Penang Island

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This article is about the island of Penang. For the state, see Penang.
Penang Island
Penang Island.png
Map of Malaysia with Penang Island highlighted
Penang Island is located in Malaysia
Penang Island
Penang Island (Malaysia)
Location Strait of Malacca
Coordinates 5°24′00″N 100°14′20″E / 5.40000°N 100.23889°E / 5.40000; 100.23889
Area 293 km2 (113 sq mi)
Highest elevation 735 m (2,411 ft)
Highest point Penang Hill
State Penang
Capital city George Town
Population 750,000 (as of 2010)
Density 2,559.7 /km2 (6,629.6 /sq mi)
Ethnic groups Ethnic Chinese: (41.7%), Malay: (41.3%), Indian Malaysian: (9.8%)
View of Tanjung Bungah on the northern coast of the island

Penang Island (Malay: Pulau Pinang; Chinese: 檳榔嶼 Tamil:பினாங்கு தீவு) is located off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. It was named the Prince of Wales Island when it was occupied by the British East India Company on 12 August 1786,[citation needed] in honour of the Prince of Wales, later King George IV. The capital, George Town, was named after the reigning King George III.


Main article: History of Penang

Early history[edit]

Mao Kun map from Wubei Zhi which is based on the 15th century navigation maps of Zheng He showing Penang island (梹榔嶼) next to Langkawi

The earliest use of the geographical term "Penang Island" may have been the "The Nautical Charts of Zheng He" dated to the expeditions of Zheng He (Cheng Ho) in Ming dynasty during the reign of the Yongle Emperor. In the 15th century, the Chinese navy using the record of nautical chart as navigation guide from "Con Dao Islands" (Pulo Condore) to Penang Island, Penang has been seen to trade with the Ming dynasty in the 15th century.

One of the very first Englishmen to reach Penang was the navigator and privateer Sir James Lancaster who on 10 April 1591, commanding the Edward Bonadventure, set sail from Plymouth for the East Indies, reaching Penang in June 1592, remaining on the island until September of the same year and pillaging every vessel he encountered, only to return to England in May 1594.[1]

Kapitan Keling Mosque built in 1801.

Founding of Penang[edit]

On 17 July 1786, Captain Francis Light, an English trader-adventurer working for the Madras-based firm, Jourdain Sullivan and de Souza and the East India Company, landed on the island at what was later called Fort Cornwallis, took formal possession of the island "in the name of His Britannic Majesty, King George III and the Honourable East India Company" and founded a settlement at the northeast point of the island. On 12 August 1786, Light renamed the island Prince of Wales Island in honour of the heir to the British throne, as well as naming the new settlement George Town in honour of King George III.

Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah of Kedah leased the island to him in exchange for military protection from Siamese and Burmese armies who were threatening Kedah. For Light, Penang was a "convenient magazine for trade" and an ideal location to curtail French expansion in Indochina and to check the Dutch foothold in Sumatra.[2] Penang was Britain's first settlement in Southeast Asia, and was one of the first establishments of the second British Empire after the loss of its North American colonies.[3][4] In Malaysian history, the occasion marked the beginning of more than a century of British involvement in Malaya.

Unfortunately for the Sultan, the EAC's new governor-general Charles Cornwallis made it clear that he could not be party to the Sultan's disputes with the other Malay princes, or promise to protect him from the Siamese or Burmese.[5] Unbeknownst to Sultan Abdullah, Light had decided to conceal the facts of the agreement from both parties. When Light reneged on his promise of protection, the Sultan tried unsuccessfully to recapture the island in 1790, and the Sultan was forced to cede the island to the company for an honorarium of 6,000 Spanish dollars per annum. Light established Penang as a free port to entice traders away from nearby Dutch trading posts. Trade in Penang grew exponentially soon after its founding - incoming ships and boats to Penang increased from 85 in 1786 to 3569 in 1802.[6]

He also encouraged immigrants by promising them as much land as they could clear and by reportedly firing silver dollars from his ship's cannons deep into the jungle. Many early settlers, including Light himself in 1794, succumbed to malaria, earning early Penang the epithet "the white man's grave".[7][8]

The cenotaph at the Esplanade, erected after World War I, commemorates fallen soldiers.

Colonial Penang[edit]

After Light's demise, Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Wellesley, later to be Duke of Wellington, arrived on the island to co-ordinate the defences of the island. In 1800, Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Leith secured a strip of land across the channel as a buffer against attacks and named it Province Wellesley (today Seberang Perai). The annual payment to Sultan of Kedah was increased to 10,000 Spanish dollars per annum after the acquisition. Today, as a symbolic gesture, the Penang state government still pays Kedah RM 10,000.00 annually.[9]

In 1796 Penang was made a penal settlement when 700 convicts were transferred from the Andaman Islands.[10] In 1805 Penang was made a separate presidency (ranking with Bombay and Madras); and when in 1826 Singapore and Malacca were incorporated with it, Penang continued to be the seat of government of the Straits Settlements, an extension of the British Raj. In 1829 Penang was reduced from the rank of a presidency, and eight years later, the fast-booming town of Singapore was made the capital of the Straits Settlements. In 1867 the Straits Settlements were created a Crown colony under direct British rule, in which Penang was included.[11]

Colonial Penang thrived from trade in pepper and spices, Indian piece goods, betel nut, tin, opium, and rice. The Bengal Presidency was aware of Penang's potential as an alternative to Dutch Moluccas as a source of spice production. Development of export crops became the chief means of covering administrative costs in Penang. The development of the spice economy drove the movement of Chinese settlers to the island, which was actively encouraged by the British. However, Penang port's initial pre-eminence was later supplanted by Singapore owing to the latter's superior geographical location. In spite of this, Penang remained an important feeder to Singapore – funnelling the exports meant for global shipping lines by ocean-going ships which had bypassed other regional ports. The replacement of sailing vessels by steamships in the mid-19th century cemented Penang's secondary importance after Singapore. Penang's most important trading partners were China, India, Siam, the Dutch East Indies and Britain, as well as fellow Straits Settlements, Singapore and Malacca.[12]

The rapid population growth stemming from economic development created problems such as sanitation, inadequate urban infrastructure, transportation and public health. Main roads were extended from the capital into the fertile cultivated spice farms further inland. But to sate the severe labour shortages in public works, the government began the practice of employing Indian convict workers as low-cost labourers. A great number of them worked on Penang's streets, draining swamps and clearing forests, constructing drainage ditches, and laying pipeworks for clean water.[12] Indeed, convict labour was key to Penang's successful colonisation as many found employment in the civil service, military, and even as private servants to the colonial officials and private individuals.[12]

For ten days in August 1867, Penang was gripped with civil unrest during what was known as the Penang Riot which pitted rival secret societies Kean Teik Tong (the Tua Pek Kong Hoey), led by Khoo Thean Teik and the Red Flag against the alliance of the Ghee Hin Kongsi and the White Flag, which the British under newly appointed lieutenant-governor Col. Edward Anson put down with sepoy reinforcement after days of chaos.[13]

At the turn of the century, Penang, with her large population of Chinese immigrants, was a natural place for the Chinese nationalist Sun Yat-sen to raise funds for his revolutionary efforts in Qing China. These frequent visits culminated in the famous 1910 Penang conference which paved the way to the ultimately triumphant Wuchang Uprising which overthrew the Manchu government.[14]

World Wars[edit]

Incorporated into Date
Straits Settlements 1826
Crown Colony 1867
Japanese occupation 19 December 1941
Malayan Union 1 April 1946
Federation of Malaya 31 January 1948
Independence of the Federation of Malaya 31 August 1957
Malaysia 16 September 1963

During World War I, in the Battle of Penang, the German cruiser SMS Emden surreptitiously sailed to Penang island and sank two Allied warships off its coast – the Russian cruiser Zhemchug in the North Channel, and as it was leaving the island, the French torpedo boat, Mosquet 10 miles off Muka Head.[15][16]

During World War II, Penang, then a British island garrison, suffered devastating aerial bombardments and finally fell to invading Japanese forces on 19 December 1941 as the British withdrew to Singapore after declaring George Town an open city.[17] Penang under Japanese occupation was marked by widespread fear, hunger, and massacres which targeted the local Chinese populace.[17][18] Especially feared was the Japanese military police Kempeitai and its network of informants. Penang was administered by four successive Japanese governors, beginning with Lt-Gen Shotaro Katayama.[19] Penang island also served as a U-boat base for the Monsun boats in the Indian Ocean for Japan's ally, Nazi Germany during the War.[20] The destruction of the Penang Secretariat building by Allied bombing in the final months of the Occupation caused the loss of the greater part of the British and Japanese records concerning the island, causing enormous difficulties to compile a comprehensive history of Penang.[21] Following Japanese surrender in the War, on 21 August 1945 the Penang Shimbun published the statement of capitulation issued by the Emperor. The official British party reached Penang on 1 September, and after a meeting between the Commander-in-Chief of the East Indies Fleet and Rear-Admiral Uzumi on 2 September, a detachment of the Royal Marines landed and occupied the island on 3 September. A formal ceremony to signify British repossession of Penang took place on Swettenham Pier on 5 September 1945.[21]

Independence and after[edit]

The British returned at the end of the war and was intent to consolidate its rule over its possessions in British Malaya into a single administrative entity called the Malayan Union, but by then British prestige and image of invincibility were already severely dented. The Malayan Union was vehemently rejected by the people, and the Federation of Malaya was formed in its place in 1948, uniting the then Federated Malay States, Unfederated Malay States, and the Straits Settlements (excluding Singapore) of which Penang was a part. Independence seemed an inevitable conclusion. Nonetheless, the idea of the absorption of the British colony of Penang into the vast Malay heartland alarmed some quarters of the population. The Penang Secessionist Movement (active from 1948 to 1951) was formed to preclude Penang's merger with Malaya, but was ultimately unsuccessful due to British disapproval. Another attempt by the secessionists to join Penang with Singapore as a Crown Colony was also unfruitful.[22] The movement was spearheaded by, among others, the Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the Penang Indian Chamber of Commerce, and the Penang Clerical and Administrative Staff Union.[23]

Penang, with the rest of the Federation of Malaya gained independence in 1957, and subsequently became a member state of Malaysia in 1963.[3] Wong Pow Nee of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) party was Penang's first Chief Minister.[24] He presided during the period of the Communist insurgency and the formation of Malaysia.[25]

The island was, since colonial times, a free port until its sudden revocation by the Malaysian federal government in 1969.[26] Despite this abrupt setback, from the 1970s to the late 1990s the state under the administration of Chief Minister Lim Chong Eu built up one of the largest electronics manufacturing bases in Asia, the Free Trade Zone in Bayan Lepas located at the southeastern part of the island.[27]

The symbiotic coexistence of a heritage building with a modern high-rise in Penang reflects the conflicting urban hunger for space to develop and the deep-rooted respect for the past.

The pre-War houses in the historic centre of George Town was for half a century until January 2001 protected from urban development due to the Rent Control Act which prohibited landlords from arbitrarily raising rentals as a measure to provide affordable housing to the low-income population.[28] Its eventual repeal visibly changed the landscape of Penang's demographic pattern and economic activity: it led to overnight appreciation of house and real estate prices, forcing out tenants of multiple generations out of their homes to the city outskirts and the development of new townships and hitherto sparsely populated areas of Penang; the demolition of many pre-War houses and the mushrooming of high-rise residences and office buildings; and the emptying out and dilapidation of many areas in the city centre. Unperturbed development sparked concerns of the continued existence of heritage buildings and Penang's collection of pre-War houses (southeast Asia's largest), leading to more vigorous conservation efforts. This was paid handsomely when on 7 July 2008, George Town was formally inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, alongside Malacca. It is officially recognised as having "a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia".[29]

The Indian Ocean tsunami which struck on Boxing Day of 2004 hit the western and northern coasts of Penang island, claiming 52 lives (out of 68 in Malaysia).[30]

Whilst George Town had been declared a city by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1957,[31] Penang island as a whole was awarded city status by the Malaysian government in 2015.[32] In effect, this makes George Town the only city in Malaysia to be given city status twice, first by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and then by the Malaysian federal government.


Map of Penang Island surveyed by Commander F C P Vereker in 1884
A heightmap of Penang Island and surrounding islands plotted from ASTER GDEM data and coloured to allow easy extraction of height data in metres

With an area of 295 km2 (114 sq mi), Penang Island is the fourth-largest island in Malaysia, after Banggi Island, Bruit Island and Langkawi Island.[33] It is also the most populated island in the country with an estimated population of 738,500.[34]

The island is connected with the mainland by the Penang Bridge and the Second Penang Bridge.

The mainland portion of the Penang state is known as Seberang Perai (Province Wellesley), and together with Penang Island and other smaller islands, form the state of Penang.

Governance and law[edit]

Penang is one of only four states in Malaysia without a Sultan. The head of the state is the Yang di-Pertua Negeri (English: State Ruler), which is appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia.

The Penang state government is led by a chief minister. The current chief minister of Penang is Lim Guan Eng, and the post has been continuously held by an ethnic Chinese since independence, reflecting the state's ethnic majority.

Local Authorities[edit]

The Penang Island City Council (Majlis Bandaraya Pulau Pinang) administers George Town and the entire Penang island. Local councillors have been appointed by the Penang state government since local elections were abolished in the 1960s. The city council is made up of a mayor, a municipal secretary and 24 councillors. The mayor is appointed by the Penang state government for two-year terms of office, while the councillors are appointed for one-year terms of office.

Penang Island is divided into 2 administrative districts, the Northeast Penang Island and the Southwest Penang Island districts.

The eastern portion of the island facing the mainland is highly urbanised and built-up with either industrial, commercial or residential areas. The western portion is generally more rugged and less developed than the rest of the island.[35]


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  2. ^ Penang | Pulau Pinang – History. Retrieved on 11 August 2011.
  3. ^ a b "History of Penang". 14 September 2008. Retrieved 3 January 2011. 
  4. ^ Rough guide to Malaysia, Singapore ... – Google Buku. 28 October 2003. ISBN 978-1-84353-094-7. Retrieved 3 January 2011. 
  5. ^ Rough guide to Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei By Charles de Ledesma, Mark Lewis, Pauline Savage
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  7. ^ Eliot, Joshua; Bickersteth, Jane (2002). Malaysia Handbook: The Travel Guide. Footprint Travel Guides. ISBN 1-903471-27-3. 
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  10. ^ "Penal System in Andaman". Retrieved 13 September 2014. 
  11. ^ Penang. (30 August 2006). Retrieved on 11 August 2011.
  12. ^ a b c Google Drive Viewer. Retrieved on 27 September 2013.
  13. ^ "Influential Muslim leaders who shaped Penang in its early history". 4 October 1994. Retrieved 3 January 2011. 
  14. ^ Dr Sun Yat-sen's historic Penang conference. Retrieved on 11 August 2011.
  15. ^ Mücke, Hellmuth von. The Emden-Ayesha Adventure: German Raiders in the South Seas and Beyond, 1914. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000. ISBN 1-55750-873-9
  16. ^ Raymond, Boon. (3 May 2011) Penang, Penang lang(槟城人) lah : Penang WW1 German Naval War, 1914.[unreliable source?] Retrieved on 11 August 2011.
  17. ^ a b C. Peter Chen. "Invasion of Malaya and Singapore | World War II Database". Retrieved 3 January 2011. 
  18. ^ "War and Occupation in Penang, 1941–1945". Retrieved 3 January 2011. 
  19. ^ "Biography of Lieutenant-General Shotaro Katayama – (片山省太郎)". Retrieved 13 September 2014. 
  20. ^ "U-boat Operations- The Monsun U-boats – 3. Monsun boats". Retrieved 13 September 2014. 
  21. ^ a b War and Occupation in Penang, 1941–1945, Paul H. Kratoska, Department of History, National University of Singapore
  22. ^ Raymond, Boon. (7 March 2010) Penang, Penang lang(槟城人) lah : Penang Secessionist Movement (1948–1951).[unreliable source?] Retrieved on 11 August 2011.
  23. ^ Noordin Sopiee, M. (1973). "The Penang Secession Movement, 1948-1951". Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 4 (1): 52–71. doi:10.1017/S0022463400016416. 
  24. ^ "Penang's first CM Wong Pow Nee dies at 91 – New Straits Times | HighBeam Research – FREE trial". 1 September 2002. Retrieved 3 January 2011. 
  25. ^ PASSING ON... | WONG POW NEE, FIRST CHIEF MINISTER OF PENANG, MALAYSIA (1957 -1969). (24 June 2009). Retrieved on 11 August 2011.
  26. ^ "Rekindling a port’s glory days". Retrieved 13 September 2014. 
  27. ^ BCLim (11 November 2009). "Penang History – History of Penang / Pulau Pinang by mymalaysia books". Retrieved 3 January 2011. 
  28. ^ "Asia Times: Wreckers ball rips heart out of city: Car Rentals at". Retrieved 13 September 2014. 
  29. ^ "Eight new sites, from the Straits of Malacca, to Papua New Guinea and San Marino, added to UNESCO's World Heritage List". UNESCO. 7 July 2008. Retrieved 7 July 2008. 
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  31. ^ "Where is George Town?". The Malay Mail. 4 April 2015. Retrieved 10 July 2015. 
  32. ^ Looi Sue-Chern (24 March 2015). "George Town a city again". The Malaysian Insider. Retrieved 10 July 2015. 
  34. ^
  35. ^ Satellite image from Google Maps


Coordinates: 5°24′00″N 100°14′20″E / 5.40000°N 100.23889°E / 5.40000; 100.23889