SOME 35 years ago, I gave a talk to a youth organisation in Butterworth on the future of Butterworth, the largest town in Seberang Perai. The title of my talk was “Butterworth – Will the Ugly Duckling Become a Beautiful Swan?” It was hoped that this growing town, often described as dull, would develop to be vibrant and attractive.
Butterworth came into existence about 170 years ago when a collection of villages in Province Wellesley (renamed Seberang Perai) was declared a town. It was named after William John Butterworth, the governor of the Straits Settlements from 1843 to 1855.Butterworth developed rapidly into a transport hub because of its nearness to George Town. It lies about 3km east of George Town across the Straits of Penang.
The Butterworth railway station, next to the ferry terminal, located where the newly built Penang Sentral is, provides train services operated by both the Malayan Railways and the State Railway of Thailand. There are also bus services to most major towns and cities in the country.
In the 1960s, the Alliance state government, under then chief minister Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee, developed Mak Mandin as the first industrial estate in Penang.
Seberang Perai was made up of four districts, namely Butterworth Town, as well as Province Wellesley North, Central and South rural districts previously. They were merged to form the Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai (MPSP) in the 1970s.
The fortunes of Butterworth changed in the 1970s with the focus on developing the Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone and Prai Industrial Estate. In urban development, the attention was on Komtar in George Town, Bayan Baru and Seberang Jaya.
With the construction of the Penang Bridge in 1985, and the North-South Highway later, allowing much traffic to bypass Butterworth, the town’s fate was sealed. Butterworth is a town with no heart, administratively or commercially.
Owing to administrative decentralisation, almost all of the government offices have been shifted. The MBSP was relocated to Bandar Perda, Bukit Mertajam, in 2006. As Seberang Jaya replaced Butterworth as the administrative and commercial centre, Butterworth’s infrastructure deteriorated.
Making matters worse, to the north of Butterworth is Kepala Batas, the hometown of Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. In the rush to please Abdullah when he was the deputy prime minister (1999-2003) and prime minister (2003-2009), politicians and government officials seemed only to prioritise Kepala Batas and nearby town Bertam when deciding on development projects.
Furthermore, not much effort was made to make Butterworth attractive. The long sandy beaches of Pantai Bersih and the Prai River could have been used to enhance the town. The council has also not taken advantage of the presence of the military air base to the north of the town. In fact, when it was under the RAAF, the senior officers and their families lived in Tanjung Bungah on the island.
The performance of the council was so bad that Butterworth was noted as the dirtiest town in the country by Tan Sri Mohd Khir Johari when he was the minister of trade and industry in the early 1970s. Even today, empty and dilapidated shophouses can be seen in the old town centre of Bagan.
There are now several efforts under way to revitalise Butterworth. Starting in 2016, Think City, a subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional Berhad, has been working with MPSP for the Butterworth Baharu Programme to rejuvenate the town.
There have also been plans to promote art and culture programmes through public-private partnerships.The Penang 2030 plan will also prioritise development in Seberang Perai over the next decade. Batu Kawan, being the cornerstone of the latest development is already home to Ikea, the Swedish global furniture retailer and Design Village, the first premium outlets mall.
The state government is working on upgrading the local council into a city council. Seberang Perai is the largest municipality in the country (not counting Kuala Lumpur, a federal territory). As reported recently, the state government is confident that Seberang Perai may achieve city status soon.
In addition, the newly completed Penang Sentral is planned to become the main transport hub for the Northern Corridor Economic Region.
And in terms of green and open space development, lengths of the Sungai Prai riverbank are planned to be restored as part of a larger “green connectors” plan.
Hopefully, with these concerted efforts, Butterworth will shed its reputation and truly transform from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan.
Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org