised as the eighth most liveable city in Asia by global consulting firm ECA International; in 2015 it was coined the fourth most charismatic city in the world to visit in 2016 by Lonely Planet, rubbing shoulders with well-known cities such as Rotterdam and Mumbai[1]. Adding another feather to the cap, George Town was listed last February as one of the top best places to retire abroad in 2016 by CNN Money[2].

The international appreciation of Penang as a liveable city opens many doors, boosting the economy through tourism, commercial development and foreign direct investment. The recognition has definitely lifted Penang’s profile within the national and regional urban and economic hierarchies.

The international appreciation of Penang as a liveable city opens many doors, boosting the economy through tourism, commercial development and foreign direct investment. The recognition has definitely lifted Penang’s profile within the national and regional urban and economic hierarchies.

However, it is equally important that the city, with its array of accolades, does not fall into the trap of defining liveability purely through international perspectives. Penang is building both hard and soft infrastructure to accommodate its ongoing development with the vision of becoming an international and intelligent city. How Penang manages this major development drive, however, will determine the wellbeing of its people and the actual liveability of the place; it is equally important to track and measure urban quality of life at a local level in order to make sense of the changes experienced by different groups in society and to understand the people’s priorities and needs.

To what extent will these developments improve Penang’s liveability?


Chelsea Marie Hicks

The Penang Botanic Gardens.

Housing the Average Penangite

Major new land reclamation projects such as Seri Tanjung Pinang Phase 2 and Penang World City promise large expanses of new public spaces and affordable homes. Penang World City is a huge mixed-use development “set to place Penang onto the world stage in its quest to become an international city[3]”. Its masterplan promises a waterfront promenade of mixed commercial and residential development, with an international school, a hotel, a convention and performing arts centre, a shopping mall and exclusive homes, while affordable homes are slated for later phases.

On the mainland, development plans for Batu Kawan will see a new township rise over the next 10-15 years. The forthcoming Hijau e-Komuniti is an affordable homes development by Penang Development Corporation (PDC), with 11,800 units set in a strategic masterplan with a keen emphasis on green living and long-term sustainability; the first 525 units are expected to be ready in 2016. Via PDC, the state government is providing affordable housing units at SP Chelliah in George Town, and projects are coming up in Teluk Kumbar and Jelutong.

Responding to the state government’s increasing focus on affordable housing over the past few years, private sector developers have signed up to develop affordable housing units under RM400,000 on the island and under RM250,000 on the mainland; a number of these projects will be coming into the market in new few years.


Daniel Lee

Green Lungs for the People

Defined as “any publicly owned streets, pathways, right of ways, parks, publicly accessible open spaces and any public and civic building and facilities”, public realms cannot be emphasised enough as a vital component of liveability in terms of comfort, access, function, maintenance and sociability. All these factors affect deeply a city’s perceived and evaluated liveability[4].

Penang has the hugely popular Penang Botanic Gardens and the Youth Park. Several new public green areas are in the pipeline: Aspen Vision City will feature a 25-acre central park serving as a green lung in Batu Kawan, with tree-lined boulevards, an eco-inspired landscape, pedestrian walkways, cycling paths, a lake, a jogging track, a reflexology area, outdoor fitness equipment and a picnic and sitting area with various facilities to promote healthy lifestyles.

On the island, a massive reclamation project, Gurney Wharf, will provide close to 60 acres of seafront public park on publicly-owned land. Recreational facilities include a promenade with retail and F&B, water garden and coastal grove; Phase One of the project is set for completion in 2018.

There are also plans to improve existing spaces: in October 2015, the state government and Think City signed an agreement with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture for a three-year collaboration in the protection, development and enhancement of public spaces within the George Town World Heritage Site. A project implementation vehicle known as the George Town Conservation and Development Corporation (GTCDC) has been established to regenerate a number of George Town’s key public spaces, from the seafronts (i.e. north seafront, east seafront – or the port area – and the clan jetties) to the streetscape of Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling.

While commercial interests are no doubt a part of any funding package, the challenge is to ensure that these spaces stay truly public. To improve the liveability and quality of life for all Penangites, these spaces need to be kept truly accessible: public realm projects should be taken under consideration in the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) and better integrated and connected to increase accessibility. In addition, public spaces should be as open and welcoming as possible to all groups in society; for example, public seating and relaxation areas should be available without paid patronage at a business being required. Finally, within mixed commercial developments that dominate the surrounding public space, there should be a range of commercial food and beverage options to suit all price ranges.


Moving Masses

An often-discussed topic in recent months is the PTMP – a hugely ambitious programme of new public transport infrastructure and a programme of new highway routes. Evolving from the Halcrow Master Plan finalised in 2012, the process of moving towards the implementation and selection of a Project Delivery Partner is moving the PTMP towards fruition. The state must be commended for embarking on a wide-ranging set of public briefings to share information about the various contractors’ proposals.

The sheer scale of the proposed projects i hard to comprehend, and it is hoped that the many questions and comments raised by members of society can be answered – and that the planning processes can be responsive to public desires wherever possible. Returning to first principles, Halcrow was commissioned to develop a masterplan that adopted a holistic approach to resolving the transportation issues faced on Penang Island and in Seberang Perai. As a result, the masterplan presented a paradigm shift towards ensuring accessibility and “moving people not cars”, holistically considering trams, cycling, pedestrian walks, water taxis and bus rapid transits.

However, there is concern that some of the original objectives and key components of the Halcrow plan have fallen by the wayside in moving from a conceptual plan to an implementable one, and the focus has now been placed on introducing large-scale infrastructure. It is hoped that over the coming months and years, a transport system that adds to Penang’s liveability can be developed.


Cleaner and Greener

In the Monocle’s Most Liveable Cities Index, “environmental issues and access to nature” is one of the backbone indicators in the assessment – an important criterion that won cities like Tokyo and Zürich the “most liveable cities” title in 2015 and 2012 respectively. Natural environment is a recurring theme that emerges in other notable liveability indexes as well, such as the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Index, Mercer’s Quality of Living Index and Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Global Liveability Index – reinforcing the influence of natural environment in liveability. In the process of developing built environments, trade-offs with the natural environment are almost inevitable. The impacts of development are often evaluated only on its return of investment, economic generation and built environment upgrade, with less scrutiny given to the localised impacts on the natural environment and its ecological benefits.

The links between natural environment, health and general wellbeing often lack the emphasis that they deserve when it comes to urbanisation. The components that make up the natural environment – such as climate condition, pollution and green space – have direct impacts on day-to-day life in the city. Just recently in January, Penang was among other northern states in Malaysia that experienced a prolonged heat wave with temperatures reaching as high as 37°C during the day. Coupled with the dry season, many people succumbed to heat stroke and dehydration in addition to other heat-related illnesses such as upper respiratory tract infection, asthma and conjunctivitis[5].

Ch'ng Shi P'ng

The components that make up the natural environment – such as climate condition, pollution and green space – have direct impacts on day-to-day life in the city.

While environmental pollution such as the degrading of the quality of air and water, along with noise pollution, directly affects health and wellbeing and cannot be ignored, the importance of green space is usually not immediately observed; the role of urban green spaces are often reduced to just being an aesthetic component in a city rather than a vital element affecting people’s wellbeing. Green spaces help regulate the city’s microclimate where the tendency of urban heat islands (UHI) occurring is high. Other roles of green spaces include filtering contaminants from the air such as ground-level ozone, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter[6], and reducing rainwater runoff that could otherwise cause flash floods. In a less tangible sense, the amount of green space present in a living environment also has a positive correlation with the perceived general health as it helps to reduce stress levels in people, especially those living in an urban setting[7].

Recognising the importance of natural environment and the role of green space in the city, Penang has embarked on various environmental protection programmes under the banner of Cleaner and Greener Penang – with a mission to enable, empower and enrich all stakeholders to practice sustainable development that protects the environment and enhances quality of life. Perhaps the most notable action taken was the state-wide complete ban of plastic bag usage: Penang became the first and only state in Malaysia to implement such a measure. Apart from that, many places in Penang, including hotels, schools and markets, have been practicing organic waste composting to reduce the amount that has to be disposed at landfills. Further reducing the carbon footprint of Penang is the implementation of the waste separation by-law in June this year to recover even more recyclable waste before it ends up in landfills[8]. As it is, the recycling rate in Penang is already among the highest in the country.

Development on Penang Island has been concentrated along the coastline, but as the population increases, the hills are gaining attention as the next target for development. According to the Planning Department, approximately 50.4% of Penang Island is forested (137sqkm), of which 45% is situated 250ft above sea level – and hence protected from general development. Over the years since the 1980s, many high-rise or high density properties have been developed at the foothills, ranging from low cost housing in Paya Terubong to high-end properties in Pearl Hill, Tanjung Bungah. While the Penang Structure Plan 2020 has clearly indicated that land 76m above sea level and with a steep slope exceeding 25 degrees is prohibited from development, there are still submissions from developers to construct residential areas for high-rise properties and bungalows[9]. In general, hill clearing for development at such a scale will cause a significant swathe of forest to be depleted, thus exposing the steep terrain and making it pervious to rainwater runoff. This subsequently causes soil erosion and landslides – which had its precedence in Paya Terubong in 2008[10]. In addition, the hills are water catchment areas that ensure a continuous water supply to the dams, which provide potable water to the state.

Due to land scarcity, Penang is also turning to coastal reclamation to provide land for housing and commercial development. As reclamation changes the coastline morphology and hydrology, it is imperative that the naturally existing coastal dynamics are thoroughly researched and their impacts mitigated. One of the ways to minimise the impact of the project footprint is to conduct a detailed environmental impact assessment (DEIA), which is a mandatory requirement, before any land reclamation projects are approved by the Department of Environment (DOE).

Kwong Wah Yit Poh

Waiting room at the Loh Guan Lye Specialist Centre.

A liveable city should seek ways to decrease its carbon footprint. The construction of high density, high-rise buildings within a small area and the removing of trees for road-widening projects to alleviate traffic congestion contribute to the UHI effect[11]. To allay such outcomes, Penang has been encouraging the adoption of green building designs by developers, becoming the first state in Malaysia to award accolades to projects that achieve Green Building Index (GBI) certification[12].

Penang has been encouraging the adoption of green building designs by developers, becoming the first state in Malaysia to award accolades to projects that achieve Green Building Index (GBI) certification.


The Business of Healthcare

Private hospitals in Penang are thriving at the moment, attracting patients from beyond the shores of Penang or even Malaysia. Healthcare tourism has been booming and Malaysia is frequently ranked among the top choices in the region in terms of low cost but high quality medical services and facilities. Private hospitals include Gleneagles Penang, Lam Wah Ee Hospital, Island Hospital, Loh Guan Lye Specialist Centre, Mount Miriam Cancer Hospital, Pantai Hospital and Penang Adventist Hospital, all of which offer first-rate services and are equipped with the latest medical equipment. These hospitals offer excellent service, and patients are able to gain appointments often as walk-ins – no long waits needed.

Ridhuan Abu Bakar

Notable alumni of Penang Free School include Tunku Abdul Rahman and Danny Quah.

However, private healthcare only caters to a section of society, namely those who can afford monthly insurance premiums or are able to cover the cost of treatment from their own pockets. Nationally, private hospitals account for around one-third of admissions but for less than one-eighth of outpatient attendances, generally considered the product of insurance packages often covering only in-patient expenses[13]. The Penang General Hospital, covering 35 acres, is the largest hospital in Penang and the second largest in Malaysia[14], and Malaysian citizens only need to pay a nominal fee for medical consultation and treatment. However,government hospitals suffer a continued lack of investment in facilities and equipment, operate at or over capacity and suffer an increasing loss of senior doctors to private practice.


Quality Education

Penang has long been a centre of knowledge and throughout its history has produced and attracted many of the brightest thinkers. Penang Free School, the first English-medium school in South-East Asia, is celebrating its bicentenary this year. Notable alumni include Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia; and more recently the likes of Danny Quah, professor of economics at the London School of Economics; and Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Assistant Secretary General at the UN.

In recent years, Penang has attracted a host of education providers, with many international schools and colleges opening up in the state. In 2012 the 40% cap on the number of local students allowed to enrol in international schools was lifted, and subsequently more and more Malaysians have been sending their children for an international education locally. The number of international schools in Malaysia has doubled over the past five years – from 57 to 128, according to the International School Consultancy Group.

While international schools bring a clear benefit for those able to afford them, their impact on society as a whole is a complex matter. One outcome that can arise is their exacerbation of social stratification by further enriching an already exclusive segment of society. The Unesco International Institute for Educational Planning has warned “that such a permissive approach (with international schools) may… lead to widening gaps between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in society, with inequalities of opportunity being exacerbated by the different forms of education available to those who can and those who cannot afford to pay... to the detriment of the national school system”. While Penang continues to offer excellent education, one must nevertheless ask what impact increasing privatisation of education will have on society as a whole.


Seeking a Balance

While the international accolades provide a vital boost for Penang, with the economic benefits having spill-over effects for the whole population, we need to ensure that in the pursuit of an international and intelligent city, quality of life and liveability are concepts that we apply equally to all sections of society. The state government’s holistic development plan, the Penang Paradigm, encompasses components that promote a dynamic economy while also structurally shaping liveability in Penang (i.e. planning, transportation, housing, public spaces and the environment) in conjunction with policies that promote social development and inclusion.

Around the world, decision-making tools such as equality and diversity impact assessments and social strata assessments are utilised to ensure that all groups in society benefit. Development cannot be just about the built environment and economic competitiveness. Social sustainability, fairness, inclusiveness and cultural adequacy should also feature[15]. As the state implements the PTMP, there is an opportunity for it to pursue the goal of a balanced society.

Achieving that is what will make Penang an intelligent state.


Stuart MacDonald is a fellow and head of Urban Studies at Penang Institute.
Evelyn Teh is a senior analyst in the Urban Studies section of Penang Institute. A graduate in Marine Biology and Environmental Management, she enjoys writing and reading non-fiction. She also dabbles in photography and her works can be found at
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