I was at Howe Cheang Medical Supply on Wednesday afternoon to pick up something and since I had a bit of time at hand, I decided to cross over to the KOMTAR building. I haven't been there for a very long time but I've been hearing (horror) stories about how dilapidated the place had become. It was time to see the condition first-hand.
KOMTAR was the brain-child of Penang's second chief minister, Dr Lim Chong Eu. It was an ambitious urban renewal project that would see the inner city transform into a mighty business centre. The show piece would be the 65-level tower which was once the tallest building not only in Malaysia but also South-East Asia. Because of its immense size, the project was envisioned to be completed in phases.
The first phase comprised the original four-level podium block, the tower, a geodesic dome and a hotel. When it was being built, I remember that everyone marvelled at the tower as it began to grow higher and higher. There was also the fateful day in January 1983 when the 43rd floor of the uncompleted tower caught fire. Firemen were unable to put out the flames as it was too high up. The flames eventually burnt out after about eight hours. From across the channel, we could see the raging fire. Impressive, immense, breath-taking. Yet sad and a great tragedy.
In the 1970s and 1980s, KOMTAR was the nerve centre on the island. Nothing could seem to go wrong with it. Department stores like Yaohan and Super were the anchor tenants and the place boasted of Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds, certainly at that time the two biggest fast-food chains in Malaysia.
Then, the administration under Dr Koh Tsu Koon allowed the KOMTAR complex to fall into neglect. Maintenance became very poor and even non-existent. On the Level Three of the podium block a low-class pasar malam sub-culture developed. The big tenants pulled out and it affected the smaller tenants. Businesses began closing at KOMTAR one by one when people no longer cared to come around to shop.
When I walked the corridors of Level Two and Level Three, all I saw was a very sorry state. By my estimate, more than 60 percent of the shops had closed. Shuttered. Boarded. I don't know how the remaining businesses will survive. As I walked along the corridors, people in the still opened shops looked at me with curiosity just as I looked at them with equal curiosity.
On Level Three, I came across DB Music Centre. I was surprised to see it still operating as other similar shops at the podium block had closed. I walked in to see a familiar face. I looked at Alice, the wife of the boss, and she looked at me. She recognised me, not by name but by my previous job. "You used to work in the bank, right?" I grinned at her and asked about her and her husband. "Surviving," she answered. I went to the inner room where Tan Si Keong was sitting at the computer. Another round of recognition. We talked like old friends did. He related how bad business had become because of the neglect. Once, he said, people had the money to spend but there wasn't enough goods to sell them. Now, you can source for anything you want but there isn't enough money to buy them. He said that he bought his shop unit for about RM90,000 and when KOMTAR was at its most popular, the asking price of his shop unit was RM400,000. Today, he said he would be lucky if anyone wanted to offer him RM50,000 for it. This is the actual reflection of the state of KOMTAR.
Surviving, that's how he also described his business. Where once his monthly turnover was about RM50,000 it has dwindled to about RM30,000. That's not factoring inflation into the value. He still sells his compact discs and cassettes but his customers are now the Malays and the foreign work force. The Chinese no longer come around to his shop any more. True enough, when I was there, there were three Malay customers listening to music. At the height of his business, he used to open 363 days in a year, shutting only for Chinese New Year. Today, he still opens 361 days in a year. He's also now closed for Hari Raya Aidil Fitri. He told me that the whole of KOMTAR would be filled with foreigners during the weekends. "You just need to stand outside CIMB Bank on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday and you'll see the whole place flooded with them," he said.
But, I asked, isn't the present government trying to rehabilitate KOMTAR? The Pacific Departmental Store has opened. Not good enough, he said. The rehabilitation programme has not done him any good because it's too far away. "It's on the other side," he motioned with his hand and I automatically turned to look at ... a blank wall. Too far removed from the other end of KOMTAR's podium block.
Well, I know that it's tough for this government to undo what the previous administration had permitted but I hope that the rehabilitation project does not stop with the Pacific Departmental Store. The rehabilitation process must be wider. It will certainly take a lot of money but we need to bring life back to KOMTAR. It's not only for the sake of businessmen like Tan Si Keong but for the good of our community. KOMTAR was conceived to eradicate poverty and redevelop George Town's inner city. Instead, it is slowly but steadily becoming the city's most high-profile slum. To the present state government: please do your best to arrest its decline.