Free port no more - the burden of Penang's first CM

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(July 18): TAN Sri Wong Pow Nee's efforts to develop Penang were guided by the Penang Master Plan 1964 (Munro Report) which recommended an intensive programme of industrialisation. At the same time, under the federal government's Rural Development Programme, attention was also focused on improving the economic status of the rural population. The sectors that were covered in the second instalment of this feature were: Agriculture and Rural Development; Industrialisation of Province Wellesley and; Transportation. The remaining sectors follow: 5. The Idea of a State Development Corporation & New Master Plan While Pow Nee's administration focused on supporting the state's agricultural base and rural development, the industrialisation of Province Wellesley, transportation and electricity supply, his contributions in these areas have been left in the shadows. More interestingly and more consigned to oblivion is Pow Nee's proposed establishment of a State Development Corporation to help co-ordinate development work on a state wide basis and his engagement of consultants to prepare an entirely new Master Plan for the state's economic development in the 1970s. It seems that Pow Nee had summoned the drafting of a new Master Plan due to shortcomings of the 1964 plan in successfully alleviating the economic woes of the state. As of 1967, Penang's free port status has been abolished completely. Per capita income dropped as low as 12% under the national wage. Recession hit the state badly with an increasing unemployment rate of 16%. The economic situation in Penang seemed to be of no hope that even the President of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) predicted that Penang would end up as a 'fishing village'. According to a Penang Today publication just before the 1969 elections, plans to create a free trade zones and bonded warehouses were already in place for the purposes of reviving Penang's entreport trade. Of course, Pow Nee's dream of single-handedly raising Penang as a wholesale and trading centre of the northern region came to an abrupt end with his unexpected defeat in the 1969 elections.     6. Tourism & City revitalisation While industrialisation took place on the mainland portion, the island of George Town was viewed as the centre of tourism. Hence, a revitalisation plan was required for its city centre. Few would recall Pow Nee as the man who first visualised the revitalisation and formation of the city centre of George Town - then known as the Prangin/Maxwell area. Perhaps, one may conclude that if he didn't lose the elections in 1969, the centre of George Town might look rather differently today. In the further advancement of Penang's tourism sector, the CM had the Bayan Lepas airfield extended to enable its runway to accommodate heavier and faster aircraft and impressed upon the idea of constructing the largest multi-purpose hall in Penang - the Dewan Sri Pinang, to house the upcoming Pacific Area Travel Association Conference (PATA) in 1972. Initiatives were also taken in constructing access lanes to Muka Head via the Pantai Acheh Park project and even a road up Penang Hill was paved for the convenience of tourists. Pow Nee also agreed to have incentives given to the private sector in encouraging the construction of more hotels and tourists facilities on the island. To this extent, it is inaccurate to mention of development of tourism in Penang without Pow Nee in the picture. 7. Social welfare Last but not least, Pow Nee's name is equally disregarded when it comes to the issue of welfare. As a young lad growing up in BM, Pow Nee was not raised in the most grandiose environment or most lavish conditions. He was conscious of the kind of hardship faced and needs of the poor. Given his background as a staunch Catholic, Pow Nee was undeniably a welfare-minded figure. Under him, a range of low cost housing was launched in line with the primary aims of the state government in ensuring the availability of cheap houses for the lower income group and to encourage the building of similar types of accommodation by the local government authorities. Apart from being a form of social assistance to the poor, these social housing was also in respect of slum clearance and resettlement within the highly developed, urbanized areas. In 1967, 5 low cost housing schemes were under construction on an estimated cost of RM10 million. The CM had signed a contract for the construction of a block of 17 storey low cost flats at Nordin Street Ghaut, followed by the approval of 4 other projects at Ayer Itam (Phrase 3), comprising of a block of 17 storey flats; Mak Mandin, Butterworth (Phrase 1) with 3 blocks of 4 storey flats; Chain Ferry Road, Butterworth, 5 blocks of 4 storey flats; and Ayer Itam (Phrase 4), a block of 16 storey flats. To this, the state government had obtained a loan of over $9 million with subsidies amounting up to $671,000 - an ample sum in those days, to achieve the aims of welfare provision. Besides that, aids to religious institutions were also handed out as forms of contributions from Pow Nee's state government. Pow Nee deserves some accolades It is noteworthy that Pow Nee retired completely from politics after his defeat in 1969. Being personally favoured by Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman himself, Pow Nee was appointed as the first Malaysian ambassador to Italy from 1970 to 1975. Pow Nee was said to have led a fruitful, quiet life after retirement before he died on Aug 31, 2002 (the same day he was appointed as CM in 1957). While the Penang after Pow Nee blossomed into the "Silicon Valley' of the East, it is indeed a pity that Pow Nee's early contributions in Penang's development are rarely recognised or acknowledged. In fact, it is unsurprising even for many to claim that Pow Nee did little during his short, two term reign as CM. His successor, Tun Dr Lim Choong Eu had more astonishing accomplishments than he did during his term of office - the most unforgettable one being that Lim literally proved the ICC President's prediction wrong. Instead of ending up as a fishing village, Penang rose like a phoenix into an industrial city.   However, the endeavours of industrializing Penang should not be solely attributed to Lim alone. Though virtually unknown and forgotten, Pow Nee's administration was the first to strive in endowing Penang with the essence of development. His cosmic ideas and development plans lay the massive foundation which was later cemented and perfected under the administration of his able successor, Lim. In short, he formed the cornerstone for the future development of the island which was better improved by Lim. Hence, while his great successor dominates the entire history of Penang's modernization, the late Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee should also be worthy of the accolades - not only to be remembered as Penang's first CM but also afforded a place in the chapters of Penang's inspiringly-progressive history. Koay Su Lyn is a research analyst with the history and heritage department of the Penang Institute. A lawyer by training, she believes that one cannot truly comprehend the present without a proper reference to the past. This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not represent the view of fz.com.