Ooi Kee Beng.
Penang lies at the southern end of the Andaman Sea, the eastern end of the Bay of Bengal and the northern end of the Straits of Melaka. It also marks the westernmost end of the Malay peninsula.
Being so oddly placed, the island has been a concourse for economic, cultural and political flows going in all directions. It was naturally an entrepôt for the rich produce of the region, a safe harbour for tired ships and a land of hope for immigrants from near and far – an urban centre where different ethnic groups and religions negotiated for space, and a place marked by hybridity of all kinds.
Its Nyonya/Baba culture contains as much Chinese and Malay traits as it does Indian and Western qualities. Its people are conscious of the hill range that has their back and the open oceans that bring opportunities. They eat the cuisines of all nations, adding their own mix of spices; and their children educate themselves in most parts of the world.
But like all the peoples throughout the South-east Asian archipelago, the maritime orientation of Penang’s inhabitants has been overwhelmed by national borders and political centralisation.
With the disappearance in the late 1960s of its free-port status, faded also the island’s natural connection to the maritime world – to the Andaman, the Bay of Bengal, the Straits of Melaka and beyond. Its coastlines now merely limit movement and are no longer portals into the rest of the world. The Penang Bridge, completed in 1986, strengthened the notion that Penang is land more than sea, and with that, its uniqueness has been further undermined.
Even the Unesco heritage listing for George Town highlights its already-accomplished cultural mix more than its capacity to absorb new flows of people, knowledge and capital. It puts a full-stop to a bygone era, and mindset. The static becomes more important than the dynamic, and the past becomes more real than the present. The sea becomes alien to the suburbanite, who now prefers cars to boats and traffic jams to ocean breezes.
Just as the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 dissected the Straits of Melaka and divided the core of Malay-Sumatran culture, forcing many to fully become landlubbers rather than seafarers, the adoption and implementation of the nation-building pathos and ethos throughout the Federation of Malaysia challenged the maritime mindset of the region even further – Penang included.
It is in this light that one should consider the deep historical significance of the successful industrialisation carried out in the 1970s by Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu and his able team through the introduction of free trade zones. Apart from reviving the economy of Penang, this reliance on global forces to create new jobs and import new technology kept the population’s global mindset alive, which it otherwise might not have done.
Tourism today provides as much revenue to the island as the factories do. So all in all, Penang has survived the transition from entrepôt economy to national economy rather well. The trend now moves towards regionalism.
But since the trend is such, Penang will do well to acknowledge that its existence is as much about the maritime as it is about the terrestrial, if not more so. Cruise tourists have obviously recognised this in recent times, as have local aquaculturalists using the surrounding seas to generate seafood for the state and the country.
The seas and the coastlines hold much potential – for sports and for transportation, and as sustenance for Penang’s inherent cosmopolitan nature. The island being located where oceans meet is something to treasure – as an economic and strategic good as much as a cultural asset.