Ensuring Prudent Growth in Penang

Globally, the concept of “sustainable development” has been debated and promoted for more than four decades. The flagship initiative is the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), introduced in 2015. Almost 200 countries, including Malaysia, have agreed to take action to achieve the 17 SDGs by 2030. These signatory countries will be judged by their success or failure to meet their obligations, using the 17 SDG indicators.

Penang Green Agenda 2030

In 2017 the Penang state government launched Penang Green Agenda 2030 to design a pathway for Penang to achieve its SDGs. It now falls under the larger, more encompassing vision of Penang2030: A Family-Focused Green and Smart State to Inspire the Nation, championed by Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow. Penang2030 represents a serious attempt by the state government to take a forward-looking approach in crafting the future of Penang. Although it is not the silver bullet, it is nevertheless a first step in the right direction.

Penang Green Agenda 2030, or PGA, embodies the aspiration of the Penang state government to govern through partnerships, where non-government actors are invited to participate in policymaking and agenda setting. It is based on the principle that long-term planning for Penang should involve public participation and adopt an evidence-based approach. As has been publicly announced by the chief minister on numerous occasions:

Green camp.

The prospect facing Penang’s shift to sustainable development is daunting, but change comes about through individual steps and from the determination to create something better.

“By 2030, Penang aspires to be the greenest state in Malaysia driven by a green economy, innovative governance with 4P partnerships (public, private, people and professionals) and a sustainability-led development agenda.

“By 2050, Penang will be a high-income, caring, inclusive, low carbon and resilient state that emphasises the integrity of its people and environment, including enriching and restoring the health of its rich cultural and natural ecosystem.”

Through a public survey involving more than 2,500 Penangites, PGA has identified 10 areas to focus on: land use and planning; disaster risk reduction and management; green economy; marine and coastal management; agriculture; green buildings and townships; sustainable mobility and connectivity; biodiversity and natural ecosystem; water and sanitation; as well as governance and institution.

A working group has been set up for each of these areas; each made up of a mixture of stakeholders, i.e. state and local governments, professional bodies/academia, businesses, and civil society. These work together to identify current challenges and craft out ambitious yet credible plans to achieve Penang’s SDGs. The objective of the exercise is to create space for people to collaborate and use creative thinking to solve complex problems.

Disaster workshop.

Propositions and Recommendations

The initial output of three of the working groups has been promising and has produced a few interesting propositions for Penang. For example, the Green Economy Working Group for Penang proposes having a Waste Industry Policy to address inadequacies in our waste management practices (despite local governments spending around 60% of their budget on waste management alone).

A comprehensive waste policy should go beyond management, and address sources of waste through product and packaging standards. Waste management should be turned into a vibrant industry that not only provides innovative solutions to waste problems, but also creates new businesses and employment opportunities. Most of all, a waste policy is needed that actively reduces our waste so that we can be a step closer to achieving a “circular economy”.1

Another notable recommendation is for Penang to actively pursue a green or sustainable Penang branding. The tourism sector depends on Penang retaining its unique characteristics and attractiveness, including its cultural and food heritage, beaches and hills, as well as good facilities and infrastructure. How we grow the tourism sector will directly impact Penang’s development.

The current quantity-rather-than-quality approach does not bode well for the long-term sustainability of tourism in Penang. Since local businesses are already subjected to some of the most stringent environmental regulations in Malaysia (e.g. No Free Plastic Bag, waste segregation), Penang can easily build on this to distinguish itself from other tourist attractions in the region and to draw discerning tourists who are willing to pay more for a “green” travel experience. If our tourism sector, consisting not only of tour companies but also thousands of restaurants, hotels, shops and etc., adopts sustainable practices (such as improving energy efficiency, reducing waste, harvesting rain water, etc.), it will have a positive knock-on effect on the overall economy.

Youth camp.

Some of the PGA recommendations also address the institutional challenges Penang currently faces. For example, the Land Use and Planning Working Group proposes setting up a transdisciplinary team (including non-government actors) to work alongside state and local planners and the consultants they hire in drafting the Structure Plan as well as the Local Plan. This is to ensure the planning process captures a comprehensive view of all land-related issues and is driven by a common vision. This will further strengthen the tone of the planning document, and change the reactionary approach to land use planning.

The same working group also proposes that state and local governments carry out impact assessment at the plan level.2 The current project-based Environmental/Social Impact Assessment system is inadequate for capturing the cumulative impact of development projects.

Another recommendation is for the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Working Group to set up a dedicated unit on disaster management within the state government. This will make it easier to plan for future disaster risks (as opposed to the current reactionary approach to individual events), to channel resources more efficiently, to create a better network with non-government actors, and to provide a more effective communication strategy. It will also make it easier to identify and mobilise new technologies to help improve Penang’s preparedness for future risks.

These are only a few of the recommendations PGA has identified so far. The PGA process will officially end when 2019 comes to a close; it will produce a roadmap for Penang’s sustainable development. Each working group will produce a sectoral report and identify milestones, setting out main recommendations of actions to be taken by the government. These recommendations will be proposed to the relevant government departments with the aim of being implemented as concrete initiatives under Penang2030.

There are currently many challenges in the way, the most serious being the lack of a long-term perspective and forward-looking approach; most government departments have inherited a reactive rather than proactive approach towards planning.

Lack of data and inefficient use of data are also challenges that need to be addressed.

The prospect facing Penang’s shift to sustainable development is daunting, but change comes about through individual steps and from the determination to create something better. The people of Penang have an obligation to engage with the government and to ensure that it does not stumble in its purpose to achieve a better future for us all.

To find out more about Penang Green Agenda and how to contribute, visit www.pgc.com.my/pga or contact +604250 3322.

Dr Ng Shin Wei is director of Global Policy Asia, which is currently managing the Penang Green Agenda, a project launched by the Penang Green Council.
1According to the EU: “The circular economy is a relatively new system of operation, which aims to ‘close the loop’ and design waste out of the system. This means a transition from the outdated ‘take, make, dispose’ linear operating model, which is highly wasteful and detrimental to the environment, to a more responsible all-encompassing and abundant resource management system. This current system mines resources, uses them in the manufacturing of a product and then disposes of these valuable materials at the end of use; usually to landfills or incineration centres, meaning large amounts of resource value is lost. On the other hand, the circular economy closes this resource loop by providing a system of operation that designs wastage out of the system, avoiding landfills and incineration altogether and keeping resources in use for as long as possible through reuse and regeneration of new products”. https://www.governmenteuropa.eu/circular-economy-concept-explained/90557/.
2Strategic Impact Assessment (SIA), also known as strategic environmental assessment (SEA), is the assessment of the wider environmental, social and economic impacts of alternative proposals at the decision stage – the policy, planning or programme (PPP) level.

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