A Home of One's Own


Public housing policies vary all over the world. Here’s a look at what Penang has in store.

Public housing seeks to provide a roof over the heads of those who are most unable to acquire that for themselves on the open market.

Notably, Singapore’s government-subsidised Housing Development Board (HDB) flats make homeowners of more than 80% of the country’s citizens,1 and according to 2016 Hong Kong statistics, at least 44% of Hong Kong’s population live in public housing.2 In Vienna, the capital of Austria, the government is committed to restructuring, building and preserving public houses, and its public housing model garners accolades for affordability and availability.3

In Malaysia, the general view of public housing is unappealing – it is labelled as poor man’s housing, defined by vandalism and hygiene and safety issues. The more desirable affordable housing units provide an alternative, but suffer from undersupply. Sadly, available units of public housing are moving into the unaffordable range.4

The Case of Penang

The Penang Island City Council (MBPP) has a public rental scheme that is open to people who live or work in the state. Unlike public housing, applicants have to go through an open tender process, and the rental price follows the market rate. There are four related housing projects – at Jalan Sungai Nibong, Jalan Kedah, Jalan Kampung Kolam and Jalan Irrawadi – that fall under this scheme.

Public housing at Lebuh Ah Quee.

Vandalism of public swings. Vandalism is difficult to avoid where density is high.

The housing at Kampung Kolam is one of the four public rental schemes in Penang.

The only public housing under the management of the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP), Rumah Pangsa Ampangan, became available in 2006. It has ample car and motorcycle parking space, a children’s playground, green space, an assembly hall, management office, surau and a grocery shop. Rental is only at RM100 a month per unit; there are 250 units with three rooms and two toilets each, which is convenient enough for a standard household.

Across the road is Rumah Pangsa Ampang Jajar, which is another public housing project that has 760 units. It is managed by the state’s Housing Department and has facilities on the ground floor such as a kindergarten.

The city and municipal councils are responsible for the maintenance of public facilities, including the building’s structure, piping, roofing, staircase, lifts, corridors, electricity and drainage. For example, according to Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, MBPP has allocated RM500,000 to replace the roofs of the Lebuh Ah Quee housing project next year.5

People’s Court was formerly known as Popular Stalls.

In the meanwhile, tenants are responsible for the units’ doors, sockets, fans, lights and other inner facilities.

Guards and cleaners are hired by the tenants to take care of their living environment. However, vandalism remains a problem, particularly at places with high density; and there are still too many cases of garbage being irresponsibly thrown out the window.

A History of Penang’s Public Housing

George Town had its first entirely elected local council in 1951,6 and was famed for its progressive housing policies at the time. That is partly the reason why its housing development plan was established earlier than in any other states in Malaya.

The council’s first housing responsibility was to provide shelter for “homeless” municipal staff; subsequently, it expanded its housing projects, with the most famous being the Green Lane Housing Scheme, where six specimen houses were completed in July 1950.7

Credit is owed to the local government of George Town throughout the years for acknowledging the importance of housing and embarking on providing housing for as many Penangites as possible. The municipal’s annual report contains the following passage:

“Only when everybody is properly housed, and only when the cost of living is kept within reasonable bounds, will there be any prospects of curing the ills from which the country is suffering.”8

The idea of public housing was mooted again in the council’s ordinary meeting in 1957;9 subsequently, the People’s Court was completed in the heart of George Town in 1961, comprising three blocks of four-storey low-cost flats, with a total of 82 units.10

People’s Court was formerly known as Popular Stalls, which was the largest bazaar in Penang at the time, with hundreds of vendors – many of whom were also living there – selling food and imported goods in their shanties.

Many middle-aged residents in George Town still remember the open-air cinema there, which only operated at night and screened second-run movies. Well-known shops in the area such as Boey Chong Kee Restaurant, Leong Chee Kee Biscuit and Lee Hooi Salted Fish Shop are still in business today.

The Rifle Range Flats consist of nine blocks, with no less than 3,800 units.


Life at Rifle Range has developed into a collective community.

Most of the tenants are now above 60 and are unmarried or do not stay with their offspring. They live in this old community where wet markets, groceries shops and daily amenities are within walking distance. Rental is only between RM64 to RM97 for a 340 sq ft unit that has a kitchen and a toilet –some of the cheapest in George Town.

Public housing in George Town often has rich historical backgrounds. For instance, those at Lebuh Ah Quee are surrounded by the Indian-Muslim community, which is centred around Masjid Kapitan Keling. The gold and gem trade is one of the most important businesses in the area, as it has been for centuries. There is a gold bazaar located in Little India, which is only a street away.

It was the standard then for the council’s housing to have shoplots on the ground floor, with three floors of housing above – all without lifts. Rental for each unit at Lebuh Ah Quee is between RM112 and RM117 a month for two rooms and a toilet; while a shoplot is between RM208 and RM758. Situated along one of the busiest roads in George Town, the rent level is reasonable.

The Kampung Kolam housing, on the other hand, has been around since 1931. There are only 12 units and the rent is between RM260 and RM380.11 Each unit has a room, while some of the units share a toilet. There are shoplots on the ground floor too.

Rifle Range

In the 1960s Penang suffered economic decline and massive unemployment, which soared to as high as 16%. The poor in Penang needed homes, and the Rifle Range Flats programme was initiated by the state government to tackle this issue.

Pak Cheng Boh, or “shooting range”, as it is known in Hokkien, was nicknamed so because historically, the piece of land was used as a shooting range by the British, and later by the paramilitary. The Rifle Range flats now stand as some of the tallest buildings in Air Itam and the area is the most densely populated in the suburb.

There are nine blocks, housing no less than 3,800 units. Most of the units, which have an average size of 340 sq ft, are single-room, with the exception of double-room corner units.

Rifle Range flats implement a rent-to-own scheme, where rental for 300 months has to be paid before the tenant is deemed eligible to own the unit; the only two exceptions are blocks E and J, which are solely for rent.

Apart from providing housing for the underprivileged, the ground units of each block operate as shoplots and offer services and goods such as groceries, clothing, traditional Chinese medicine and haircut services. The open space beside Block E is populated with hawker stalls which, according to the management officer, are operated mostly by the residents. These are an avenue for residents to run businesses, creating jobs at the same time.

Rumah Pangsa Ampang Jajar has a children’s playground.

PPR housing that comes with a kindergarten.

PPR Taman Manggis is a gated community. Parking spaces are available within the confines of the flats.

Recently, though, some tenants have been found to have rental arrears of up to as much as RM20,000; having a monthly income exceeding RM750; the registered tenant having passed away; and tenants who have spouses who are non-Malaysian12 – contravening the rules and regulations of the public housing agreement. On top of that, family members of the registered tenant are not entitled to inherit rented houses.

Even so, life at Rifle Range has developed into a collective community, where people from different races, religions and aspirations share a common space where they live, eat and work.

People’s Housing Project

Malaysia’s rapid urbanisation has led to the providing of cheap housing becoming priority for the state and federal governments. The most famous of the many public housing programmes is the Public Low-Cost Housing Programme (PLCHP), the predecessor of the People’s Housing Project (Program Perumahan Rakyat, PPR).

The PLCHP consisted of low-cost housing and involved the cooperation of the state and federal governments. Funding to finance the programme was provided at the federal level, while the state was responsible for collecting rent and maintaining the houses. With rising demand for decent housing, the PLCHP evolved to include rural and urban fringe areas.

PPR was subsequently introduced in December 1998 and replaced PLCHP with Program Perumahan Rakyat DiSewa (PPRS) and Program Perumahan Rakyat Dimiliki (PPRM). Houses offered under PPR are no less than 700 sq ft and come with three bedrooms and two toilets. Both types of PPRs consist of three housing types: multi-level flats, five-storey walk-up flats and terrace houses.

PPRS was first introduced in February 2002 and was set up to increase the supply of low-cost housing for rental purposes. It was mainly to provide adequate housing for the lower-income groups and squatters, with a monthly fixed rental of RM124 per month. PPRM on the other hand offers nonhomeowners an opportunity to purchase a house with a government-subsidised rate of RM35,000 per unit in Peninsular Malaysia and RM42,000 per unit in Sabah and Sarawak.

According to statistics provided by the state government, PPR Taman Manggis, which is located along Jalan Zainal Abidin, currently offers 320 units for rent and is managed by the state government. Its strategic location is conducive for residents, with the famous Magazine Circus – the centre point of George Town – less than 1km away.

Rumah Pangsa Ampangan is the only public housing project under the management of MPSP.

Additionally, PPR Taman Manggis is a gated community and parking spaces are readily available within the confines of the flats. It is also equipped with amenities such as a town hall, childcare centre, children’s playground, activity centre for children and a surau. These various facilities provide an opportunity for residents to connect with each other and potentially form a tight-knit community.

There also used to be a residents’ association at PPR Taman Manggis. The now-defunct association was formed partly because residents disagreed and bickered about the issues of vandalism and hygiene there. With the formation of an active residents’ association, residents could organize themselves and nominate representatives to address specific issues.

The residents’ association had a number of committee members with very specific areas of responsibility such as facilities management, rent levels and vandalism. Residents had an avenue to voice their concerns during meetings. Unfortunately, the association is no longer functioning, but there are efforts being made to revive the association, specifically to handle the increasing hygiene problem.

Federal Initiatives – No Follow-through

Housing projects that were solely planned and managed by the previous federal government remain limited. As many as 16,297 units of 1Malaysia People’s Housing (PR1MA) houses were approved by its board of directors for Penang, including 905 units in Bukit Gelugor, 6,796 units in Balik Pulau, 3,900 units in Teluk Kumbar, 1,248 units in Batu Ferringhi, 1,017 units in Permatang Pauh and 2,387 units in Tasik Gelugor.13

However, up till June this year, not a single unit has been built – this despite the Penang state government greenlighting three projects in the state in 2016.

State Housing, Town, Country Planning and Local Government Committee Chairman Jagdeep Singh Deo has said that he will personally supervise all PR1MA sites that have been approved by the MBPP prior to the 14th General Election to make sure all will be completed without delay. The PR1MA project in Bukit Gelugor is set to begin end of this year and is estimated to be completed by 2021.14

Public housing plays a crucial role: in a Bank Negara report, growth in house prices in Malaysia (26.5%) has more than doubled the growth of income levels (12.4%) from 2012 to 2014. This does not bode well for aspiring homeowners, and if the trend persists, housing will become less and less affordable for a majority of people. At the same time, a successful state will have a limited number of people/families who need PPR or subsidised public housing, and the aim is not to let the number grow any bigger than it already is.

Kenneth Cheng is an analyst with the Penang Institute. He hails from Ipoh and has a zeal for finding the best nasi kandar wherever he goes.
Lim Sok Swan is currently focusing on heritage studies. She believes that more understanding among different groups and cultures can make Malaysia a better home for all.

4Bank Negara Malaysia, Affordable Housing: Challenges and the Way Forward
5Penang to offer rent-to-own schemes for low-cost homes, FMT news, 21 June 2018.
6In 1974 George Town City Council merged with the Penang Island Rural District Council to become the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP), which was elevated to Penang Island City Council (MBPP) in 2015. For its early history, refer to Goh Ban Lee’s article, “Remember the city status of George Town”, in Penang Monthly’s February 2010 issue.
7City Council of George Town. Reconstruction of the Broken Past, Penang Past and Present 1786- 1963. Penang: City Council of George Town, 1966, p. 86.
8City Council of George Town. Reconstruction of the Broken Past, Penang Past and Present 1786- 1963. Penang: City Council of George Town, 1966, p. 86.
9City Council of George Town. Reconstruction of the Broken Past, Penang Past and Present 1786- 1963. Penang: City Council of George Town, 1966, pp. 98-99.
10According to figures provided by Jabatan Penilaian dan Pengurusan Harta, MBPP on 6 July 2018.
1111 According to figures provided by Jabatan Penilaian dan Pengurusan Harta, MBPP, on July 6, 2018.

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