George Town’s history extends throughout disputes and war. Its development was abandoned by the federal government years ago, but made a successful return as a vital Malaysian historical heritage.
George Town was the pinnacle of many of Malaya or Malaysia’s firsts, but its development declined when the government focused its priorities elsewhere.
Its economic growth and popularity in the past proved Penang made a name for itself as the economic and financial centre of Northern Malaysia.
But the road to its height was not an easy one. Despite the abuse and neglect throughout history, George Town’s story played a huge part in Malaysia’s development.
Francis Light and his claim of Penang
Formerly known as the Prince of Wales Island, George Town was initially sought out by the British East India Company (BEIC) to expand its presence and expenditure in South East Asia in the late 18th century.
Francis Light arrived in Kedah and attempted to gain the trust of the Kedah Sultan by helping to eliminate the threat from Siam and Burma.
In return, the Sultan reciprocated by offering the island of Penang to the British, with military assistant terms and a monetary offer of 6,000 Spanish dollars to the Sultan each year.
Fort Cornwall was constructed as a military asset for the British Army, and the marked the place where Francis Light first stepped foot on Prince of Wales Island, whereas the newfound town was named George Town in honour of King George III.
But the deal went south when Francis did not back the Sultanate when Siam attacked, which led a battle between the island and Seberang Perai. In the end, the island remained defended by the British.
Francis developed George Town to become a free port, inviting various international traders and merchants, soon turning the island into the centre of spice production and trade.
As for the settlements, the British segregated commercial, administrative, and ethnic settlements. the first local government in Malaya compromising of local ancestors was established in George Town.
George Town clans forced creation of better laws
In 1826, the BEIC combined all its port territories (Penang Singapore, Labuan, and Malacca) under a single entity known as The Straits Settlement. George Town was made the initial capital of the group, but was later outshone by Singapore’s rapid growth and strategic routes in the South China Sea.
Despite that, the Port of Penang stands as an important location between European and Asian trade to funnel global shipping lines.
The Chinese became the fastest growing ethnic group among all other settlers. The demographic alteration caused social problems, particularly disparity among triads formed which led to turf wars.
Authorities from the Straits Settlements handled the dispute, but did not entirely extinguished the clans, until direct rule from the British Colonial Office. Stricter laws were established to rule the Straits and the clans were eventually outlawed to operate underground.
The British rule invited various financial businesses and banks, such as Standard Chartered and HSBC, into George Town, making it the leading financial hub and most urbanized public transportation system in British Malaya.
But like all Malaysian historical moments, the World Wars severely changed the narrative of all developing communities.
Of war and cruelty of the Japanese regime
Other than a battle offshore of the North of Penang. World War I had little to no impact on Penang island and George Town.
Whereas World War II consequentially turned Penang inhabitants nightmare into reality. The Japanese invaded by bombing what was once the well-built defensive fortress of George Town.
The British, on top of retreating, discreetly evacuated fellow Europeans, leaving other ethnics to deal with the impeding Japanese regime. George Town fell to Japanese occupation on 19 December 1941.
Because most of the settlements were Chinese, the Japanese focused their violence on the Chinese, due to the ongoing Sook Ching operation (ethnic cleaning due to tension between Japanese and China). Males were abused and killed while the females were force to become prostitutes.
Where there’s war, there’s poverty. Hyperinflation also took place due to the oversupply of Malaya’s wartime currency, nicknamed “banana money”.
While the Japanese fed themselves well, settlers there were forced to grow their own food. Similar to all the conquered territories, the Regime forced their culture upon the people and standardized Japanese curriculum in education.
Allied forces gathered, yet again bombarding the island to drive opposing forces out. In the midst of it, many administrative and historical colonial buildings were destroyed, including Penang Secretarial Building which archived Penang’s historical records.
The surrender of the Japanese marked the brutal end of slaughter in Penang, making George Town the first city in Malaya liberated from their clutches.
George Town’s beef with the federal government
As the British returned to sought order for Malaya, George Town residents feared for its free port status as Kuala Lumpur (KL) was emerging as the centralized trade centre of Malaya.
In response, Penang established a committee and pleaded with the British to maintain its political ties with Singapore, which they rejected. To sympathize, the British Empire ensured the security of George Town’s free port status.
After Malaya’s independence, George Town was run by the Labour Party, a different political party ruling the federal government. Its succeeding leaders eventually drove the George town city Council to be the richest local government in Malaysia.
However, the relationship between George Town and the federal government grew sour over time, which ended in its their free port status being revoked.
Eventually, the people of George Town and its ports moved to neighbouring states or the blooming city hub KL, where the federal government funneled most of the development projects and establishment of Port Klang.
The Komtar re-developmental project was launched in hopes of reviving the now inactive town. Unfortunately, it was met with failure with abandoned shop-lots, and dirty streets, largely due to the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997.
It’s the neglect that led to its rise
The opening of the Penang Bridge in 1985 again drew a lot of attention from financial services, banks, and commercial businesses onto the island. But the influx of businesses mean increased rent and prices, which again drove people to seek opportunities elsewhere.
Hence, Penangites suffered considerably economically. Their unfair developmental discrimination led to the federal government’s defeat in the 2008 state election.
In the meantime, George Town was inscribed as one of four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Malaysia to prevent historical infrastructure alteration. Under new administration, George Town cleaned up their act and was placed as the eighth cleanest city in ASEAN.
George Town’s colonial-era influence has certainly made it one of the most intriguing cities to visit in Malaysia. Today, it boasts scrumptiously crafted street food that reflects Penang multicultural diversity and past.
At present, its citizens celebrate Penang World Heritage Day every 7th of July to celebrate it honorary status. George Town may have had a tough upbringing, but it certainly deserves the rewards forged by their own resilience, reminded by unforgettable historical sites.