Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has issued an open invitation to Singaporeans to visit Penang for holiday and business, citing their common historical, cultural and trade ties as a very strong and sentimental reason for doing so.
Penang and Singapore, together with Malacca, formed what was then known as the Straits Settlement under the British colonial administration in the 19th century.
Another common historical bond is that Guan Eng's party DAP (Democratic Action Party) is actually an offshoot of the PAP (People's Action Party) of Singapore. The DAP was formed following the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965, and the PAP became persona non grata in Malaysia.
Guan Eng is certainly wise to bank on shared historical, cultural and trade ties to attract investments and tourists from Singapore.
The island republic, with a plural population five million, is an advanced cosmopolitan world city state, with a major significant role in international trade and finance. It is among the top ten leading financial centres in the world, and its economy is also ranked among the top ten most open, most innovative, and most competitive.
According to Guan Eng, Singapore is considered the most appropriate and strategic destination for Penang to establish its first investment and tourism office overseas.
"Singapore is the most appropriate choice for Penang’s first venture overseas not just for its importance in terms of investments and tourism but also our shared history and cultural links," he said.
Guan Eng said this at the opening of the Penang Investment Tourism Office (PITO) in Singapore this week.
According to Guan Eng, Singapore is the second largest foreign investor in Penang, and contributes nearly 13.4% of the foreign investments. And Singaporeans constitute almost half the number of tourists visiting Penang.
Guan Eng told the Singaporeans that Penang offers them a nostalgic glimpse of a historic common past and a taste of the rich heritage cultural diversity.
“Come to George Town so that you can see, touch and feel its distinctive character and soul that makes it a Unesco World Heritage site,” he told his largely Singaporean audience.
Guan Eng said his administration recognises that leisure tourism, medical tourism, education and heritage are the green fields of growth for Penang and, hence, is making efforts to transform the state into a more appealing investment destination with governance centred on the CAT (competency, accountability and transparency) concept.
He said Penang is targeting 10 million tourists by 2014, and Singaporeans are certainly its valued visitors. At present, there are 68 regular flights between Penang and Singapore and approval has been given to have up to 84 flights.
Guan End certainly is a visionary in term of his plans and programmes for Penang. However, he faces much difficulty in getting many of his ideas and ideals realized, for the simple reason that the federal government has not been really cooperative in the provision of financial resources to the state.
Take, for example, the tourism industry, which is the major economic lifeline for Penang, given the fact that the state lacks land and natural resources.
What has the federal government done to help the state in the development of the tourism sector?
The Penang tourism sector needs a federal allocation of at least RM50 million a year, but a pittance sum of RM500,000, less than the cost of an average bungalow, was channelled to the state last year. This is simply shocking, to say the least.
Penang is the third highest state contributing to the country's tourism industry, with nearly six million tourist arrivals last year. Hence, its vital and significant role in the promotion of tourism should not be ignored and belittled.
A mere sum of RM500,000 is simply too little and too ridiculous, and obviously and defintely not enough for tourism programmes, activities and events, especially for those related to infrastructure, upgrading of facilities and promotions.
Penang recorded 5.96 million tourist arrivals last year -- 2,982,687 domestic and 2,977,642 foreign -- and has targeted six million for this year.
In a written reply to a question in Parliament on 5 April this year, Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen said that her ministry spent RM500,000 in 51 tourism programmes, activities and events in Penang for 2009. The programmes included the launching of the Penang Homestay Promotion, Malaysia Travel Fair 2009 and the Penang International Food Festival.
Just RM500,000! As I said earlier, even an average sized bungalow costs more than that. Even a luxury car can cost more, too!
If the federal government is truly fair and just in its administration of the country, it should not treat Penang like a beggar, giving it a token crumb of the people's money in the state's development programmes and projects.
A more realistic and bigger federal allocation should be given to Penang to enhance and boost its tourism sector.
The federal authorities should know that the tourism sector could ignite positive economic growth in the other industrial sectors in the state, particularly the small and medium sized industry, and, hence, generating new sources of income for the people and improving the nation’s economy.
The declaration of George Town as a Unesco World Heritage Site on 7 July 2008 means that the state has a great potential to develop its tourism sector.
Penang has many attractive heritage sites which can be turned into the tourist magnetic field for the country, and the state would be wise to focus on the preservation and promotion of the heritage provenance through joint development programmes and projects with the private sector, especially the property owners and residents of the heritage sites. And this requires money, lots of money!
And, instead of frustrating the development and promotion of the tourism sector in Penang, the federal government should actually be helping to boost and expand the industry in the state where the economic potential of tourism is great and certain.
The federal government has an allocation of RM899 million in Budget 2010 for the nation’s tourism sector. Why is Penang not given a reasonable amount?
Let us work to make Penang the Dream Destination for an Enchanting Holiday in the Pearl of the Orient.