Governing with a Vision: Part Three


Facing the Elements and Keeping Penang Safe

By Julia Tan

Zairil Khir Johari.

“It’s been a baptism of fire – or water and earth,” says Zairil Khir Johari, state exco for Public Works, Utilities and Flood Mitigation, with a laugh.

It’s admittedly been a sharp learning curve for the Tanjung Bungah state assemblyman, and the fact that the three portfolios under his care are infrastructure-related makes the job none the easier. “If I can describe it in one word, it would be ‘interesting’. Challenging, definitely, but interesting nevertheless. It is very different from what I’m used to, but life is about constantly challenging yourself and looking for something to do that is meaningful – and I find this work to be extremely meaningful.”

Unlike the other portfolios, Zairil’s are heavily reliant on government. “Infrastructure is the foundation of government – it is mostly public sector-driven, hence the role of the government in planning and developing infrastructure is crucial.

And while things might be new to him, he applies what he learned during his tenure as Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera in the previous term: “I was an opposition Member of Parliament, so that puts me in a frame of mind when I do things today – how would the other side see this? Am I doing something that is right? It’s good that I have perspective – I know what will be questioned, what will not, and what is right and what isn’t.”

It hasn’t been a walk in the park – especially with recent events. “It makes you learn quicker because you have no choice. It’s challenging, primarily because I’m not from that kind of background.”

At the same time, he brings fresh perspectives on traditional flood mitigation systems: “When it comes to flood mitigation, it is essentially all about dealing with surface water run-off – at any time it rains, there’ll be water on the surface, and this is called run-off.

“It’s managing this run-off that is the key to flood mitigation. As we urbanise, we have more and more hardscape; the high proportion of concrete and hardscape translates to more impervious surfaces. Hence, water runs off rather than gets absorbed.

“Conventional methods have always been about managing surface water run-off – how do we get it out and discharge it as quickly as possible. However, new thinking in flood mitigation has changed that – sponge cities, the use of green technology in flood management and flood mitigation… The idea is instead of focusing on transferring water run-off as quickly as possible, it is now about how to hold it back – using green technology, rain gardens, more pervious material, more permeable surfaces, for example. I am actively pursuing how we can incorporate using a range of incentives and disincentives to promote the use of green technology in flood mitigation.”

With the change in government at the federal level, Penang can be hopeful for much-needed funds to carry out major infrastructural projects in the state – and Zairil wastes no time in getting things underway. “I have met both the relevant ministers – the Minister of Works and the Minister of Water, Land and Natural Resources – to discuss the projects for Penang. They have both been very helpful and co-operative.

“We’ve already had the next phase of the Sungai Pinang flood mitigation scheme approved – RM150mil – in addition to RM10mil for Teluk Kumbar, also from the federal government. These are projects that we have been wanting for a long time, and finally, after a change of government, we’re getting them. I’m very happy that during my time, these things can be delivered.”

Apart from flood mitigation, Zairil is also working on other exciting projects for the state: “The key is to develop a more liveable and sustainable city, such as delivering a good public transport infrastructure network – that’s what the Penang Transport Master Plan is for.

“The goal is also to fiberize the whole of Penang and to have as comprehensive as possible a digital network – and that’s happening. I believe in the next five years it will happen at a quicker pace – not just because I’m pushing for it, but because technology has matured. There are more options now.

“Besides what I’ve mentioned, I’m also looking into energy security for Penang. The Gelugor power station actually expires in 2024. We have to start thinking about upgrading, at the same time we need to pull in more power cables from the mainland because the load demand is going to be much higher on the island – especially after we reclaim the three new islands. There’ll be increased demand; hence, we need to provide the load stability for the industrial areas and for residents.

“The second thing is water security. Right now 84% of our water comes from one single source: Muda River. We’ve started thinking about alternative sources. We’re discussing, with the federal government’s help, with the state government of Perak to see whether we can get the Sungai Perak Raw Water Transfer Scheme going.

“I think our state government is very committed to the goal – firstly to continue all the development that we’ve been doing in the last 10 years in a sustainable manner for the future of Penang. At the same time, Penang2030, which is a package of plans, makes sense of all the various different plans we have in Penang and puts it together in one narrative towards achieving a vision of a family-focused, green and smart Penang that inspires the nation. I think that gives us direction. It keeps us focused on the objectives of the state. I would very much like to do my part to achieve that.”

Preparing Penang for the Next Digital Phase

Datuk Abdul Halim Hussain.

While he is new to state exco-ship, Datuk Abdul Halim Hussain is certainly not wet behind the ears. He was the former Speaker of the Penang State Legislative Assembly from 2008 until 2013, and is now state assemblyman for Batu Maung and state exco for International and Domestic Trade, Consumer Affairs, and Entrepreneur Development.

“It’s been a very challenging portfolio, but my passion for it and my background in finance make things more exciting,” Abdul Halim reveals. “I have worked with the industries before – that helps, especially with the domestic and international trade, and entrepreneur development portfolios.”

Penang, dubbed the Silicon Valley of the East, is huge on manufacturing. But times are changing fast. “We are heading towards a digital economy and our business models have changed, or are transforming. Businesses have to adapt to digital technologies. For Penang, whose strength has been technology – electrical and electronic (E&E), mechanical and electrical (M&E), semiconductors – we have to move on to R&D and high-tech R&D. Sustaining it through entrepreneurship development – that is a challenge.”

Not only that; Penang has to contend with countries in the region as well, and with the rise of China, much is shifting. “In the 1970s and 1980s, China was nowhere. Shenzhen was just a fishing village in 1990. Today, Shenzhen is the hub of high and innovative technology. We have to continue to enhance R&D on high-tech; this is where innovation and collaboration are so important. The trade war between China and the US is advantageous to us because of our strategic position. Our entrepreneurs should take advantage of this and engage with our counterparts in China, as well as our neighbouring countries.”

When asked how, with the change in government, he will work with the various federal agencies – on top of the state agencies, such as Penang Development Corporation and investPenang – Abdul Halim breathes a sigh of relief. “With the federal and state governments as one, we have all these other agencies that will be supporting us. We have SME Corporation, Perbadanan Usahawan Nasional, Perbadanan Nasional, Mara, Tabung Ekonomi Kumpulan Usahawan Niaga, SME Bank and Sirim.

“We have a platform for all these agencies and we have met twice and are planning for the next calendar year. The good thing is Penang started embracing digital technology eight years ago, educating children from a very young age on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Talent development is important – when our children finish school and go for tertiary education, they will have the readiness. Compared with the other states, we are ahead.

“With digital economy and digital technologies, we have to be on the lookout for areas where we can fit in. Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) should be enhanced so that we have the workforce ready to meet Industry 4.0. If need be, we need to allocate in our budget certain funds for innovation and creativity, and this is where we need to work with all these agencies.”

When it comes to Consumer Affairs, Abdul Halim says it’s more than just the monitoring of prices of goods and services – an issue that is generally associated with the portfolio. “In this era, we have to educate the public on digital technologies – what is bitcoin, block chain, etc. This is on top of creating a well-informed consumer who knows their rights – this will help, in a way, consumers to indirectly control prices and manage the economy. Not just that – consumers also need to know how to make sure they have the right food, so we need to educate them on food nutrition as well.

Scarce with natural resources, Penang’s assets are its talents. We have to ensure that our children, our youths, are equipped with the best skills. The engine of growth is innovation, and Penang has to position itself in that area.

“Now, many people are still unfamiliar or do not really understand the terms Cloud, Big Data, Data Analytics, AI, Block Chain, IoT… whereas throughout the world these things have been implemented stage by stage. The speed of digital economy is so fast, we’re lucky to have a certain percentage of our people with some knowledge of this, but we need to do more: educate the public and move on to the next level of digital transformation.”

In terms of Entrepreneur Development, Abdul Halim is in talks with the Ministry of Entrepreneur Development for a onestop centre for entrepreneurs to seek assistance, counselling and training. “Next year’s agenda will be e-commerce and educating entrepreneurs on digital economy. These will be the key things in our programmes – to enable and train our entrepreneurs to be ready and to embrace changes in the economy and technology.

“The role of the government is to assist, but then the government has its limitations, budget-wise. Public-private partnerships should be encouraged. Penang has a good example of this – TechDome, where government supports with some funding; @CAT, where the state provides funding of US$1mil; the STEM initiative; and so on.

“Scarce with natural resources, Penang’s assets are its talents. We have to ensure that our children, our youths, are equipped with the best skills. The engine of growth is innovation, and Penang has to position itself in that area.”

Planning the Future of Penang Tourism

Yeoh Soon Hin.

Penang’s services industry has overtaken manufacturing as the top contributor to its GDP, and tourism is part of that lucrative sector. Helming the state’s Tourism Development, Heritage, Culture and Arts portfolio is Yeoh Soon Hin, the state assemblyman for Paya Terubong.

It has been a very busy six months for Yeoh since he took office. “From June till December I organised a few tourism events, one of them being the International Dragon Boat Festival. Last year we recorded the highest number of participants, and due to its success I am inspired to hold the event twice this year.

“The same goes for the recent Inter-Islands Tourism Policy (ITOP) forum. Participants from various countries came to Penang, and we managed to sign a MoU involving Penang, Phuket, Bali, Hainan, Okinawa, Sri Lanka and Jeju. We came to a consensus that we will work together for inter-island cruise tourism and also the possibility to have direct flights between these few islands.”

It’s not just the island factor – Yeoh is quick to consider George Town’s most attractive aspect: heritage. “I have another idea – as George Town is a heritage city, we can package it together with a few other heritage cities in the region such as Melaka, Ayutthaya, Siem Reap and Hoi An.” It’s not admittedly easy to do, but Yeoh’s indefatigable spirit means new ideas are never far away – and another plan he has up his sleeve is the tourism master plan.

“It’s been 10 years (since the Pakatan government took over in 2008). I feel it’s time to rethink our direction – that’s why I came up with the idea that we need a tourism master plan. We need to plan for the future, in line with Penang2030. I would like to call upon industry players and stakeholders to come forward and work with my office to help us brainstorm.

“Our existing resources can be repositioned, repackaged and re-promoted. Penang is well known as a state of festivals – we have festivals all year round. I recently launched the ‘Penang Celebrates’ series, which will repackage and rebrand our festivals. For example, the jazz festival – it was called off last year, so we repackaged and re-promoted it as ‘Penang Celebrates Christmas with Jazz’. Perhaps in February we will organise a ‘Penang Celebrates Chinese New Year’ with something – I will incorporate arts and culture elements.”

He has called for an RFP to engage an independent consultant for the tourism master plan. “It will cover all the relevant sectors within tourism and will not neglect the elements of art, culture and heritage. The plan will be divided into two phases: the first is from 2019 to 2024, after which we will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses. Then we will go into the second phase.”

While Penang has plenty to offer, Yeoh admits that it is difficult to please everyone – including stakeholders in the tourism industry. “We need to strike a balance between focusing on tourism in George Town and the beaches up north; and between the island and the mainland. Seberang Perai has a lot of good tourism products, especially relating to ecotourism.”

At the same time, Penang’s infrastructure needs to be developed in tandem with its growth. “Domestic arrivals – domestic tourists – are increasing every year. On the international tourism side, there’s still room to market ourselves. But our airport has exceeded its capacity – it has capacity for only 6.5 million passengers, and we had 7.8 million alone in 2018. If we want more tourists to come, we need more direct flights. And to get more direct flights, we need upgrades to the facility. We need federal support to do this.”

Since the change in government, things have definitely taken a turn for the better. “Penang Global Tourism (PGT) and the Penang Convention & Exhibition Bureau (PCEB) are our office’s marketing arms – PGT more on leisure tourism while PCEB focuses on meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) tourism.

“With the change in federal government, we are also working with the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (Motac) and Tourism Malaysia to promote Penang overseas. Previously, Penang was left out, so we needed to depend on our own agencies. I hope that with the support of the federal government we can now target more markets overseas.”

Yeoh is also concentrating on medical tourism and edutourism. “We have Study Penang and the Penang Centre of Medical Tourism (PMED) – Study Penang is an agency led by the state government and comprises the various local colleges; we market overseas to attract international students to study in Penang. Our medical tourism is number one in Malaysia, and while our traditional market is Indonesia, I would like to explore the Indochinese and Chinese markets.”

Yeoh has grand plans for the arts as well. “The Penang Arts District aims to make Penang a creative hub for contemporary arts and culture. The plan is ready, the location identified, but work hasn’t started yet as we’re still ironing out some issues.

“I’m also in the midst of setting up the Penang State Art Council, to be established this month or the next. It will be the body to overview, monitor and build Penang’s arts industry, and will involve the state, artists and arts stakeholders.

“I foresee that in 2019 we will have direct flights to a few more cities in the Asia Pacific region. India is also a huge market that we should not neglect. I have instructed PCEB to work on a plan to promote Penang in India. I will try and talk to the airlines to see if there can be any direct flights to and from Indian cities.”

Healthy Bodies, Attentive Minds

Soon Lip Chee.

“It’s totally new to me,” says Soon Lip Chee, state exco for Youth and Sports, and the Bagan Jermal assemblyman. “People think it’s an easy portfolio to manage, but sports is not what we usually have in mind – the early morning weekend flag-offs and all that.”

Indeed, when it comes to sports, the range of events is mindboggling. “We found that there are 44 types of sports listed under the Penang State Sports Council. Some of them are sports that we normally see, such as badminton, sepak takraw, bowling and squash. And then there are judo, karate, taekwondo, silat, chess, floorball, cricket, rugby…

“For the past six months I have been taking the initiative to first understand all the sports. I also visited the related sports agencies – the Sports Commissioner was the first agency I went to visit, that was in July. I also took the time to visit the National Sports Council and National Sports Institute. We need to understand our state and national players – where and how they train – so I went to observe them at the Bukit Jalil Sports School.

“It’s also good to understand the equipment – different sports use different equipment. Some equipment are expensive – a wushu carpet can cost, at minimum, RM200,000. It’s important for me as exco to know this, because in the future, if a sports association approaches me for help or funds, I can facilitate.”

The maintenance of sports complexes is one thing Soon would like to see being done better. “I conducted my rounds of all the sports complexes under the state sports council. I found that a lot of the sports complexes are not well-maintained – not only those under the state sports council, but also those under the local council. To develop sports, the basic things we need are good facilities. I think the state government and related agencies need to look into this and perhaps reserve some of their funds from the yearly budget for maintenance.”

The biannual Sukma Games also took place in September last year. “These past six months have been quite challenging. It was good that during the Sukma Games we got to see all the sports.” Soon, who was previously a director for the Penang Youth Development Corporation, is happy with the current student exchange programmes with Taiwan and Thailand in subjects related to the sciences, and hopes to expand this to the arts as well. At the same time, he wants to shift the public mindset away from thinking that sports is only for youths.

“I am starting a programme called ‘Sports for All’, which aims to get all our people to start doing sports – no matter who they are, how old they are or what sport it is. To do this, we need to focus on housing areas. People often say they are too busy to do sports, so we want to take this excuse away. Our residential areas generally have a playground already, so we have to upgrade the facilities – lighting is important for safety reasons, and we need to make sure they are well-maintained and have basic facilities such as a jogging track. We can also install some exercise equipment – not everyone can afford to buy their own.

“We want everyone to be involved in sports – especially parents, who play an important role in encouraging their children. I hope that parents can take the initiative – when they do sports, such as when they go jogging, they can bring their children along with them.

“Also, parents shouldn’t discourage their children from doing sports. They shouldn’t think that sports will distract their children from their academic studies – that is wrong. Doing sports improves the health and makes minds more alert.”

Penang is not short of gifted sportspeople, and Soon will tell you that schools play an important role when it comes to developing talent. “We have a sports school at Simpang Ampat – the Mutiara Impian secondary school. It’s a small school, though. To develop sports, we need sports schools where the athletes can immediately after classes proceed for training. I think the federal government should consider building a sports school in each state.

“Some schools have even removed their physical education classes. I think that’s unfair, and the education minister should address this – ask the state education department to conduct spot-checks on schools and penalise those that do this. To create an interest in youths, it has to begin in primary school. Who knows, maybe one of them could be our future national sportsperson.

Soon laments the low allowance that our athletes receive, and strives to make a change. “Once our athletes finish school, they face two choices: to work, or to continue doing sports. If they choose the latter, they won’t have a salary. Elite athletes receive a monthly RM600 allowance, whereas non-elites receive RM100. It’s hard to survive, so we have to create job opportunities for athletes.

“I have started the Junior Executive Programme at one factory, NationGate, which created 20 posts with a minimum wage of RM1,500. Experience and results are not prerequisites, and after confirmation they will receive an increment of RM300. They also will have the time to train. NationGate was the first company to work with us and there are a few more companies pending.

“On top of that, I hope all state assembly members will work together to promote sports. They can hold sports competitions in their respective constituencies and encourage schools in their areas to get involved in sports or organise inter-school competitions. They can also use their budget allocation to provide sports equipment.”

Julia "Bubba" Tan is deputy editor of Penang Monthly. She looks forward to an exciting 2019 and hopes to keep her New Year's resolutions.

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