news headline, I had some misgivings. The Penang government sleeping with the Enemy? It can't be true, can it? Shades of 1969 happening all over again? It can't be. Then I realised that the date of this news item was "April 01, 2011". Aha, this must be an April Fools joke. The Malaysia Insider must be pulling a fast one on their readers. Can I ever believe this piece of reporting?
Then I received a cryptic message from someone. "Remember idris jala?" Oh yes, I remember now. How could I have ever forgotten? Idris Jala is a minister in the prime minister's department. He is also the chief executive officer of the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu). He was in Penang last February for some behind-the-door discussions with Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng after the latter had commented that the state had been left out of the nation's economic transformation plan (ETP). Not that I was privy to the discussions. I only knew he was here; I know nothing of what transpired! So this story was indeed the truth. No joke about it. But the timing! They couldn't have selected a more appropriate date to make this announcement.
So what I see now is a cooperation between the Federal government and the State government to cut across the political divide to develop a Greater Penang Transformation Programme and accelerate the northern state’s growth in an “inclusive, sustainable and holistic” manner. Now, that's more like it! They should have put their political differences aside long ago because this is a purely an economic and development issue. But children being children, they need to squabble first. Your marbles and my marbles, that sort of thing.
Pemandu mentioned that prime minister Najib Razak wanted Penang to “synergise” its RM17.9 billion investment under the 10th Malaysia Plan (10MP) with the ETP to become a top urban centre in the Bay of Bengal and the Golden Triangle. That's neat, a mention of the Bay of Bengal. That was a reason how Penang first came to the notice of the British East India Company in the 18th century. John Company wanted an eastern trading post in the Bay of Bengal to protect its vast trading interest and Penang presented itself as the most strategic choice. More than 200 years later, it still is.
The 10MP infrastructure projects for the state include the Penang Bridge, Penang International Airport, Penang Port expansion as well as the construction of a second Penang bridge, an electrified double-track and the Juru-Sungai Dua bypass. And one of the proposed initiatives is the rejuvenation of George Town and Butterworth through a Hong Kong Island-Kowloon-style waterfront development which will link the twin urban centres through “seamless” land and waterway connections.
In response, Guan Eng said the state was willing to set aside their completed Penang Blueprint and Industrial Masterplan for 2011-2015 in favour of this Greater Penang Masterplan. "It is a sign of a stable and mature federal-state relations and proves that despite political differences, the Pakatan Rakyat-led Penang was willing to work for the greater good of the people. Putting public interest first ahead of political interest has always been the governing creed of the Penang PR state government. We will not compete with the Federal government in improving the lives of the people as long as there is a public benefic. Rather, the PR state government will also redouble efforts to improve services to the people."
He agreed that in order to create a viable and competitive international city, Penang would require major infrastructural enhancement that included improvements to public transportation, roads, airports, port services, internet penetration and communications. There would be other challenges, he said, like in improving human capital development. “Human talent will drive the success of a city and in Penang it is our policy to train, retrain, retain and attract the required human resources,” he said. Focus was also needed to prevent brain drain and attract regional and foreign talent into the state. For this to happen, Penang must be able to provide a high quality of life. "Any development plan, including the Greater Penang Masterplan, must necessarily be people-centric in scope." And for the state to escape the middle-income trap, the government needed to double Penang’s current gross domestic product (GDP) of RM48 billion in 2010 to RM95 billion by 2020, thereby increasing its gross national income (GNI) per capita from US$10,000 (RM30,300) in 2010 to US$15,000 (RM45,400) by 2020.
But I just want to tell the State government to be careful. You may have to pay a political price for this cooperation. In fact, it has already started. Najib has already said he will recapture Penang come the next general election. Not that the voters are easily fooled, of course, but you can never tell the mood and the pulse in one year's time. I know the Great Penang Transformation Programme is for the good for Penang but Guan Eng will have to tread carefully and not allow this development to overshadow everything else. If it does, then what an ironic "transformation programme" it will have turned out to be!