Exclusive: How Penang’s Mayor plans to stop his population leaving

By Varissara Charassangsomboon

Mayor Yew Tung Seang is leading an initiative to refurbish Georgetown’s iconic shophouses.

Image: Wikipedia - CC BY 2.0

The thought of Penang conjures up images of iconic street art, delicious food, and rows of quaint and colourful shophouses. Its intangible charm has attracted tourists from all over the world, and tourism is a major source of income, especially since its capital Georgetown became a World Heritage in 2008.

But rapid transformation and development to cater to tourism has had an impact on the city’s livability. “Our UNESCO World Heritage status indirectly draws the tourists to come in, but at the same time, there are people moving out,” Yew Tung Seang, Mayor of the Penang Island City Council, tells GovInsider.

He shares how the city wants to prioritise sustainable development to encourage residents to stay.

Repopulating Georgetown

A micro-housing project will refurbish dilapidated shophouses to increase housing. Developers have converted many former residences into Instagram-worthy cafes and hotels, pushing up rent and driving out locals.

“In what used to be a residential street, 10 shophouses used to be residences, and now nine are cafes and hotels,” Joann Khaw, George Town Heritage Action’s co-founder, was quoted as saying by Channel News Asia. “We may have the physical buildings but we lose the tenants and their culture. Instead, we have the trinket shops, cafes and hotels, and to me, that’s not a real city.”

The RM3.6 million (US$878,850) refurbishment project will begin with six shophouses in Kimberly Street as the model. Ground floors will be kept as shop fronts for local artisans, while the upper floors will become housing units. Mayor Yew hopes that this will provide affordable co-living options to encourage more people to stay in the city.

The green agenda

The environment is also a big issue for the city. A disastrous flood in November last year affected thousands of people’s homes and livelihoods. “Penang Island is just a very tiny coastal island,” the Mayor says. “We experience the effects of climate change quite rampantly lately.”

Under the Green Agenda, Georgetown aims to become a low carbon city. One of the biggest issues it must tackle is traffic: Mayor Yew believes a solution is to reduce the need for travelling. He hopes to develop a compact city planning concept to “try to put most things in one [place]”.

Additionally, he is currently working on an online smart planning system to process documents such as building permissions and license applications so that these procedures can be done online.

Mayor Yew wants to digitise services, including meetings, so people can avoid travel and work from home. “We can use the conventional way of teleconference meetings, instead of calling twenty people together in one place. That will bring maybe twenty cars moving around the city,” he explains.

Another solution is cycling. An enthusiastic cyclist, Mayor Yew says that Georgetown is in the process of transforming into a bicycle-friendly city. The city currently has 25 bike stations and 180 km of cycling lanes, and is in the process of opening up more paths for cyclists.
Image: Mohd Fazlin Mohd Effendy Ooi/Flickr

Over two years ago, the government initiated the ‘Bike on Fridays’ campaign to encourage people to cycle to work. The Council now requires larger commercial buildings to have facilities to accommodate cyclists, including parking spaces and shower rooms.

Although the effects of these projects may take years to fully show, changes can already be felt within the city. “We can start seeing people cycling,” the Mayor comments. “Of course, not like Amsterdam yet. But people are cycling.”

Clean and safe

Although it welcomes an increasing number of visitors every year, Georgetown wants to maintain its status as one of the cleanest cities in Southeast Asia. The city uses IoT networks to deploy machinery and staff for routine work, the Mayor says, putting “the right people at the right place, doing the right thing”.

Safety is another area the city council wants to improve. It has plans to increase the number of CCTV units from 550 to 900 by the end of this year, the Mayor says. It is also developing an Intelligent Operations Centre, which would have video analytics capabilities to monitor traffic, illegal dumping, and littering.

The Mayor hopes that this raft of measures to improve the city’s infrastructure and environment will entice residents to come back to their hometown.