Is Penang Truly Inclusive for Persons with Disabilities?

loading Each Rapid Mobiliti van has the maximum capacity of four wheelchairs and is outfitted with a hydraulic lift system. Photo: Rapid Bus.

Ernest, Jia Hui and their eight-month-old daughter. Photo: Ooi Tze Xiong.

LIVEABILITY IS VERY much a layered concept. Since the 1960s, discourse on city planning and policies – and the increasing moral imperative of leaving no one behind – has dominated and expanded its study to include all levels of society.1

Penang Island is ranked one of the most liveable cities in Malaysia alongside KL,2 with significant efforts channelled, among others, towards improving infrastructure, affordable housing and public spaces. But is Penang truly liveable for its residents with disabilities?

Unequal Treatment

“Whenever my wife and I seek treatment at the hospital, we have difficulty communicating with the doctors and nurses about our symptoms,” says Ernest Tan, who suffers from hearing impairment. “Conversely, no one is able to help interpret the diagnoses or prescriptions into sign language as well.” Ernest works as a full-time Grab driver, and lives with his wife Jia Hui, who is also hearing impaired, in Bayan Lepas.

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Disappointingly, he recalls how his disability prevented him from entering the labour room when Jia Hui gave birth to their now eight-month-old daughter at the Penang General Hospital. “Only the husband is allowed to enter, but I was unable to communicate with the staff on duty. Neither was there a qualified sign language interpreter, who would also not be permitted into the delivery room in any case.”

Mugilan. Photo: Ooi Tze Xiong.

Julie and her daughter Pei Wen. Photo: Ooi Tze Xiong.

Mugilan, on the other hand, has little qualms about his healthcare needs. A visually-impaired masseur at St. Nicholas’ Home, his residence at Sungai Ara is relatively near Bayan Baru’s public health clinic. But he is vexed by the suburb’s lack of universally-accessible public facilities. “Not only do the pavements here lack tactile markings, they are also uneven. I would usually have to negotiate my way around trees planted in their middle, as well as roadside facilities. This I do by estimating the locations of the obstacles,” he explains.

The community is even more at a disadvantage when it comes to purchasing low-cost housing. “Due to our low salaries, many of us often find our housing loan applications rejected by the banks, while those who are successful were initially allocated units at the top floors. Only after they appealed did the developers finally give them units at the lower floors.”

“Priority should be given to the community for low-cost public housing applications,” concurs Julie Ooi from Tanjung Bungah, whose daughter Pei Wen is also hearing impaired. She relates how some of her disabled peers had submitted their applications through the state government, only to join the waiting list with other able-bodied applicants. “Perhaps a fast-tracked pathway could be considered for the application of their first homes,” she suggests.

Julie adds that Pei Wen had in the past face rejection by potential employers on the account of her disability, as well as workplace discrimination. She tried compensating by having a good work ethic. Despite this, she was still singled out by frustrated customers. “At one of her former workplaces, she was bullied by her own colleagues. I could only advise her to be patient, but deep down I was terribly upset. What has she done to deserve such treatment?” Pei Wen now works at Tesco Tanjung Tokong.

Inclusivity For the Disabled

As of 2019, 14,107 persons with disabilities, or approximately 1.73% of the city’s total population, were registered with the Penang Social Welfare Department.3,4 Though their number may be small, these individuals are well-represented by myriad welfare associations.

The tactile pavement at Pulau Tikus. Photo: Ooi Tze Xiong.

For its part, the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) has been endeavouring to introduce universally-accessible facilities since 1998.5 For instance, the Upper Penang Road stretch was made wheelchair-friendly in 2005.6 Tactile pavements for the visually-impaired were also installed at Pulau Tikus in 2014, as part of the then-state assemblywoman Yap Soo Huey’s initiative towards a pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood.7

MBPP’s efforts remain ongoing; public infrastructure across the city is undergoing upgrades to cater for the disabled, with the community hall at Jalan Patani being the next in line under the local government’s 2021 budget.8

Aside from annual allocations under the iSejahtera welfare programme, the state government has pledged to take into account the well-being of its disabled residents under its Penang2030 vision, which includes the proposed Happiness in Penang Index.9 In 2019 the state government gazetted the Penang Structural Plan 2030, which also calls for universal design principles to be implemented for roadside infrastructure, housing and transport developments.10

To be sure, the creation of an inclusive city must not only be shouldered by the state and its local governments. In this respect, government-linked companies and the private sector have stepped up to the plate in improving access to various facilities for the disabled community. From convention centres to hotels, the services industry is readily embracing the concept of accessibility, by modifying entry points and washrooms to facilitate ease of access.

The Rapid Mobiliti fleet currently comprises two vans. Photo: Rapid Bus.

On the flip side, the inherent lack of mobility remains an encumbrance, one that Prasarana attempted to overcome with the introduction of Rapid Mobiliti in 2015. Rapid Mobiliti is a point-to-point van service that aims to bridge the last-mile connectivity gap for disabled individuals. “With these vans, the disabled can be picked up from their homes and be transported directly to any destination of their choice. This sets Rapid Mobiliti apart from the regular Rapid Penang buses. Although each bus is equipped with ramps and designated seats for the disabled, they would still need to get to the nearest bus stop first,” explains Muhammad Yazurin Sallij, the CEO of Rapid Bus, the subsidiary of Prasarana that operates both Rapid Penang and Rapid Mobiliti services.

Feedback on the ground has been encouraging. “Rapid Mobiliti’s annual ridership grew from about 1,700 in 2016 to about 2,500 in 2019. In fact, within the first nine months of 2020, ridership rose to around 3,600. Wheelchair users prefer Rapid Mobiliti as it enables them to follow up with hospital appointments easily,” he says. The Rapid Mobiliti fleet currently comprises two vans, each with a maximum capacity of four wheelchairs and is outfitted with a hydraulic lift system that allows wheelchair-bound persons to board. “Should demand continue to increase, we will assess the feasibility of expanding the fleet or service frequency, as well as introducing the service to Seberang Perai.”

... the Penang Island City Council has been endeavouring to introduce universally-accessible facilities since 1998.

In the meantime, the community is taking their daily trials in stride, and patiently waiting for when Penang is made truly inclusive for them. “There should be greater awareness and understanding of the challenges that burdens the community,” says Sharon Ong, who runs sign-language classes at the YMCA Penang. “They are unable to do simple things that many able-bodied people take for granted. The state government could do more to generate awareness and provide a platform for them to have their voices and opinions heard.”

Julie, for one, shares her fervent hope that Pei Wen will see the day when the community is treated on an equal footing with other able-bodied persons. “I can only hope that Penang’s society will one day be more accepting of the disabled and recognise that they are just like us. Just because my daughter is handicapped, it doesn’t mean she is incapable of hard work like everyone else.”


1 Harm Kaal (2011) A conceptual history of livability:  
2 Julia Chan. “Kuala Lumpur reclaims place among 100 most liveable cities for Asian expats” Malay Mail (2019): 
3 My Local Stats: Timur Laut, Pulau Pinang 2019 Department of Statistics Malaysia (2020).
4 My Local Stats: Barat Daya, Pulau Pinang 2019 Department of Statistics Malaysia (2020).
5 MPPP Annual Report 2005 Penang Island City Council.
6 Tan Sin, Chow.”’User-friendly’ stretch” The Star (2005):
7 Opalyn Mok. “Penang launches pilot project to get more people walking” Malay Mail (2016): 
8 “Ucapan Bajet Tahun 2021” Penang Island City Council (2020):
9 The Penang 2030 Guide Penang State Government (2019): eBook_.pdf
10 Draft of the Penang Structure Plan 2030 Penang State Government (2018): 

Ooi Tze Xiong, a former Xaverian, currently works at a multinational firm at Bayan Lepas. After years of sojourning in cities across Malaysia and Singapore, he eventually decided to call Penang home.

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