Local Counsel - Butterworth eyes better times

31 Mar 2016 / 12:31 H.

    AS a general rule, towns and cities do not undergo development naturally. They are man-made. If there is neglect by the people responsible, a town will deteriorate and ultimately be not liveable.
    An example is Butterworth in Seberang Perai, Penang. It began as a collection of villages and was declared a town about 160 years ago.
    Butterworth was named after William J. Butterworth, the governor of the Straits Settlements from 1843 to 1855. The town gradually developed into a transport hub. Besides the ferries to Penang Island, the bus station near the pier had buses going to many towns.
    Today, Butterworth has a train service linking Penang to Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur. Before the station was built in Butterworth, anyone who wanted to take a train to the south had to cross the Prai River in a wooden sampan to the train station in Prai.
    Butterworth was administered by a town board until 1952. In the following year, the Butterworth Town Board was upgraded to a town council with elected councillors.
    In 1974, the Gerakan state government in Penang under the leadership of Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, merged all the three district councils in Seberang Perai into an appointed management board, officially known as Lembaga Pengurusan Kerajaan Tempatan Seberang Perai.
    The board was transformed into a municipal council in 1976 and renamed Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai (MPSP) following the provisions of the Local Government Act of 1976.
    Besides being the seat of the local council, Butterworth also played host to many important government departments, including the district police headquarters, district hospital and district office. As a result, the town boundaries were enlarged and the population grew from 3,900 in 1911 to about 43,000 in 1957 when Malaya achieved independence.
    Unfortunately, Butterworth changed for the worse in 1970s. The Gerakan state government was preoccupied in developing Komtar in George Town, Bayan Baru in the south of the island and Seberang Jaya on the mainland.
    With the construction of the Penang Bridge in 1983 and the North-South Highway, Butterworth's fate was sealed. Drivers and passengers using the highway do not have to pass through Butterworth.
    Making things worse, the sandy beaches along Butterworth began to lose their attraction. The presence of the Royal Australian Air Force base north of Butterworth played little role in the development of the town.
    Furthermore, the local council did not keep the town clean and attractive. The situation became so bad that Tan Sri Mohd Khir Johari, who was then the minister of trade and industry and president of Pacific Area Travel Association (PATA), commented that Butterworth was the dirtiest town in the country. He said this in front of local reporters because Malaysia was the host of the PATA conference in which travel agents were about to gather in Penang.
    The reputation of Butterworth took a beating in 1988, when parts of the ferry terminal, Pengkalan Sultan Abdul Hamid, collapsed resulting in about 1,600 passengers being hurt with 32 deaths. Thirteen years later, the three-storey bus station cum shopping centre near the pier caught fire.
    Furthermore, several important government offices in Butterworth were relocated to other towns. The district office was moved to Bertam, near Kepala Batas while the district hospital moved to Seberang Jaya. More importantly, the local council office of Seberang Perai was shifted to Bandar Perda, a new town between Butterworth and Bukit Mertajam.
    A plan to build Penang Central, which is to be a RM2 billion modern transport hub similar to KL Sentral, has not materialised.
    Butterworth should not have been allowed to deteriorate so badly. A number of Penang political leaders were elected from Butterworth. Phee Boon Poh and Lim Hock Seng have been the state executive councillors. Lim Guan Eng whom the voters voted to be their representative in Parliament is also the chief minister of Penang. If they do not do their best to make Butterworth a better place to stay and bring up families, they do not deserve the residents' votes.
    There is still hope. It is useful to note that Think City Berhad, a subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional Berhad, has allocated a considerable amount of funds to transform Butterworth into a vibrant town. The project is not based in building monuments, but to reignite citizens' participation in activities that make the town lively and attractive. So far, the people involved, including the president of Seberang Perai Municipal Council, Datuk Maimunah Mohd Sharif, are enthusiastic about making the town attractive again.
    Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and planning. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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