The Bel Retiro Roundtable Wonders about Penang’s Far Future

By Fauwaz Abdul Aziz

February 2024 FEATURE
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Photo from TYT Penang Communications & Media Office.

SURVIVING THE MULTI-DIMENSIONAL crises of these past years, it would be all too understandable if Penangites doubled down and dug into the trenches to just survive the next few years. A global pandemic, military and geopolitical conflicts, lockdowns rendering cities and towns into scenes of unsettling quiet and inactivity, and the unmistakable onset of despair from economies and economic activities grinding to a halt. The past half-dozen years appear to have been the most dramatic since the start of the millennium.

“What oncoming or impending disasters is Penang inadvertently, unknowingly, hurtling towards?” the more unsettled among us might ask. Others, bolder perhaps, might confront the disquietude by wondering, “What challenges should we take upon ourselves?” and “What opportunities might be uncovered from emerging threats and dangers?” The idealists, in turn, would venture, “What do we wish for in the Penang of our great-grandchildren?”

These concerns and questions were, in fact, topics of deliberation among a dozen-plus coterie of some of Penangʼs finest sons, daughters and long-time residents during a symposium by Penang Institute held on 14 November 2023. Penang Governor, Ahmad Fuzi Abdul Razak, played host for the event at his residence, Bel Retiro, on Penang Hill.

This inaugural Bel Retiro Roundtable was themed “Penang in 2050: Staking the Path to Sustainability”, organised under Penang Instituteʼs Forum for Leadership and Governance (FLAG) programme.

The venue was aptly chosen: the two-century-old building had hosted hundreds of local and foreign high officials, dignitaries and other public figures to discuss matters of state since it was first built in 1789. Penangʼs second Chief Minister, the late Lim Chong Eu, used to bring his close associates and colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s to the same bungalow to grill them in what he called “jamming sessions” on the pressing issues facing Penang at the time.

The half-day discussion, moderated by Penang Institute Executive Director, Ooi Kee Beng, was purposed to think far ahead to 2050 in order to “imagine beyond the immediate constraints that limit our imagination for how Penang can grow and become the futuristic and yet traditionalist place that we all seek for it.”

The keynote speaker for the day, Steven Sim Chee Keong, Malaysian Human Resource Minister and a member of Penang Instituteʼs Board of Directors, reminded the group about the many forms of niche tourism that Malaysia offers, such as heritage tourism, eco-tourism, medical tourism, cultural tourism and educational tourism.

Pearls and Diamonds

Presenting the global and regional economic scenario, distinguished economist and current chairman of the George Town Institute of Open and Advanced Studies (GIOAS), Wawasan Open University, Andrew Sheng, similarly did not mince his words on the overall challenges facing Penang and Malaysia. Those challenges include increasingly inward-looking state interventionism and protectionism, bourgeoning national debt amidst declining investment and the dismal performance of Malaysiaʼs most significant exports: oil and gas, palm oil, high-tech manufacturing and tourism.

Harry Cockrell, chairman of the Pacific Tiger Group as well as of The Habitat Group, and Cheok Lay Leng, General Manager of the Penang Hill Corporation, pointed to the under-appreciated pearls and diamonds hiding in plain sight in Penang—at only 125km2 , Penang Hill has among the highest densities of unique animal, plant and insect species, all living in four different ecosystems, which cannot be found elsewhere in the world.

Building on the record of Cockrellʼs Pacific Tiger Group and The Habitat Group in implementing Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) projects in Penang and Pahang, Andrew Sheng pointed to the possibilities of developing Penangʼs (and Malaysiaʼs) environmental and human potentials by creating a stock exchange based on, and in, the age-old concept of accumulated capital or wealth being used innovatively to fund social change.

Comparing it to the “social stock exchange” mooted in India, Sheng said the idea of developing an “Islamic stock exchange” that “is all about equity and no debt” and “equity with justice” is gaining ground in Malaysia.

Flooding on the Way

Zulfigar Yasin, Head of the Heritage and Urban Studies of Penang Institute and Honorary Professor of the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies (CEMACS), painted in stark colours what Penang would actually look like geographically in 2050. That picture, said Zulfigar, renders obsolete current projects and plans for infrastructure, industrial, residential, commercial and agricultural activities in the state. Pointing to models and maps developed by the UNʼs Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Asian Development Bank, Zulfigar said projected sea level rise and the trajectory of carbon emissions would mean that by 2050, “very significant areas of the state are going to be flooded or underwater… and this is the canvas upon which the state is going to operate. It brings into question a lot of things that we have mentioned before: development, [and] the population [of Penang] itself.”

As with much of the rest of Penang, Balik Pulau and Bayan Lepas will be under seawater; Kedah will be even more adversely affected; and temperatures are expected to rise by 2050 to numbers that will render much of our present agriculture unviable.

Other speakers at the Roundtable included former Digital Penang CEO, Tony Yeoh Choon Hock, and Bukit Tengah assemblyman Gooi Hsiao Leung, who discussed the need for fiscal devolution in the country. Speaking on the arts and culture were lawyer and art aficionado, Lee Khai, and the owner of ChinaHouse in Penang and Bon Ton in Langkawi, Narelle McMurtrie.

Closing the half-day event, Ahmad Fuzi said he hoped the Bel Retiro Roundtable would become a regular programme where ideas and recommendations raised would be further discussed.

*NOTE: The complete proceedings of the symposium will soon be available on Penang Institute’s website.

Fauwaz Abdul Aziz

is a Projects Researcher at Penang Institute, and is currently completing his PhD dissertation in anthropology at the Friedrich-Alexander University (FAU) Erlangen–Nürnberg in Bayern, Germany.