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NB: This article was originally published in issue 11.12 of the Penang Monthly.

When one thinks of Penang today, a few things come to mind: the best food in the world, living heritage, multiculturalism, the hills, the beaches, CAT governance and, inevitably, traffic jams.

Of late, the last has been worsening, so much so that the Guinness Book of World Records should be invited to visit Penang Island on a long weekend to marvel at what is indisputably the world’s largest car park.

An oft-repeated statistic also never fails to astonish: Road Transport Department data from 2009 reveals that there are about 1.75 million motor vehicles in Penang, compared to an adult population of roughly one million. Yes, that amounts to almost two vehicles per adult.

Be that as it may, the extraordinary proportion of vehicles alone does not explain the nefarious traffic congestion. After all, one person can’t possibly drive two cars at the same time. What is really exacerbating the situation is a toxic combination of two factors: one a more recent phenomenon and the other a legacy issue.

Success breeds development

Firstly, there are more vehicles crisscrossing the island today because Penang has, to put it simply, become a more happening place. Excitement has grown over the last few years due in part to the conferment of Unesco World Heritage status on George Town, as well as an explosion of commercial activities stemming from an increasing number of development projects and multibillion ringgit manufacturing investments that translate into higher employment, stronger purchasing power and healthy consumerism; hence the mushrooming of boutique hotels, eclectic bistros and a revival of the social scene.

As various international commentators have noted, Penang is buzzing again. And news travels fast, especially when it is promoted by such sources of information as The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, New York Times, Yahoo! and even famed lifestyle magazine Monocle. As a result, more and more people now want to come to Penang.

In short, a confluence of culture, cash and cars has resulted in this seemingly interminable traffic malady which inflicts its worst on weekends and holidays.

At the same time, one cannot deny another direct corollary of success – development. And in a water-locked, land-scarce city, development will invariably take a vertical rather than a horizontal form, thus contributing to higher density per capita and, as a result, increased pressure on the existing infrastructure. Now, contrary to what one may instinctively think, this by itself isn’t necessarily a problem.

While density, especially in recent times, has become something of a taboo in Penang, it would be awfully imperceptive to blame density for the sake of it. Such a postulation would ignore the fact that many of the most liveable cities in the world, such as Vancouver, Sydney and Singapore, are also some of the most densely populated. After all, the viability of public transport is predicated upon a necessary level of density. A dense urban form also minimises per capita carbon emissions and reduces energy costs.

Yet density by itself does not work unless it is accompanied by sufficient infrastructure and a logical ecosystem. In other words, it has to go hand-in-hand with proper planning. Seen in this light, Penang’s success in the last four years has unfortunately also exposed a deep-seated flaw – Penang was simply not designed for it.

An irrational urban form

The reality of Penang today is that we have an urban form that is sprawled and disjointed, with a gaping disconnect between residential areas, commercial centres and public infrastructure. Such a design is in fact the hallmark of an urban model based on mid-20th century Americana-style zoning and a culture of automobile-dependence.

The premise of the post-war American dream was thus: owning a dream home (complete with garage, front lawn, backyard and swimming pool) on your own piece of land. Naturally, such forms of low-density residential development were only possible by expanding development into the peripheries of the metropolitan area. In short, cities began to spread outwards.

With the availability of cheap fuel, expansive highways and acres of parking spaces for malls built even further out, Suburbia was successfully created.

Unfortunately, such an urban form could only go so far. As populations (both human and vehicular) increased, Suburbia began to crack under pressure. With rising energy costs, waning income growth and diminishing availability of credit, the American urban sprawl model has now been revealed to be unsustainable and cost-ineffective.

In the case of Penang, the American influence is undeniable. Inspired by Suburbia, and having never imagined a day when vehicles would outnumber people on the island, Penang’s urban planners in the 1960s and 1970s began to adopt a sprawled and zoned approach. The previously densely-populated city core that once saw residential and commercial cohabitation was quickly hollowed out. New suburban residential areas were demarcated, and to ensure quality of life, commercial and industrial areas were kept as far away as possible. Public transport was ignored as it was believed that middle class suburban Penangites would be able to afford cars (and on this point they have not been disappointed).

As a result, we have inherited the situation today in which industrial estates have been carved out all the way to the south of the island and on the mainland, while residential developments pepper the northern coast and central valley. Such an urban form, considered ideal 40 years ago when the population was smaller and less people owned cars, is now the very reason why people find themselves stuck in intractable jams as they attempt to make the illogical commute from residential corridors to commercial and industrial zones through tarmac arteries that are simply unable to handle the rising volume.

Back to basics

There is of course no quick fix to this ignominious problem. However, it is comforting to note that the solution may not be impossible. Firstly, adequate infrastructure must be provided. This involves not only road constructions such as bypasses and highway building where appropriate, but also a major investment and prioritisation in public transport.

But even more importantly, whatever remedy taken must not only be evidence-based and designed in consideration of current and future mobility needs – an approach duly acknowledged by the state government’s commissioning of the soon-to-be-released Transport Masterplan, but must also form a logical part of a bigger and more holistic urban planning approach.

The good news is that no reinvention is required. As observed by MIT Media Lab director and architect Kent Larson, pre-automobile cities like Paris are actually agglomerations of smaller villages. On their own these villages are self-sustaining ecosystems, with the availability of every basic necessity within a 20-minute (or one-mile) radius – a school, a clinic, a gym, a grocer, a café, a post office.

Such a system works because it makes sense. No long travelling is required in order to access basic amenities and fulfil basic needs. Living, working and playing occur in the same neighbourhood. In fact, such a design naturally encourages walking and cycling. Any necessary outside travel is then undertaken via public transport which serves these dense, self-sustaining “villages”.

Believe it or not, Penang once upon a time used to display these very same features. Unlike the clusters and sprawls which typify the state today, Penang’s pre-automobile urban form was actually a sustainable one.

In pre-sprawl Penang, George Town was where most people lived, worked and played. Every necessary destination was reachable by foot or, if it was a little further, by bus. Today, the island has been completely delineated by zones which separate residential, commercial and industrial activities. At the same time, people have no choice but to travel between these zones by automobile because it is simply impossible for public transport to efficiently service the chaotic sprawl that Penang has become.

As Penang strives to become an internationally competitive city, it is imperative that we transform the incoherent urban form that we have inherited into one that works. In other words, we need to create a sustainable city that is able to connect people, via efficient public infrastructure, to homes, amenities, centres of employment and trade.

Moving forward requires us to look to the past.

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NB: This article was originally published in issue 8.12 of the Penang Monthly.

The advent of the digital era, characterised by seamless and instantaneous transfer of information and unprecedented levels of global interconnectedness, has seen a paradigm shift in social, political and economic strategies worldwide.

In fact, it is commonly said that the world has entered into “the knowledge revolution or knowledge economy”, which some have argued to be “the latest phase of capitalism”[1]. In this age of knowledge, mobile capital and the easy spread of technology have meant that the production of goods have increasingly shifted to low cost countries.

“This is a natural progression, especially for developed economies,” notes international investment banker Julian Candiah. “As GDP per capita rises and countries gets richer, a lot of the lower-valued components of the economy have migrated to low cost countries. We have seen this hand-off many times, first in the 1970s to the South-East Asian Tigers, and then in the 1990s to China, and now to Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, etc. Even China is now moving up the value chain.”

As developed economies begin to decouple themselves from industrial production, it is suggested that future success would no longer be predicated upon traditional factors such as land, labour and raw materials, but upon the creation of value extracted from knowledge, skills and creativity.

In other words, future jobs in the so-called knowledge economy would require working with our brains and not with our hands. Soft power, and not hard power, would drive the world forward.

So how exactly has this experiment fared?

e-Britain

In 1997, Tony Blair was elected as Prime Minister of Britain on the wave of Cool Britannia and the promise of ushering in a new golden age. Having successfully rejuvenated and remodelled a now centrist, market-embracing Labour Party, the youngest British Prime Minister in nearly two centuries sought to catapult a then lagging Britain into the “forefront of the knowledge economy”.

According to Blair and other deindustrialisation advocates, this new knowledge-driven economy is the “equivalent of the machine-driven economy of the industrial revolution”[2]. In other words, future British success would lie in the country’s ability to shift from an industrial economy to one based on services. To borrow Blair’s own words, Britain needed to transform the “workshop of the world” into the “e-commerce capital of the world”.

This premise, though an innovation, was not a new one. Margaret Thatcher had been the first, two decades before, to prescribe deindustrialisation as the cure for what she deemed to be an uncompetitive, manufacturing-based British economy. By articulating the “knowledge economy” in the context of a globalising world driven by ICT, Blair gave the strategy renewed direction.

For over a decade, the government pursued this policy, turning the British economy into the world’s second largest services exporter after the US. This was achieved on the back of creative services such as film, music, fashion and advertising, as well as other traditional services such as finance, computing and ICT. The picturesque vision of a knowledge economy looked set to come true.

Today, more than a decade later, Blair’s vision remains just that. Having experienced the largest deindustrialisation exercise in post-war Europe, in which the industrial share of the economy saw a decline from 30% in the 1970s to about 11% today, one would be hard-pressed to opine that the British economy is in a better shape than it was.

The British used to make cars, ships and engines for the world. They gave all that up to sell culture, tourism and financial advice, only to find that selling things simply cannot provide the same volume of employment that making things can. Unemployment is now at its highest level since 1995, while income inequality has reached a 30-year peak.

The British northeast, once the proud home to numerous factories, warehouses and dockyards, has now become the poster child of a post-industrial wasteland, sprawling with hollow buildings and muddy estates. Not only have the cacophonous activities come to an end, so too have the jobs, apprenticeships, local industries and support services that typically characterise an ecosystem built around making things. Meanwhile, the vacuum left behind remains vivid for a generation of displaced Britons.

Services-driven Penang?

Though it took a while, the same debate has now made its way to Penang’s shores. In recent times, certain quarters have spoken out about the need to reinvent Penang’s traditional economic base. Citing a fast-depleting land bank and competition from more cost-effective neighbours, they argue that the manufacturing sector has reached its zenith.

Their solution? To transform the services sector to replace manufacturing as the next engine of growth. According to them, Penang no longer has a comparative advantage in manufacturing, and should instead focus on building resources and talent in service industries such as tourism, healthcare, ICT and finance. After all, Penang is no stranger to economic change, having evolved from a free port into an industrial beacon. The question is, is it time to change?

Today, manufacturing remains the bedrock of the Penang economy, easily contributing more than half of Penang’s economic output. In the last two years, Penang has etched itself as the top destination in the country for manufacturing investment, notching RM12.2bil in 2010 and RM9.1bil in 2011. Of this amount, RM17.7bil came in the form of FDI, which means that the second smallest state in Malaysia had managed to attract nearly a third of total national FDI. At the rate the trend is going, there is nothing to indicate a need for a realignment of strategies.

This is not to say that an over-reliance in manufacturing is without its pitfalls. In fact, Penang’s industrial, export-dependent economy is necessarily more exposed than other states to shifts in global economic trends. This was the case during the 2008 financial crisis, resulting in a GDP dip of over 10% in real terms (based on constant 2000 prices). In contrast, Malaysia’s GDP only fell by 1.6% during the same period. Manufacturing output in Penang also decreased by 20.2%, double the decline suffered nationally.

Global economic forces are of course hard to resist. That said, Penang managed to bounce back with a real GDP growth of 10% in 2010. And despite this rough patch, Penang’s GDP per capita had actually increased slightly over this period of time. This was achieved because, over the years and more so in recent times, Penang has been able to build up an industrial base that is not merely made up of low-skills and low value-added assembly lines but also cutting-edge technology with leading brands such as Intel, Motorola, Sony, Dell, Honeywell, Bose and National Instruments.

As Candiah says, “The trick is not so much to do ‘manufacturing correctly’, but to do ‘correct manufacturing’. The game must be value-added, high-productivity manufacturing. And to the credit of the folks in charge, they have managed to get it right so far.”

Today, Penang is moving towards high-end manufacturing such as solar panels, LEDs, medical devices and the like. Just last year, Singapore Aerospace Manufacturing opened a facility in Penang to produce precision components for the aviation and aerospace industry. Such value-added industries are exactly the kind that will provide the ingredients needed for Penang to move up the manufacturing value chain.

The myth of the services-based economy

But what about the developed countries that have managed to “graduate” into services-based economies? Singapore, for example, is typically used as an example of a successful former industrial power-turned-services provider. Should that not be Penang’s future direction?

Though widely accepted, the above hypothesis is not entirely accurate. Ha-Joon Chang, a leading Cambridge economist, has frequently pointed out that high income knowledge economies that appear to be services-based are in fact highly industrialised economies. For example, Switzerland, believed to be a post-industrial economy reliant on services such as the banking sector and tourism, in fact ranks as the country with the second highest manufacturing value-add (MVA) per capita[3] in the world. Singapore ranks third. And in the Competitive Industrial Performance Index, Singapore is the world number one.

What most fail to understand is that the success of countries like Switzerland and Singapore is based upon their industrial foundations. And it is from such a foundation that they are able to spin off a services supply chain encompassing research, design, engineering, legal, financial and sales. In other words, one first needs to make a product before one can add value to it and finally, consumerise it. The same trend is also evident in other high income Asian economies such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

As the world progresses, there can be no doubt that consumption of technological products will only increase. Economic downturns may temporarily dampen demand, but in the end, more rather than less manufacturing will be needed to cater to the growing market. Instead of reducing manufacturing, the strategy should be to leverage upon the existing base and focus on value-adds through technology, automation and productivity improvement.

Not what you produce, but how you produce

Years after sounding the clarion call for deindustrialisation, the British government is now talking about a “march of the makers”. In last year’s budget speech, the Chancellor of the Exchequer proudly proclaimed that the words “Made in Britain” will once again drive the nation forward.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has embarked on a manufacturing drive in a bid to revive the lacklustre American economy. In a recent speech by Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, at a conference aptly titled “The Renaissance of American Manufacturing”, it was pointed out that manufacturing is responsible for 70% of R&D in America, despite being only 12% of the economy. Not only that, manufacturing jobs pay on average 25% higher than non-manufacturing jobs. Sperling then added, as if struck by an epiphany, that manufacturing would be the key to tackling the country’s ballooning trade deficit.

Whether it is too little too late remains to be seen, but the fact is that the US and Britain have finally realised the potential multiplier effect, in terms of jobs and services, that is inherent in manufacturing. What is understood to be a knowledge-based economy is in fact a corollary resulting from a mature industrial base. In other words, manufacturing is a prerequisite for innovation.

Closer to home, it is critical that we learn from the experiences of others before it is too late. To say that manufacturing has peaked is disingenuous. If anything, it holds even more potential today than it did a few decades ago. What is needed is not to replace manufacturing but to create depth and specialisation through innovation and technology. Moving forward, it will be about how we produce rather than what we produce.

“Today, the buzzword is ‘reindustrialisation’,” says the Penang Development Corporation (PDC) deputy general manager Iskandar Basha Abdul Kadir. “After playing an integral role in the industrialisation of Penang for 40 years, it is time for the PDC to facilitate the reinvestment and revitalisation that is currently being undertaken by most pioneer plants and facilities in our industrial zones.

“We cannot afford to lie around idly by while the whole world is moving. Besides attracting new, value-added industries, we also need to revitalise and reenergise the ‘old’ ones so they can become ‘new’ again.”

According to Iskandar, the premise for the future of the Penang economy is simple. “If we can successfully add value to our existing manufacturing capacity, then we will set off a chain of events that will produce higher value services and, ultimately, higher paying jobs.”


[1] Rikowski, R. (2003), “Value – the Life Blood of Capitalism: knowledge is the current key”, Policy Futures in Education, Vol.1 No.1, pp. 160-178.

[2] Speech by Tony Blair at the Knowledge 2000 Conference, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2000/mar/07/tonyblair

[3] A basic indicator of a country’s level of industrialisation. The higher the MVA, the more industrialised the country.

NB: This speech was delivered at the launch of the April Issue of the Penang Monthly on 7 April 2012. The following reproduction is abridged.

As we advance towards a high-tech, knowledge-based economy, where traditional factors of labour such as physical strength and other gender considerations are fast losing relevance, it is timely to reflect upon the past contributions, present successes and future potential of women in the development of Penang.

As we all like to say, Penang leads. In this case though, it may be more appropriate to say Penang women lead. Our female labour force participation rate of 53.4 per cent is significantly higher than the national average of 45.7 per cent. This means that either the women in Penang are more hardworking, or that the men are lazier. Regardless of which, it also means that Penang women are more independent.

Institutionalising gender equality

In the last four years, gender mainstreaming has been increasingly institutionalised in Penang. Not only have unprecedented resources been allocated to women’s affairs and family development, we have seen the establishment of two state-sponsored child care centres, a women’s service centre and of course the recent formation of the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC), with the objective to inculcate gender-sensitivity with regards to state policies. Amongst the PWDC’s immediate goals include the introduction of gender responsive budgeting as a tool for policy formulation.

As further proof of the trail-blazing achievements of the ladies of Penang, in the last four years we have also seen the unprecedented appointment of women to key leadership positions within the state. The first two women council presidents in Peninsular Malaysia, Puan Patahiyah Ismail who heads the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) and Puan Maimunah Shariff who heads the Province Wellesley Municipal Council (MPSP), are both Penangites.

In the same period of time, we have also seen the appointment of Penang’s first female District Officer, Puan Rohani Hassan. And lest we forget, our key state agencies such as the George Town World Heritage Inc, InvestPenang and Penang Global Tourism are all headed by women.

“The Women Issue”

Therefore, it is only apt that the Penang Institute has decided to celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day in a big way. The April issue of the Penang Monthly is entitled “The Women Issue”. It is both an issue that celebrates women as well as a campaign to highlight issues faced by women.

As an ode to the successful women of Penang, the editorial team has selected and profiled a coterie of 16 iconic women, including the likes of UN heavyweight Judy Cheng-Hopkins, arts activist Janet Pillai and MPSP President Puan Maimunah Mohd Sharif. Also included will be a review of the highly anticipated memoirs of another iconic lady Penangite, Tan Sri PG Lim.

We have also decided to give away 1,000 copies of our magazine to participants of this expo as well as to all secondary girl schools in Penang, in the hopes of inspiring our future women leaders. Our aim is to show them that gender is no barrier to scaling great heights in any field, be it in business, government or the arts.

The future

The Penang Institute is committed to further advancing the economic, socio-political and cultural role of Penang. We believe that gender mainstreaming and gender equality fits squarely within these goals, and are glad to play our part in furthering the efforts on this front.

Before I end, I would like to take this opportunity to convey our sincerest appreciations to YB Lydia Ong for agreeing to launch this very special issue of the Penang Monthly, Hunza Properties Bhd for graciously sponsoring our booth for this event, and PenExpo Events Sdn Bhd, for kindly allowing us the use of their stage. Lastly, I would also like to thank Daisy Ooi and Ooi Geok Ling, our special speakers for today, for taking time off their busy schedules to impart some words of wisdom to us. No doubt, we will learn much from these very successful ladies.

We hope that today’s event will be a meaningful one, and that Penang will not only continue to uphold its tradition of female empowerment, but also to pave the way towards eventual gender equality in Malaysia. After all, Penang women lead.

Thank you.

NB: This speech was delivered at the 2nd Series of Forum Nusantara on 30 December 2011. The following reproduction is abridged.

Saya sungguh tertarik dengan tajuk wacana kita pada malam ini. Topik yang bakal dibincangkan memang cukup berat, idealistik dan besar gagasannya.

Isu Bahasa Melayu, suatu bahasa yang pernah menguasai hampir satu perempat dunia sebagai bahasa perantaraan, bahasa perdagangan dan bahasa perpaduan di dalam dan sekitar gugusan kepulauan yang kita namakan Nusantara ini.

Jadi, adalah amat sesuai dan bermakna untuk kita pada malam ini untuk membahaskan topik “Bahasa Melayu sebagai Bahasa Kosmopolitan: apa peranan Pulau Pinang?”

Dinamisme membawa kepada kosmopolitanisme

Pada hemat saya, bahasa itu adalah sesuatu yang mencerminkan masyarakat yang menggunakannya. Justeru, masyarakat yang bercita-cita untuk mencapai taraf antarabangsa hendaklah mempunyai bahasa yang berkembang selaras dengannya.

Kita boleh lihat, di mana-mana negara yang maju dan pesat membangun, perkembangan kebudayaannya tidak akan ketinggalan. Ini tidak terhad kepada negara-negara barat yang telah memperluaskan bahasa dan budayanya ke merata dunia, tetapi juga negara-negara Asia seperti Korea Selatan dan Jepun yang bukan sahaja handal mengeksport teknologi elektrik dan elektroniknya, tetapi juga budaya mereka dalam bentuk drama TV, buku komik “Manga” dan sebagainya.

Begitulah juga yang sedang berlaku di negara jiran kita yang menggunakan bahasa yang seiras dan yang boleh dibahasakan sebagai “sepupu” bahasa kita, iaitu Bahasa Indonesia. Kini, bukan sahaja ekonomi Indonesia yang sedang berkembang pesat, tetapi juga bahasanya yang kian mendapat sambutan yang popular bukan sahaja dalam persada domestik tetapi juga dalam budaya pop masyarakat kita. Hasil karya budaya dan bahasa mereka yang dirangkumi dalam bentuk lagu, filem dan sebagainya sedikit sebanyak mencerminkan kebangkitan kenegaraan yang sedang berlaku dalam masyarakat mereka.

Secara kesimpulan, kita boleh melihat satu perkembangan bahasa yang cukup organik dan dinamik di Indonesia, di mana penggunaannya meliputi skop yang amat luas dari bidang ilmuan kepada budaya pop. Dan inilah yang dimaksudkan dengan istilah “kosmopolitan”. Apabila sesuatu bahasa itu berjaya menjadi jasad pengantara bagi penyebaran ilmu dan budaya, maka ia layak dipanggil Bahasa Kosmopolitan.

Bahaya bahasa dipolitikkan

Namun begitu, pembangunan fizikal yang berlaku di Malaysia tidak pula diiringi oleh perkembangan yang sejajar dalam bahasa dan budaya kita. Hakikat ini sungguh malang dan kita tertanya mengapa?

Saya rasa pada mulanya tidak begitu. Mengimbas kembali, tokoh-tokoh seniman seperti P Ramlee dan Sudirman, yang kedua-duanya menghasilkan karya dalam Bahasa Melayu, telah disanjungi segenap masyarakat Malaysia. Saya ingat lagi kepada persembahan-persembahan Abang Sudir. Yang menariknya bukan sahaja rentak lagu dan lirik, tetapi juga penampilan dan pendekatannya yang senantiasa memeluk konsep kemalaysiaan. Siapa yang boleh lupa imej Abang Sudir dalam kaca televisyen pada petang minggu, memakai baju bendera Malaysia yang berkilau, bersinar dan berkedipan sambil membentangkan lagu-lagu yang membawa pesanan patriotisme dan perpaduan kaum?

Begitu juga dengan seorang lagi tokoh seniman di negara kita yang terkenal, iaitu kartunis Lat. Kejayaan beliau dalam menjangkaui jurang kebudayaan di negara kita adalah juga kerana sifat kemalaysiaannya. Hasil tintanya yang secara lazim menggambarkan suasana kehidupan harian masyarakat Malaysia berupaya menyentuh hati bukan sahaja orang Melayu, tetapi juga masyarakat lain di negara kita bahkan di luar negara.

Malangnya, perkembangan budaya bahasa kita tampaknya sudah terbantut di setakat itu. Dalam pandangan saya, ini telah berlaku akibat daripada tindakan sesetengah pihak untuk menggunakan isu bahasa sebagai bahan politik. Dalam beberapa dekad yang terakhir ini, Bahasa Melayu telah dipolitikkan sehingga bahasa yang sepatutnya menjadi Bahasa Kebangsaan yang dimiliki semua telah dijadikan sebagai “sacred cow” atau sesuatu yang keramat dan tidak boleh dipersoalkan oleh golongan-golongan lain.

Dalam erti kata lain, Bahasa Melayu telah dijadikan perkara yang eksklusif kepada sesetengah masyarakat, lantas merenggangkan mereka daripada yang lain. Kelemahan ini pula sedikit sebanyak telah menyumbang kepada kerencatan yang sedang dialami oleh Bahasa Kebangsaan kita.

Di sini, persamaan boleh dibuat dengan nasib Bahasa Latin, yang pada puncak kegemilangannya merupakan bahasa utama dunia klasikal. Tetapi lama kelamaan, Bahasa Latin telah dimonopoli oleh puak agamawan yang bermaharajalela semasa zaman pra-Reformasi di Eropah. Dengan gerakan Reformasi yang menyusul, golongan marhaen yang menolak kuasa mutlak gereja juga bertindak menolak bahasa yang digunakannya. Maka dari situ berkembanglah bahasa-bahasa lain seperti Perancis, Sepanyol dan sebagainya, manakala Bahasa Latin ditenggelamkan sehingga kepupusan pada zaman ini.

Iktibar daripada nasib Bahasa Latin perlu diambil secara serius. Bahasa yang maju hendaklah bersifat kosmopolitan dan tidak jumud dalam skop penggunaannya. Ia perlu inklusif, terbuka dan bersedia untuk menghadapi cabaran-cabaran dari luar dan dalaman. Bahasa yang bersifat eksklusif dan dipolitikkan untuk kepentingan golongan-golongan tertentu semestinya akan mengalami nasib sama yang menimpa Bahasa Latin.

Bahasa Melayu sebagai pemacu pemikiran

Dunia sekarang dunia globalisasi, di mana teknologi komunikasi sudah merentasi sempadan geografi. Dalam keadaan sedemikian memang terdapat pelbagai liku-liku dan perangkap yang boleh mengancam budaya dan bahasa kita. Namun pada masa yang sama, terdapat juga negara-negara seperti Korea Selatan, Jepun dan Indonesia yang telah memanfaatkan potensi globalisasi dengan sepenuhnya untuk memperluaskan budaya dan bahasa mereka.

Peluang yang sama mestilah dikenalpasti dan diambil untuk memperkembangkan Bahasa Melayu. Kita harus menggalakkan penggunaan Bahasa Melayu bukan sahaja dalam urusan rasmi, seperti Bahasa Latin di zaman pra-Reformasi, tetapi lebih penting lagi dalam konteks masyarakat kosmopolitan.

Penggunaan Bahasa Melayu juga tidak harus dikongkong dengan penekanan kepada pembakuannya tetapi sebaliknya digalakkan untuk membangun secara semulajadi melalui budaya pop seperti penulisan, filem, lagu, puisi dan sebagainya. Di samping itu, perlu ada usaha yang lebih tekun untuk memastikan penterjemahan pelbagai hasil karya, bukan sahaja buku-buku malah juga filem-filem, dari bahasa-bahasa lain kepada Bahasa Melayu. Ketersediaan bahan bacaan yang bermutu tinggi dan yang mampu menarik minat umum adalah sangat kritikal untuk perkembangan bahasa.

Di sini, saya rasa Pulau Pinang mempunyai peranan yang relevan. Pada suatu ketika dahulu, Pulau Pinang pernah menjadi tuan rumah kepada industri percetakan Melayu yang termasyur di negara kita, hasil daripada kepimpinan tokoh-tokoh tersohor seperti Syed Sheikh Al-Hady dan Tuan Guru Yusof Rawa. Penerbitan buku-buku tafsir Al-Quran dan bahan-bahan cendekiawan progresif seperti jurnal Al-Ikhwan dan akhbar harian Saudara telah menjadikan Pulau Pinang sebagai pusat pemikiran dan wacana yang terunggul. Yang paling penting sekali, bahasa yang menjadi pengantara bagi gerakan intelektual tersebut merupakan Bahasa Melayu.

Inilah yang dikatakan dinamik dan kosmopolitan, apabila sesuatu bahasa digunakan untuk menyalakan inspirasi bagi gerakan budaya pop dan pemikiran baru. Pun begitu, usaha untuk memacu Bahasa Melayu kepada Bahasa Kosmopolitan yang unggul merupakan satu hasrat yang tidak mudah dan menuntut kepada satu iltizam yang utuh.

Dalam pada itu, saya percaya bahawa tiada satu pun impian yang terlalu besar atau mustahil. Yang diperlukan hanya langkah pertama, dan pada hari ini, Institut Pulau Pinang telah mengambil langkah demikian sebagai usaha kecil dalam aspirasi yang besar untuk menganjak bahasa kita ke tahap yang lebih tinggi di dunia antarabangsa.

Justeru, saya yakin bahawa wacana yang dianjurkan pada hari ini, yang menjadi sebahagian daripada siri Forum Nusantara kita, akan sedikit sebanyak membantu melakarkan beberapa gagasan yang dapat mencanai usaha untuk memperkasakan dan mengantarabangsakan Bahasa Melayu sebagai Bahasa Kosmopolitan di rantau Nusantara dan juga di dunia.

Sekian terima kasih.

NB: This article was originally published in issue 10.11 of the Penang Economic Monthly.

When the open tender system was introduced by the Penang state government more than three years ago, its architects believed that the transparent process would once and for all eliminate irregularities and political partiality, two traits that were once almost synonymous with public procurement.

By and large, it has achieved its objectives. Yet at the same time it has also attracted a string of criticisms, including accusations of discriminating against the Malays on the one hand, and disenfranchising the Chinese on the other. So is it either or neither? How does the open tender system work and why is it perceived to discriminate?

A promise fulfilled
Within two weeks of the opposition’s historic victory in Penang in the 2008 general elections, the state’s executive council approved the use of an open tender system for all state procurements. This meant that all works procurements worth RM20,000 and above, as well as supplies and services procurements worth more than RM50,000, would be awarded through a public and competitive bidding process. For works procurements worth less than RM20,000 and supplies and services below RM50,000, contractors would be rotated through a balloting system.

An open tender system is basically a process that enjoins all qualified bidders in a contest to offer the best price, service and quality. Besides fostering competitive bidding, it must also be transparent. The objective is simple: to acquire the best possible deal in the name of public accountability.

In Penang, great care is taken to ensure that the process is as transparent as possible. Firstly, all procurement needs are advertised and published on each department’s or agency’s website, in addition to at least one local daily and the state government’s e-Procurement portal. All bids received will then be displayed for public scrutiny, without revealing the identities of the bidders. This is to make known the number of bidders and the quotations offered.

Once the tender deadline is up, the necessary evaluations will be made before the bids are presented to the Tender Board, or Quotations Committee for procurements below RM200,000. (Members of the Tender Board are appointed by the Chief Minister.) After a decision has been made, the winning bidder and corresponding details will be published online for all to see. It is only after a two-week objection period that an approval letter is sent out. If, however, a protest is lodged during this period and found to have basis, then the process loops back to the Tender Board for reconsideration (Figure 1).

In short, it was a complete departure from the previous practice. For the first time, there was an across-the-board competitive and public open tender process, a direct line of payment to recipients that effectively bypassed opportunistic middlemen and “turnkey” contractors, a transparent e-tender process via the e-Procurement portal and a two-week objection period.

In line with the new government’s mantra of “Competency, Accountability and Transparency” or CAT for short, Penang had, by a stroke of the pen, effectively put an end to the longstanding practice of directly negotiated awards, and with it, an end to a system that bred a rentier economy dependent on political patronage.

Market efficiency has been restored and the incessant problems of kickbacks, wastages and inflated prices have been replaced with sound financial prudence. Value for money, a Penangite’s cardinal maxim, is once again an official custom.

The open tender system in Penang, the first comprehensive commitment of its kind in Malaysia, has undoubtedly left its mark. Not only are the results reflected in the accounting ledgers, Penang has begun to receive a multitude of accolades and recognition, from Transparency International levying praise on the state government’s efforts to fight corruption to the awarding of the highest rating in the Auditor-General’s Report for two successive years.

As Penang quickly gained a reputation for its transparency, business confidence began to boom and the state reaped the rewards. A record RM12.2bil of investments – the highest in the country for the first time – poured into Penang in 2010, the lion’s share of which was RM10.5bil worth of foreign direct investment.

An economy that was only three years ago considered to be in graceful decline had suddenly discovered a newfound desire for living. Without missing a beat, the state government ploughed on with recent big ticket projects awarded via open tender, such as the RM37mil Aman Crag Resort redevelopment project on Penang Hill and the Bayan Mutiara township development that will add more than RM1bil to the state coffers from land sale alone.

Yet in the midst of all the success and prosperity, disgruntled voices continue to rumble.

Transparent discrimination?
By design, the open tender system operated by the state government is meant to promote merit at the expense of favouritism. However, that has not stopped certain quarters from claiming the contrary.

When the open tender system was first implemented, it came under intense criticism from state opposition leaders who saw it as an attempt to curtail Malay entrepreneurship. Through open tenders, it was suggested, Malay contractors would not be able to compete and would at the same time lose their rice bowl of government contracts.

It was indeed an alarming concern for a community programmed to believe that their livelihood depended on protectionist policies and that meritocracy was a blasphemous affront to Malay and Bumiputera rights.

However, after three years of executing open tenders, results have shown that not only is there no cause for concern, there is in fact much reason to celebrate. In a competitive environment, Malay contractors on average have managed to win more than 70% of government tenders.

For example, out of 53 tender awards issued by the Penang Development Corporation (PDC) from March 2008 to August 2011, 37 tenders or 69.81% were won by Malay contractors, representing RM124mil in value (see Figure 2).

In other agencies the share of the pie seemed even stronger. Tender statistics from the Department of Irrigation and Drainage (JPS) from 2008 to 2010 show that 100% of tenders issued were won by Malay contractors (Figure 3). That represents RM41mil worth of contracts. And at the Public Works Department during the same period, 94% of contracts went to Malay contractors by open tender (Figure 4).

Some would have hailed such results as a testament to the professionalism of Malay contractors. Others, however, have attempted to paint it as a blatant attempt to discriminate against Chinese contractors. Recently, a state opposition politician and former assemblyperson had accused the Chief Minister of “currying favour” with the Bumiputera community at the expense of the Chinese community. On the one hand, the Penang state government is being accused of being anti-Malay, while on the other it is purportedly also anti-Chinese.

“What we really are,” insisted Penang Chief Minister, Lim Guan Eng, “is anti-corruption.”

That being said, it does seem evident that a disproportionate amount of tenders have been won by Malay contractors. Could there possibly be some form of subtle or invisible discrimination at work after all?

Let us first delve deeper into the process. As mentioned earlier, only qualified contractors may seek to bid for a tender. To be qualified, a contractor has to be registered with the Ministry of Finance (MOF) and subsequently licensed in the appropriate category (from F to A).  In addition, the contractor must also be registered with the Contractor Services Centre (Pusat Khidmat Kontraktor or PKK) as well as the Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB).

Now, it is a fact that there are more Malay contractors – about 90% – registered as government contractors compared to any other race. On top of that, the Class F license classification, which is the lowest category, is open to Bumiputeras only. Perhaps the most meaningful information for the purpose of this analysis is that all tenders worth RM200,000 and below belong to the Class F category.

In other words, there is a federally imposed regulatory threshold that effectively means that only Class F contractors can participate in the bulk of tenders. Hence, institutional protection remains and there is no cause for concern about Bumiputeras or Malays losing out to other contractors. The only caveat is that now they will have to actually compete amongst themselves in a fair and transparent environment that rewards capability and punishes incompetency.

Of course, not every tender falls under the Class F category. What about the bigger projects and contracts? That is where there is real open competition between contractors across the board. Yet by and large, one also finds more Malay contractors in the other categories as well. This is because Chinese contractors had, in view of past practices, never really found it worth their while to participate in public procurement. This is in part due to the perception that government payments are often delayed, but more simply because they are able to find sufficient work from the private sector.

Therefore, the answer is really quite straightforward. Since there are more Malay government-licensed contractors who participate in tender bids, it follows that most of the tender awards will be won by Malay contractors. And the fact that all government procurements valued at RM200,000 and below are classified as Class F will necessarily mean that at that level, it will be a Bumiputera-only affair.

And because the Class F stipulation is a federal policy, it means that there is no question of any discrimination on the part of the Penang state government, both in policy and implementation.

Throw a stone, hit a contractor
This issue now brings to light some interest about the Class F phenomenon. Under MOF guidelines, contractors are categorised into six categories, starting from F to A. Each license classification determines the maximum amount that a contractor is able to bid on. As mentioned earlier, the ceiling for a Class F contractor is RM200,000 while Class A contractors can bid for jobs worth RM10mil and above (see Figure 5).

Now, here’s where the interesting bit is. Malaysia is a country with a disproportionately high ratio of contractors. In fact, as of 2005, there were 42,313 registered contractors. That’s roughly one contractor per 614 Malaysians. More interestingly, 35,253 of the total are Class F contractors. This basically means that 83% or four out of every five contractors are Class F Bumiputera contractors.

The lure of becoming a Class F contractor is an irresistible one for budding Bumiputera entrepreneurs. According to the Unit Peneraju Agenda Bumiputra (Teraju), the lead national coordinator of the Bumiputera business agenda, one in every five Bumiputera small and medium enterprises (SMEs) is a Class F contractor. In Penang alone, there are 1,277.

In recent times however, the going has been getting tougher for this group. Class F contractors face increasing difficulties in securing jobs due to the unsustainable nature of growth in this sector. While the construction industry grows at only two per cent a year on average, contractors increase by an average of 10% every year. There are increasingly more contractors than there are jobs.

Job scarcity is only one side of the problem. The real issue is the increasing inability of Class F contractors to compete with other contractors in the private market. This is the direct result of years of spoon-feeding and a politically-motivated protectionist policy that fostered not only government-dependency, but also political-dependency.

In fact, the roots of the political connection between Class F contractors and the political hands that feed them are so entrenched that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak remarked in July 2010 that Malay contractors should “continue to support the United Malays National Organisation (Umno)” because “the fate of Umno and that of the Malay contractors is inseparable.

Umno leaders do exert considerable influence over Class F contractors, allowing the former to control the local economy and the politico-economic constituency.

Going by the statistics revealed earlier, it effectively means that one in every five budding Malay entrepreneurs is inextricably left with little choice but to cultivate a dependency on their local Umno representative.

Breaking free
When the Pakatan Rakyat coalition took over the Penang state government, procurement methods changed. The letter of support from the Umno division head was no longer necessary and Class F contractors submitted their bids through a transparent digital process that minimised human interaction.

“In the old days,” says Tahir Jalaluddin Hussain, president of the Class F Contractors Association of Penang, “winning a government contract had nothing to do with how efficient or competitive you were. It was all about whom you knew and how well you knew them.”

Tahir agrees that the open tender system practised today has encouraged greater productivity amongst Malay contractors. More importantly, it has eliminated the scourge of rent-seeking and patronage politics.

“Previously,” laments Tahir, “the road to a government contract was through the local Umno division head. There was no other way. And you had better be prepared to pay a commission. They don’t help you for free.”

The differences are now obvious, insists Tahir. “Those days, some contractors had multiple licenses. Some individuals had up to 20! What happened was that during site visits, they would bring their relatives and friends to act as independent contractors using their licenses, in order to increase their chances of sweeping as many jobs at stake as they could get. You would have up to 200 so-called contractors during some site visits.

“Today though, the state government no longer allows that. Only the actual license-holder is allowed to visit the site and submit a bid. Their identification card will now be checked and cross-referenced. This is to ensure that only genuine contractors are participating in tenders.”

If anything, the open tender system has created a more level playing field and allowed for increased competition. Even at the Class F level, this has allowed the more industrious contractors to fulfil their true potential and succeed on their own strengths. Fair access, increased competition and zero corruption – these are all the ingredients of a vibrant economy that will further contribute to Penang’s success.

Another positive outcome of the open tender system is the possibility of rehabilitating the image of Malay contractors. Those who now flourish will have done so, not as cronies but as legitimate businessmen. Where previously there was a negative image of Class F contractors, they are now slowly gaining professional pride.

However, many would argue that the greatest contribution of the open tender system, besides a more equitable distribution of access and opportunity, is its success in breaking the stranglehold of the long entrenched rent-seeking model.

“The biggest difference,” says Tahir with an air of confidence, “is that genuine Malay contractors are now getting contracts based on nothing else but their own capabilities.” And this is how it should be.

Zairil Khir Johari

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