On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Act fast to boost island’s sagging image

It was a terrible blow to me because in many of my
previous travels overseas, Penang was better known than Malaysia
– but not any more.

Penang, as had been discussed in
several newspaper reports and commentaries, has disappeared from the tourism

I am glad that an article by this writer on the Pearl of
The Orient losing its shine had led to a lively discussion among many
Penangites, both in Malaysia and overseas, pouring their hearts out on the
deteriorating living standards in Penang.

Last week, New Straits Times group editor-in-chief Datuk
Kalimullah Hassan, who grew up in Penang, joined the
chorus of frustration, saying "the pearl has been losing its lustre".

He cited the dismay of repeat tourists and returning
islanders at the "massive jams, incessant road works, dirty beaches, dirty
streets, dirty food stalls and general state of decay".

He recalled that in the 1980s, then Prime Minister Tun Dr
Mahathir Mohamad, on an official visit to the state, described Butterworth on
the mainland as the dirtiest town in the country.

Kalimullah described Penang Hill as "close to resembling
an abandoned colonial hill station", adding that it was a wonder that the Penang
authorities were still trying to sell the island as the Pearl
of the Orient.

Penang Hill needs to be upgraded and be on par, at least,
with Hong Kong's Victoria Park if Penang
is serious about improving the hill.

Earlier, a columnist from The Sun, Dr Goh Ban Lee, had
expressed similar sentiments following my article.

The discussion continued, with more bloggers and readers
in Malaysiakini, saying how unhappy they were with the deteriorating situation
in Penang.

I don't think any of us has any political agenda except
for our deep sense of belonging to Penang. I was given
to understand there were some suspicions, among some politicians, of a

That's normal as politicians often see ghosts in every
shadow, what with their constant back-stabbing, instead of opening their eyes
wide to see the mistakes staring at them.

But it is commendable of Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu
Koon to respond positively by acknowledging the problem, saying the state was
determined to enhance the state's tourism products, saying the state must not
lose its Pearl of the Orient image.

His statement is reassuring and all of us, like him, are
aware that a lot must be done to improve the state but it would be better if a
proactive approach is taken to come up with a comprehensive tourism plan.

While Dr Koh wants to hear constructive comments from the
media, Penangites, too, would also want to hear constructive plans from the
state leadership instead of mere ad hoc reactions. What he has said, so far, is
nothing new.

Dr Koh has cited the Sept 11, 2001, incident in the United
States and the Severe Acute Respiratory
Syndrome (SARS) scare last year for the drop in visitors, but  the figures showed that the arrivals had
actually declined even before the two major events.

Still, we must admit, like other countries, Penang,
too, suffered.

Penang needs a facelift badly. Its
urban planning, or the lack of it, appears to be in shambles. Development, if
properly carried out by the private sector, need not be a dirty word.

The word, among top officials in Putrajaya, is that the
state has been slow in approving several projects. The state certainly has its
reasons but its inability to cut government red tape will not go down well with
our top leaders.

One example is the relocation of the Penang Turf Club to
Batu Kawan, where the Bandar Cassia township is to take shape.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi launched
the first phase of the project a few months ago and, according to buyers, they
still cannot sign the sales and purchase agreement because the authorities have
yet to approve the relevant building plans.

It is good to be on the side of the house buyers and to
protect their interest but the state needs to be mindful of investors and
businessmen who can help to develop Penang.

One shiny example is the Kuala
Lumpur City Centre
Park at the Petronas
Twin Towers.
It has been picked by Time magazine as the best park in Asia.
The magazine, in its Nov 22 edition, described the one-hectare park as "every
five-year-old's idea of heaven".

But there was one consolation – Penang
earned a place in the magazine for having the best street food. It said its
wide range of food "brings together some of the liveliest culinary traditions
in Asia" and "only in Penang
could food this good be this cheap".

If there is one thing the media and Penang
leaders can agree on, it must be the quality of the food. Financial resources
aside, the push for Penang tourism needs stronger
political will and better imagination.

The state leadership should not be afraid of seeking the
support of Penangites, working and staying outside the state, to use their
extensive network to put Penang back on the
international tourism map.

But irrespective of our approaches in how we can boost Penang's
image again, both sides must surely agree that there is an urgent need to start
work now.