I am amused by the tiger talk in Penang. In actual fact, we need a forwarding looking and well thought out economic plan and not tigers. The premise of having a tiger park is to attract more tourists. Tourism is touted as the next big thing in Penang. Hence, it is clear that the state government was not really that fond of tigers but wanted to use the strong appeal of the animal to enhance tourism.
If this is the case, do we really need the tigers to rake in more tourism dollar? So far, the socio-economic development plans announced by the state are piecemeal at best. It has started a fund to eliminate hardcore poverty. This is a good initiative. But the fund is bound to run out in the near future if the money collected is only used to supplement the income of hardcore poor.
The government should use the money to start a small cottage industry which can employ some of members of these families and help make some of them financially independent. Give them a fish, they may eat for a day. We should teach them how to fish. Rope in the Penang Heritage Trust, SMEs, local craftsmen and others to provide them with the necessary training and skills.
The top two most important things to improve in Penang are cleanliness and public safety. For a start, the state government can organise a voluntary monthly George Town clean up programme. Hotels, restaurants, pubs and shops are encouraged to send a few workers to participate in the clean-up exercise together with the local authorities and state assemblymen. Cleanliness is not purely a state matter. Penangites should take pride in their environment and backyard. This initiative is not something new. Hong Kong did it through large public participation when SARS hit.
A clean George Town will go a long way to make tourists feel comfortable. Tigers? You may have to clean up after them.
Next, the government had announced several initiatives to enhance public safety but none was ever implemented. It had wanted to install CCTV and security cameras around the island. There are better ways to start here. What about a better road lighting system? The government should work with the state police headquarters to create a security grid to identify high crime areas, high risk period and most vulnerable groups in order to assist the latter to better allocate scarce police resources. Again, this is not something new. It has been done in most vibrant cities around the world including many cities in China and US.
A better public safety will allow tourists to roam our streets and city freely and fearlessly. Many of them were victims of snatch theft and robbery.
As a tourism destination, Penang has had several key strengths and differentiated products. George Town was accorded a UNESCO World Heritage status last July. Surely this status can be expanded and explored to revive and rejuvenate performing arts, cultural performances, food, and a whole gamut of other cultural activities in Penang. Other countries are able to create interesting fusion of food, entertainment, culture and fun to attract tourists. Many did not realise that Penang used to have the largest pool of artists in the country. Even Cambodians can stage a successful theatre on the Angkor empire and turn it into a tourism must-see. What is Penang's unique identity and key selling points? Surely can't be just tigers.
Several areas such as China Town, Batu Ferringhi, Komtar, Queensbay, Autocity, Gurney Drive, Harmony Street Little India and others have a lot of potential to be developed into exciting tourism hubs focusing on food, retail, local handicrafts and products, entertainment and fun, high-end boutique, cultural performance and religious festivals. These places used to be buzzing with activities. They have a good base for the state government to focus some attention to revive and rejuvenate them again as tourism attractions. Today, tourists do not have much choices in Penang apart from sunbathing and hawker food.
The government can provide incentive to traders and retailers in China Town to extend their business hour to at least 10pm. If they can be given a subsidy for a year to offset some of their labour cost to stay open beyond 5pm, some of these shops might give it a try. The state government can work with the hoteliers' association, local newspapers, tour agents, tourism exco and others to promote these places. Tour agents are encouraged to bring their guests to these places. Once there are customers and patrons, these business hubs will prosper on their own.
The most important thing needed by the state government now is innovation, creativity and patience to see through the implementation. There is a danger in 'instant noodle' plans and projects. Tigers can't sing or dance to attract visitors. These hundreds of shops, food stalls, local lifestyle and cultural activities can help to do that. They are profit centres too and not meat gobbling beasts which need tens of thousand ringgit to upkeep. Local shops selling local products and services can bring down inflation and lessen our dependent on imports e.g. food.
The state government must start thinking now and help to address some of the most challenging questions:
1) What's Penang next economic model?
2) What are the new industries which can create more new jobs?
3) How to improve basic amenities, cleanliness and public safety?
4) How to mitigate the loss of jobs in the manufacturing hub?
5) Can Penang continue to depend on its manufacturing sector?
6) How to develop heritage and eco-tourism in the state?
It is obvious that we need a solid economic plan, not tigers.