THERE IS A persistent trend in the thinking of the people of Penang which is not easily named, but discerning it helps explain why civil society activism is so strong in a place that at the same time is renowned for being languidly contented.
Much has to do with the little island having been a progressive trading port along one of the world’s most important transcontinental maritime routes, its cultural hybridity having been exemplarily harmonious, and its people having been globally impactful.
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 may be a disruption, but it helps bring into focus the practical values generated by life in little Penang – small yet vibrant, urban yet rural, traditional yet modern, peripheral yet central, comfortable yet aspirational, recalcitrant yet conformist, and eastern yet western.
What this paradoxical position develops over time is an impulse in its people to be moderately hard-working yet ambitious, to be moderately understanding yet moralising, and to live and let live. Where politics is concerned, Penang prefers its government to be local and effective, yet unintrusive and weak.
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Despite great changes over the last 240 years, this attitude has persisted. What is new today in the cultural calculation is the clear threat of global environmental destruction.
Covid-19, in bringing so many enterprises – and industries – to their knees, forces us to admit that economic growth and expansion should not be separated from sustainability and from associated notions such as liveability, resilience and balance.
It makes us realise why the term “Climate Change” is necessary; we do need a term to signify how Humans have amplified and reconfigured Nature’s inherent dynamics into destructive forces.
The Sustainability Discourse Began in Penang
In 1997, while Southeast Asia was enveloped in the theretofore worst haze ever recorded in the region, aggravated that year by hot El Nino winds, Penang was responding not only to immediate environmental challenges but also to the mounting pressures the roaring 1990s had put on the island.
Anwar Fazal, one of Penang’s foremost civil activists, had managed to get the Sustainable Penang Initiative (SPI) off the ground. Typically, this was achieved through linking foreign institutions to local players. The Canada-ASEAN Governance Innovation Network (CAGIN) joined with the United Nations Urban Management Programme for Asia and the Pacific (UMPAP) and the newly-founded Socio-Economic and Environmental Research Institute (SERI, which is Penang Institute today).
The initiative highlighted five principles for the attainment of a sustainable future, namely: (1) Ecological Balance; (2) Social Justice; (3) Economic Productivity; (4) Cultural Vibrancy; and (5) Popular Participation.
The SPI proposal took issue with the Malaysian obsession with top-down planning, where “[e]ach of the parts that make up the whole is conceived and formulated in isolation, with little by way of an integrated approach towards development. There is increasing realisation, especially at the level of the informed public, that such imperious yet fragmented planning with the use of limited indicators does not give a clear and holistic picture of what is happening within and to our society and environment.”
It called instead for greater public consultation and community participation to develop sustainable indicators for monitoring development in Penang, and to incorporate these indicators into an integrated and holistic development plan to “guide the realisation of a Sustainable Penang in the next millennium”.
The SPI was in fact the initiatory project for SERI, and it put Penang environmental activism on a holistic path 14 years before the United Nations finished formulating its 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 may be a disruption, but it helps bring into focus the practical values generated by life in little Penang...
The SPI’s Penang People’s Report was never officially launched, coming out as it did in the midst of political uncertainty in 1999. But consciously or not, its values are reflected in the Penang State Government’s Penang2030 vision launched in 2018, most notably in the wish to “democratise policy-making”. Simultaneously, the state-funded Penang Green Agenda, in seeking to be as activist-based as possible in its collating of ideas, continues a Penang tradition in environmental activism set decades ago.
Covid-19 gives us time and reason for serious contemplation. If we allow ourselves to sense the new age at hand, we should be able to imagine a future – in Penang and in the world – that is informed by determined notions of sustainability in production and consumption, by accountability in government, and by camaraderie and charity in social life.