Experiencing life as a rural Penangite

A COMMON grievance among those of us who support the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) is that those who oppose it seem disconnected from the plight and hardship of common Penangites. This is hardly the first time I have raised the matter yet it seems I still have not gotten the message across.

I often feel these people are only interested in their own point of view, even at the expense of those who are unable to articulate their hardship. The solutions they propose benefit themselves while leaving the silent majority, who happen to be the working and rural classes, out in the cold. 

But who am I to claim that I understand their plight, and why the PTMP, in its present incarnation, necessary for improving their lives?

For the first six years of my life, I enjoyed a relatively plush existence in the middle-class suburb of Green Lane on the island . I was the youngest child in the family. My parents were career people. My mother was one of the first women in the country to work for a large international bank. As a small child, I had a servant girl to look after me. We even had an elderly woman who served as a live-in cook.

In 1970, my world was turned upside down. My family decided to establish a poultry farm. To do that, my father uprooted the whole family from Green Lane, and transplanted us in rural Batu Maung. It was a major change and cultural shock for me, leaving kindergarten at Trinity Methodist Church in Green Lane for a farmhouse in Batu Maung, where I was to dwell from age 6 to 30. In other words, my entire growing up years were spent in Batu Maung.

The move to Batu Maung did not go without opposition. Even as a 6-year-old boy, I could tell the difference between Green Lane and Batu Maung, and I had no desire to live in the countryside. I protested vehemently. I cried and cried, but being only a child, I had no say in the matter. And so, at a young age, I got my first taste of life as a rural Penangite.

The Batu Maung of 1970 was nothing like the Batu Maung today. It was as rural as rural gets. Our farmhouse, built by my father’s contractor friend, who was more accustomed to building hotels than farmhouses, was large and spacious, and a whole lot more comfortable than the surrounding farmhouses. It stood on a hill overlooking the surrounding paddy fields. By the mid 1980s, we could even see Komtar Tower at night. Yes, when the tower was completed, there wasn’t a tall building between Komtar and Batu Maung to block the view.

Although my father tried to bring as much of suburban Green Lane into rural Batu Maung, he could not completely insulate us from our rural surroundings. The place was infested with all forms of creepy crawlies. When night fell, the mosquitoes descended on us with a vengence. On my first year in Batu Maung, both my legs were covered with sores from mosquito bites. Monitor lizards often staged open warfare in our yard. But none of these were as scary as the snakes. Once, I was rushing out of the house when I came face-to-face with a king cobra, its head three feet off the ground and its hood expanded. I u-turned, slammed the door and watched from the window as the snake slithered away. And since ours was a poultry farm, we were hosting a metaphorical feast for reticulated pythons. Often, after consuming our chicken, the huge snakes became lethargic, and could easily be caught.

There are many things that rural Penangites treasure, which urban Penangites take for granted. Like pipe water and electricity. As our house was on a hill, there was often insufficient pressure for the water to reach us. As a result, the water only came trickling out of our faucets. Often, our pipes would run dry, or only air came out, and if not air, then water the colour of milk tea.

Being surrounded by so many trees, particularly coconut trees, at every thunderstorm, we would be praying that no palm frond would fall on a power cable, or worse, a whole coconut tree would collapse on our house. Luckily the latter never happened, but each time the cable snapped, we were left powerless, literally. And often, high and dry as well. It took numerous phone calls beseeching LLN (precursor of TNB), before they deigned to restore our line.

Although we lived in rural Batu Maung, my English-educated parents were determined to give me a proper English education. To be exact, they enrolled me to Francis Light School on Perak Road in George Town. Reason being, that’s the feeder school en route to my father’s alma mater, Penang Free School, and he wanted his children to receive the best of Anglophone education. But going to school was itself an ordeal.

To go to school (primary school, I mean), you take the Penang Yellow Bus, colloquially known among the villagers as “Ooi Car”. If memory serves me right, No. 67 and 68 took you from Batu Maung to the Prangin Bus Terminal where you changed to the Lim Seng Seng Bus to Dato Kramat. From there you walk to Francis Light School. Most days, I got to go to school in our family car, but when the car was indisposed, the public bus it was. My father accompanied me in Standard One, but that did not make the journey any shorter. For morning school, I had to wake up at 5am, a time when rural Batu Maung was frigid cold. Bundled up in a jacket and carrying my small but heavy school bag, we trotted down the hill to the bus stop, and stood there by the roadside in almost total darkness.

We could hear the bus coming from a long way off  there was no other traffic on the road. Leaving genteel Green Lane for Batu Maung, I suffered miserably. Yet as I stood there in the dark, a small boy  waiting for the public bus to take him to primary school, I saw that other people’s lives were much worse off than mine.

At the time, many of the rural villagers did not even receive piped water in their homes. So they had to take their baths from water pipes installed by the roadside. That was also where they did their laundry. Shivering in the pitch black early morning, I saw them going through their morning ablutions.

On the bus to town, we often shared space with farmers. They loaded bundles of their produce in front of the bus, to be taken to the market. The bus had windows with wooden frames. These would be left open, so the wind would rush at your face, which was fun, unless it rained, then the passengers would be pulling the windows up. Air conditioning was unheard of back then.

Afternoon school was just as tough. Going home means joining the evening rush hour crowds at Prangin Road Bus Terminal. Those of you who were incessantly complaining about the inadequate services provided by Rapid Penang (which does leave room for improvement), should take a moment to remember how much worse it was back then. Every time a bus arrived at the terminal, commuters would crowd around, peering expectantly as the driver got up from his chair and scrolled the bus route numbers. The moment he stopped at “Batu Maung 67”, commuters jostled to enter, and within less than a minute, the bus was as packed as sardine.

Batu Maung Bus 67 passed through Sungai Dua, Relau, Sungai Ara and Bayan Lepas, so the majority of the commuters alighted at these places. By the time the bus reached Batu Maung, only a handful of passengers were left on board. Nevertheless, every Batu Maung bus was so crowded that I often had to stand all the way until Jelutong at the least.

My father was joyful that I managed to gain entry to Penang Free School. I started taking the bas sekolah to school. Yes, there were long-distance school buses for rural children who attend school are in the city. However, whenever there were extracurricular activities, I still had to take the public bus.

At secondary school, I began to notice the level of hardship and disadvantage I faced as a rural Penangite compared to my urbanite classmates, who often take their advantages, comfort and privileges for granted. Many of them could cycle home, and be back in school again in twenty minutes flat. School activities were planned without regard to the hardship faced by students living far away. Admittedly, rural students were both a minority as well as the odd one out. My schoolmates could not begin to fathom how anyone could take one and a half hours just to travel between home and school and that every single day, I needed three solid hours just to commute.

The strangest – or perhaps most unfair – deal of all was that, throughout my school years, my parents continued to own the house in Green Lane. On top of that, it was within such a short walking distance of Penang Free Schoo that I could be home from school in five minutes were it where I lived! I could have enjoyed a life more alike my classmates, and could have taken for granted the many hardships faced by rural Penangites. All their hardships would be unknown to me, and I would not have cared one bit. But as it was, my parents forced a city boy to experience first-hand the life of a rural Penangite. And as bitter as that experience has been, it taught me valuable lessons never to ignore the sufferings of other people, especially those who suffer in silence.

Fast forward 35 years and Penang has changed tremendously. Places that were once rural have become townships and suburbs. The knoll where our farmhouse and two other farmhouses once stood, is now a housing estate with over fifty double-storey terrace houses. The two-lane Jalan Permatang Damar Laut is now double its width, and is a dual carriageway. Where once the journey was long because of distance, today it is so because of congestion.

Now I have become a well known and visible Penangite. But I have not forgotten my roots, nor the hardship I endured in rural Penang.

Due to the urban spread, nowadays there are even more Penangites living far from George Town. Every day, they have to endure long commutes to work or school. If they have a choice, they will not be living in Paya Terubong, or Teluk Kumbar, or Balik Pulau. Those who live within 8km of Komtar need to understand that not everybody is as fortunate as they are. Urbanites should exercise sympathy for their rural cousins, but alas, many could not relate to their plight.

When I speak out in support of the Penang Transport Master Plan, I do so on behalf of total strangers who, because of their station in life, are incapable of articulating their hardship. At the end of the day, if I can make their life better, that is good enough for me.

My call to opponents of PTMP is to stop talking and start listening. Pay attention to our reasons. Understand why we want the LRT and PIL 1. We have heard your reasons enough, but we cannot support your proposals, not when those proposals ignore the well being of the working class.

As an example, opponents of PTMP rejected LRT, and wanted it replaced with trams or BRT. This is my response to them:

“You have not explained how that is better for working class people living far from George Town. I have been in their shoes. I have endured the long commutes by bus. It should be clear to you that no matter how fast trams or BRT can travel, the elevated LRT will always be faster, simply by being grade separated. And it will be more comfortable. Why are you ignoring this?

“By so doing, you are demonstrating to working class Penangites that getting them home fast and comfortably is not important to you. Try telling those people who will be taking public transport that you want them to suffer long commuting time, even when the government has made available a faster solution.”

AnakPinang does not reject buses outright. In the case of Penang Island, we proposed that the LRT line be supported by a network of feeder buses, in order to provide commuters with last-mile connectivity. All along the Bayan Lepas LRT route, it will be a combination of LRT and bus. We seek solutions that make sense and work to improve the lives of the common people.

If opponents of PTMP are serious about improving people’s lives, they should make intelligent proposals that are even better than the Penang government’s, proposals that reduce commuting time for the working class and improve the quality of their lives. But as it stands now, proposals forwarded by opponents of PTMP victimise people who are unable to speak up, and for that reason, AnakPinang rejects what they have proposed. We do so, not because we are blindly supporting the government, but because the solution proposed by the opponents of PTMP does not improve lives. That’s all. – January 24, 2019. 

* Timothy Tye is spokesman for AnakPinang.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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