Penang Continues to Punch Above Its Weight
By Ooi Kee BengMay 2023 CM UPDATE
PENANG MONTHLY starts a new series, where we, once a year, talk to the Chief Minister of Penang. We met up with YAB Chow Kon Yeow after lunch on Saturday, 4 March 2023, at Penang Institute for the first interview in this series.
Ooi Kee Beng: CM, state elections are due in the next four or five months. This signals the end of your first term, and with all probability, the start of your second term as Chief Minister of Penang. How trying have the last five years been, given the Covid-19 pandemic that covered half that period? How would you describe those years today?
Chow Kon Yeow: There have been challenges and opportunities. Different sectors of the economy were impacted differently. So, post-pandemic, those not impacted seriously continue to move ahead to achieve even better results than before. On the manufacturing front, the last two years accelerated our development on the value-add scale; the propelling factor has been the US-China trade war and the ensuing relocation of corporations out of China. Penang has been a natural alternative, and has been able to grab the opportunities, resulting in very impressive growth in this sector. This promises to enhance the ecosystem long-term; we are filling vital gaps in the semi-conductor supply chain. Jobs are created to such an extent that we now have a lack-of-talents issue, and many initiatives have been taken—TVET support, wage subsidies—to remedy this.
The tourism and services sector, in turn, was impacted severely. In a way, the state is also a tourism sector operator; we manage Penang Hill, for example. The numbers we have from there show that we were impacted as severely as other tourism operators. Some of them closed, some had to scale down their operations and depend on past revenue to tide them over this period. It was a challenging time, but things did change very fast with the arrival of the vaccines and the sudden reduction in cases.
We seem to have excess stock of vaccines in the country now [laughs]. The pandemic impacted people and each sector differently. It was a time for us to examine ourselves at a personal level; it opened up a new mind-set for how we should do things. People began to realise that they must prioritise what are more important in their lives.
OKB: In the beginning of the pandemic, there must have been many, many issues you had to deal with as Chief Minister, which were more about the personal problems of some people, like the inability to travel when they really needed to, or maybe food supply failing in some cases.
CKY: Basically, I think it was the manufacturing industry that was impacted in the initial few weeks, but those classified as producers of essential services were quickly allowed to operate as normal. But the physical movement of people and much of the logistics sector suffered hindrances, yes. But all that accelerated communication through Zoom and other such technical means. People quickly got used to it. And by and large, some even say that was actually more efficient. In Penang, during that period, NGOs mobilised to cover grounds that the state could not properly cover; this included food distribution and aiding people who were in critical need of all kinds of help.
The formation of the Penang Care Alliance is one example where many NGOs pulled together their different interests and assets to aid the community, either in food or medical supply, even looking after their psychological needs, educational needs, and providing electronic devices to facilitate learning and teaching. Many people came out to assist those in need. And this generosity helped many to survive that difficult period.
OKB: During that period, what was it like dealing with the federal agencies?
CKY: We had a very close working relationship with the health department in the state; they needed us in terms of logistics, facilities and premises, and we needed them. Basically, in today’s terms, we were a unity government in operation even then. We worked well together, really. The state health director, who has since been transferred, was back here recently; it was like meeting an old friend. We all tried to encourage each other, especially to ensure that the vaccination programme ran smoothly. And whatever PPE needs they had, we would mobilise government and civil society resources to help out. And of course, in turn, we needed them to set up hospital ICU facilities; field hospitals were outside our jurisdiction.
So, we understood each other very well. There was a critical period of two months when people got very impatient waiting for their turn to be vaccinated. We had the capacity to provide up to 40,000 vaccines per day, but at most, we received only 30,000; on average we got only 20,000 a day. Where we could, we ramped up our capacity at the vaccination centres.
OKB: You didn't get much sleep during those months, I suppose.
CKY: It wasn’t too bad. Most people couldn’t leave their homes. We could, though. We went to the office and had regular meetings and press conferences to disseminate information. Basically, the focus was on Covid management.
For two or three months, all energy was on mobilising and coming up with financial packages to help those most badly hit. We spent almost RM200mil, and we didn’t even look at how our revenue inflow would look like. We just did what we had to do. In fact, we were probably the first government to order in millions of face masks, spending about RM10mil on them. They took weeks to arrive, but we were timely enough.
OKB: Looking back, your Chief Minister-ship has been interesting. When you took over in 2018, there was a Pakatan-based federal government in place. Now, when your first term ends, there is also a Pakatan-based federal government in place. But in between, there were two changes of government. Did that make for a difficult and unpredictable time running Penang at the state level?
CKY: Over the past five years, I have had to deal with three to four federal governments. But just having come in as Chief Minister in 2018, and having to understand my new world, I did not have much engagement with the Pakatan Harapan government. We focused on Penang2030 and had our own agenda, our own vision. And despite the changes in government, we were dedicated to realising that vision.
I’ve said before: “Whoever is in government will act like a government. It has its procedures, its budget; it will not do you any favours.”
I think I am a bit wiser now, having learned from the previous two governments and how we were treated. I got a second chance with a federal government from the same coalition being in place. In these last three months, many of the new ministers and deputy ministers have already been to visit us—housing, transport, international trade, agriculture and food security as well as environment and climate change. We have written to Perak and to the federal government on the water issue to get them to understand our problem and solutions.
OKB: Water supply and Penang International Airport… those are two issues that Penang people do worry about. The assurance that PIA will be upgraded, and hope for a solution to the future of water supply for Penang will calm much of their worries, I think.
CKY: And the position of Kulim Airport as well. The Minister of Transport has confirmed that no proper process has been carried out on that project by the Kedah government yet. So, it’s not a real issue yet.
OKB: You mentioned Penang2030. You launched it in September 2018 and we are now in its second phase. I remember that 2019 was the year when we tried to socialise it as much as possible in the civil service. But then Covid hit, slowing things down. But given all that, now in 2023, are you happy with how it is progressing?
CKY: I think in the first two and a half years, Penang2030 was not quite mainstreamed yet into the state administration. Yes, they were aware of it, and we had our Exco retreat. But now, we don’t need to prod them anymore. It is now a state vision, not Chow Kon Yeow’s vision. There is something to guide them towards “a family-focused green and smart state that inspires the nation”. But we have some way to go yet; especially at the community level, many don’t quite understand the agenda yet.
OKB: Penang, for various reasons, has landed on its feet. The health crisis is over; Penang has not done too badly. The political crisis did not affect Penang all that much apart from certain policies being delayed. The supply chain disruptions and the decoupling between the US economy and China’s economy seem to have been advantageous for Penang. FDI continues to flow in, in ever larger amounts, and Penang is becoming a global node for the electronics industry in a bigger way than ever before. The tourism sector seems ready to boom in the coming months – China is opening up. Domestic tourism gave a good transitional boost, and medical tourism is returning. Is that a correct enough picture of where we are now?
CKY: We are indeed in a position to see better growth over the next three years because of what we have achieved. The Department of Statistics have figures indicating that we are certainly punching above our weight.
Working together with the new federal government, we seek a new beginning. Penang Institute, for example, has been asked to come up with a short-to-medium term economic plan for us to quickly identify and address urgent issues. We cannot deny the importance of the E&E sector, but we should work towards a more well-rounded, industrial ecosystem. There are new areas we can and should venture into by leveraging on our strengths, such as electric vehicles, solar energy, e-commerce...
OKB: Let me now ask you some more personal questions, if I may. Looking across the last three and a half decades since you joined politics, what strikes you the most in how Malaysia functions and how Malaysian society has changed.
CKY: Malaysia has developed by leaps and bounds. The population has grown tremendously, we are more urbanised and we have more schools and facilities. It all boils down to enforcement. I was Exco for local government for 10 years, and I think we achieved some good results.
There are often imbalances in infrastructure and mismatches in the supply of facilities and utilities, but in the end, you must rely on regulations being kept and on political will to provide all that is needed for improvements to happen. Moving hawkers into food courts, for example, can be a complicated affair. Some refuse to move, not agreeing to the new location; water supply must be assured, electricity must be reliable, and so on and so forth.
If you keep to a rules-based way of doing things, no nonsense, you get results in the end.
OKB: You miss being Exco for local government, I see.
CKY: [Laughs] As a politician, you want to see results, and the low-hanging fruits are always more tempting and gratifying. Working on Penang2030 is something else, more long term. But then, different roles generate different goals and different solutions.
OKB: How did Covid affect you personally?
CKY: I was infected on 31 October 2022 but only positive for one day, I don’t know why. But I got four or five peaceful days out of it, locked down in the house.
OKB: There has been good feedback on the Penang2030 vision. The green and smart bits… I think those were expected in such a document. The family-focused and inspiring the nation parts, those were more unexpected, more ideological than technical, I suppose. But which parts in the formulation of your vision have come to influence your policy making the most, in practice?
CKY: The focus on the family is broadly about social development, covering everything from cradle to grave. Our life cycle from baby to senior requires good laws and policies to ensure that we can have a wholesome journey; there are needs that must be met along the way.
But there are always new challenges; new technologies leading to new behaviours. Here and there, these can threaten the social fabric. While challenging, handling such changes can be more satisfying as well. People can relate better to a society that is more balanced, caring and comforting. The care system is important.
“Inspiring the nation…” I think no other state sees itself playing that role. Of course, doing the right thing should also naturally be aimed at inspiring others. You get too provincial otherwise.
OKB: One last question for you, CM. Politics is often very much about conflicts and disagreements, but you are often considered a leader who prefers to seek consensus rather than be authoritative. Can you say a few words about that public understanding of you? There must be advantages and disadvantages to your approach.
CKY: One advantage is the building of team spirit. You try to get people to have a common objective and work together to achieve that; that’s why you want to build consensus. The point of being non-confrontational is because you know what the outcome of being confrontational often is – it’s seldom positive or lasting.
You want to build a team, and you do not want to risk breaking up your team. But you know, sometimes, strengths can be weaknesses and weaknesses can be strengths. In seeking consensus, things may move more slowly but you get them done more thoroughly. Different times require different leadership styles and a focus on different things.
OKB: Until the next CM Update, thank you for your time, CM.
Ooi Kee Beng
is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: wikibeng.com