Penang Island

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This article is about the island of Penang. For its capital city, see George Town, Penang. For the state, see Penang.
Penang Island
Island City
Other transcription(s)
 • Malay Pulau Pinang
 • Chinese 檳榔嶼
 • Tamil பினாங்கு தீவு
Clockwise from top : George Town, its suburb of Tanjung Bungah, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Queensbay Mall in Bayan Lepas and Balik Pulau.
Clockwise from top : George Town, its suburb of Tanjung Bungah, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Queensbay Mall in Bayan Lepas and Balik Pulau.
Flag of Penang Island
Official seal of Penang Island
Nickname(s): Pulau Mutiara
Pearl of the Orient[1]
Location of Penang Island in Peninsular Malaysia.
Location of Penang Island in Peninsular Malaysia.
Coordinates: 5°25′00″N 100°19′00″E / 5.41667°N 100.31667°E / 5.41667; 100.31667
Country  Malaysia
State  Penang
Founded by the British 17 July 1786
British crown colony 1 April 1867
Granted city status 1 January 2015
 • Mayor Patahiyah Ismail
 • Island City 293 km2 (113 sq mi)
 • Metro 2,740.000 km2 (1,057.920 sq mi)
Elevation 735 m (2,411 ft)
Population (2010)
 • Island City 708,000[2]
 • Metro 2.5 million
Time zone MST (UTC+8)
 • Summer (DST) Not observed (UTC)
Postal code 100xx to 119xx
Area code(s) +604
Vehicle registration P

Penang Island, the most populous island city in Malaysia, is situated in the state of Penang. With a population of 738,500, it is the second largest city in Malaysia by population, while the Greater Penang conurbation with 2.5 million inhabitants is the nation's second most populous metropolis.[5] Its capital, George Town, is one of the oldest cities in Malaysia and has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008.

Founded by Captain Francis Light of the British East India Company in 1786, Penang Island, then named the Prince of Wales Island, was among the first British possessions in South-east Asia. Together with Singapore and Malacca, the island was governed under the Straits Settlements, which became a British crown colony in 1867. The island was subjugated by the Empire of Japan during World War II, before being recaptured by the British at war's end. Shortly before Malaya gained independence from the British in 1957, George Town was declared a city by Queen Elizabeth II, the first in the country's modern history. Penang Island has also developed into the 'Silicon Valley of the East' since the 1970s, and the entire island was granted city status in 2015.

Under British rule, Penang Island had grown into an entrepôt and a centre of spice production in Southeast Asia. This attracted various religions and ethnicities, including the Peranakans, onto its shores; the resulting mix of cultures, architectural styles, cuisine and languages led to the inscription of George Town as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 along with Malacca City.[6] In addition, George Town was also ranked as Malaysia's most liveable city and the eighth most liveable city in Asia by ECA International in 2010.[7][8][9]

More recently, the island has become one of the most important economic powerhouses in Malaysia, with Bayan Lepas a major manufacturing centre with several multi-national firms and George Town serving as the nation's medical tourism hub.[10][11][12] Furthermore, Penang Island is the financial centre of northern Malaysia, with numerous international banks based in George Town.

Logistically, Penang Island is well-connected. The Penang International Airport is one of the busiest in Malaysia, with links to major regional cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bangkok, Taipei and Hong Kong. The Port of Penang still serves as the main harbour within the north of Malaysia, with connections to over 200 ports worldwide.[13][14] Penang Island is connected to the rest of Peninsular Malaysia by the Penang Bridge, the Second Penang Bridge and a ferry service.


The state of Penang is named after Penang Island, which was, in turn, named after the areca nut palm (Areca catechu, family: Palmae), which translates as Pinang in Malay.[15] To this day, the island has also been known as the Pearl of the Orient, or Pulau Mutiara in Malay.

The early Malays called the island Pulau Ka-Satu (First Island) because it was the largest island encountered on the trading sea-route between Lingga and Kedah.[16] The Siamese, then the overlord of the Kedah Sultanate, referred to the island as Koh Maak (Thai: เกาะหมาก), meaning areca nut palm island.[17][18] In the 15th century, the island was referred to as Bīnláng Yù (simplified Chinese: 槟榔屿; traditional Chinese: 檳榔嶼) in the navigational drawings used by Admiral Zheng He of Ming China.[17][19] The 16th-century Portuguese historian Emanuel Godinho de Eredia also referred to the island as Pulo Pinaom.[20]

Malaysia has another smaller island named Pulau Pinang which is located off Johor's South China Sea coast.[21]


Main article: History of Penang

Founding of Penang Island[edit]

Penang Island was discovered as early as the 15th century, when Chinese sailors under Admiral Zheng He mapped the island as Bīnláng Yù (simplified Chinese: 槟榔屿; traditional Chinese: 檳榔嶼) in the 'Nautical Charts of Zheng He'. At the time, Ming China was launching naval expeditions that would eventually sail all the way to Africa.

A bronze statue of Captain Francis Light still stands within Fort Cornwallis, George Town.

The first Englishman to reach Penang Island was actually Sir James Lancaster, a navigator and privateer who commanded the Edward Bonadventure. He landed at Batu Ferringhi in June 1592 and remained on the island until September, pillaging every vessel he encountered. He only sailed home to England in May 1594.[22]

In the early 18th century, ethnic Minangkabaus from Sumatra opened up a settlement on Penang Island. Haji Muhammad Salleh, known as Nakhoda Intan, anchored at Batu Uban and built a mosque, Masjid Jamek, for his seaside settlement in 1734.[23][24] Later, the Arabs arrived and settled mainly at Jelutong. Intermarriages between the Arabs and the Minangkabau later gave rise to Arab-Minangkabau admixture who are described as Malay as they have assimilated into the local Malay community.[25]

Fort Cornwallis was built in 1786 to protect Penang Island from sea-borne invasion. However, the fort has never been tested in combat.

However, it is Captain Francis Light who is honoured as the founding father of Penang. Under instructions from the British East India Company, which had been seeking to break the Dutch monopoly of the spice trade in South-east Asia and establish trade relations in the Malay Peninsula, Captain Francis Light landed on Penang Island on 17 July 1786. Fort Cornwallis was later erected at the spot where Light had first set foot.

For Light, Penang Island was a "convenient magazine for trade", and its strategic location could be utilised by the Royal Navy as a repair base.[26] Furthermore, by gaining control of the island, the British would be able to check Dutch and French territorial gains in South-east Asia.

At that point, Penang Island was part of the Kedah Sultanate, which faced Siamese and Burmese threats.[27] Taking advantage of the situation, Light brokered with Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah of Kedah regarding the cession of Penang Island to the British East India Company in exchange for British military protection.[28]

Once an agreement was signed between Light and the Sultan, Light returned to Penang Island on 11 August. The Union Jack was then raised, signifying the formal possession of the island by the British East India Company "in the name of His Britannic Majesty, King George III". Penang Island was renamed the Prince of Wales Island after the heir to the British throne, while a new settlement, named George Town in honour of King George III, was created at the island's north-eastern tip.[29]

A 1799 map of George Town.

George Town was created out of a swamp. While Fort Cornwallis was being constructed, Light encouraged immigrants to the new settlement by firing silver coins into the jungles.[28] He also developed George Town as a free port to attract traders from Dutch ports in the region.[30] The number of incoming vessels to the Prince of Wales Island rose from 85 in 1786 to 3,569 in 1802; George Town's population had also increased to 10,000 by 1792.[31][32][33]

Panoramic view of George Town from the sea, drawn in 1811.

Colonial Era[edit]

1818 drawing of the Prince of Wales Island. George Town, jutting out into the Penang Strait, can be seen to the left and Jerejak Island to the right.

The British East India Company intended to turn the Prince of Wales Island into a centre of spice production in South-east Asia. The cultivation of pepper began soon after the founding of the island by Captain Francis Light in 1786.[34] Spice production gradually grew more varied and agricultural plantations were established in the hilly interior of the island. The export of spices then allowed the Company to cover the administrative costs of Penang.[35][36] The agricultural plantations would also fuel the growth of the villages of Air Itam and Balik Pulau, where the clove and nutmeg farms attracted Malay refugees fleeing the Siamese invasion of Kedah and Chinese immigrants.[37][38]

The first Indian convict labourers were also sent to the Prince of Wales Island in the 1790s, thus beginning the practice of employing Indian convicts for the island's development.[34] Main roads were extended from George Town proper into the agricultural farms further inland, swamps were drained and the jungles cleared. Pipeworks were then laid to facilitate the supply of clean water. Some were also involved in the construction of administrative and military buildings in George Town, such as Fort Cornwallis.[39] Indeed, convict labour was key to Penang's successful colonisation as many found employment in the civil service, military, and as private servants to the colonial officials.

In 1826, the Prince of Wales Island, along with Province Wellesley (now Seberang Perai, the mainland part of Penang), Malacca and Singapore, were amalgamated into the Straits Settlements. Originally, George Town was made the capital. However, the capital was later shifted to Singapore in 1832, as the Port of Singapore was more strategically located along the India-China naval route and had already surpassed George Town as the preeminent harbour in the region.[40]

Map of Penang Island surveyed by Commander F C P Vereker in 1884

Nonetheless, the Prince of Wales Island continued to retain a secondary importance to Singapore.[41][42] Apart from being a centre of spice production and funnelling the exports meant for global shipping lines which had bypassed other regional ports, the tin mining boom in neighbouring Perak towards the end of the 19th. century transformed the Port of Penang into a major tin-exporting harbour in the Malay Peninsula, directly challenging the Port of Singapore.[43][44]

View of George Town in the late 19th century.
Sun Yat-sen Museum in George Town was where Dr. Sun plotted his plans against the Qing dynasty. The museum is also an example of the typical Peranakan townhouse.

The growth of the Prince of Wales Island as an entrepôt led to the burgeoning of the island's population and the rapid development of George Town. Immigrants and traders flooded in from all over, including the Arabs, Jews, Germans and Armenians, bringing along their diverse cultures and religions. In particular, the Peranakans, who had settled in the region for generations, were also moving into George Town from Malacca; known as the King's Chinese, they would rise to prominence in Penang's economic and political scene, as well as leaving a lasting mark in Penang's architecture and cuisine.[45][46] In addition, the town of Bayan Lepas, at the south-eastern part of Penang Island, came into being towards the end of the 19th century.[47]

For ten days in August 1867, the Penang Riot erupted in George Town due to the fierce enmity between rival secret societies Kean Teik Tong (Tua Pek Kong Hoey) and Ghee Hin Kongsi. The British authorities under newly appointed Lieutenant-Governor Col. Edward Anson put down the rioting with sepoy reinforcement after days of chaos.

Also in the same year, the Straits Settlements was made a British crown colony, which in effect meant the transfer of the administration of Penang, Singapore and Malacca from the hands of the British East India Company into the Colonial Office in London. Direct British rule meant better enforcement of the rule of law, as Penang's police force was rapidly improved and the secret societies that had plagued George Town during the preceding decades were gradually outlawed.[41][48] Other than that, the Prince of Wales Island was renamed Penang Island by the end of that year.[49]

At the turn of the century, George Town, with a majority Chinese population, was a natural place for the Chinese nationalist Sun Yat-sen to raise funds for his revolutionary efforts in Qing China. His frequent visits culminated in the famous 1910 Penang conference which paved the way to the ultimately successful Wuchang uprising that overthrew the Manchu government.

A 1914 map from the New York Times depicting the course of the Battle of Penang.

World Wars[edit]

At the start of World War I in 1914, SMS Emden, an Imperial German Navy cruiser, sank two Allied warships off the northern coast of Penang Island, in what would become known as the Battle of Penang. 147 French and Russian sailors were killed, while the others were rescued by local Malay fishermen.[50]

The Cenotaph in George Town was built in honour of fallen Allied servicemen of World War I.[51][52]

World War II, on the other hand, brought unprecedented social and political upheaval to Penang. Between 9 December and 18 December 1941, Japanese warplanes indiscriminately strafed and bombed George Town, as well as destroying the outdated Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force squadrons defending Penang.[53][54] It was estimated that 600 civilians died as a result of the Japanese bombardment, with an additional 1,100 wounded.

Eighty Japanese fighters and bombers had flown over Georgetown unopposed... Thousands of people had filled the streets to watch the spectacle, which turned to tragedy when the bombs began to fall. Aircraft had then wheeled down to dive-bomb and strafe. Mass panic was the result of the bombing, and Penang had no anti-aircraft guns and few air raid shelters. Most of the bombs fell by design on Georgetown's densely populated Chinatown...[55]

— Allen Warren, British historian.

While the British Army had earlier designated Penang Island as a fortress, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival then decided on a withdrawal from Penang. Not only did the British Army abandon the Batu Maung Fort at the south-eastern tip of Penang Island without a fight, they also silently evacuate Penang's European population, leaving the rest of Penang's civilians to their fates.[56] Historians have since argued that the withdrawal and the covert evacuation of the white race led to the loss of the sense of British invincibility, and that the "the moral collapse of British rule in Southeast Asia came not at Singapore, but at Penang".[57]

Women on Penang Island were rounded up by the Imperial Japanese Army to be taken as comfort women.
British Royal Marines retaking George Town on 3 September 1945.

Penang Island fell to the Imperial Japanese Army on 19 December 1941, marking the start of a brutal period of Japanese occupation.[58][59] The island was renamed Tojo-to in honour of the then Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.[60] This period was especially renowned for the Imperial Japanese Army's massacres of Penang's Chinese populace, also known as Sook Ching to the locals.[61] Women in Penang were also coerced to work as comfort women by the Imperial Japanese Army.

During the Japanese occupation, George Town's harbour facilities were used as a major U-boat base by Nazi Germany.[62][63] Between 1942 and 1944, the Port of Penang was utilised by Axis submarines of the Imperial Japanese Navy, the Kriegsmarine and the Regia Marina.[64][65][66]

Japanese officials signing the surrender of Penang documents aboard HMS Nelson on 2 September 1945.

Between 1944 and 1945, Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Force bombers based in British India repeatedly bombed George Town, seeking to destroy the naval facilities and administrative buildings.[67] The Penang Secretariat building was destroyed by the Allied bombardment, causing the loss of the greater part of the British and Japanese records concerning Penang.[68] The Penang Strait was also mined to cripple Japanese shipping.[69]

Following the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945, the Penang Shimbun published the proclamation of surrender by the Emperor of Japan on 21 August. Under Operation Zipper, the British Royal Marines accepted the surrender of the Japanese garrison in Penang and recaptured Penang Island on 3 September 1945.


The British dissolved the Straits Settlements in 1946, and proceeded to merge the crown colonies of Penang and Malacca into the Malayan Union; Singapore was to be governed as a separate crown colony. The Malayan Union was eventually replaced with the Federation of Malaya in 1948.

However, the impending absorption of the British colony of Penang into the vast Malay heartland alarmed Penang's population over economic and ethnic concerns.[70] The Penang Secessionist Movement (active from 1948 to 1951) was formed to prevent Penang's merger with Malaya, and 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.[71] A secession motion tabled in the Penang Settlement Council in 1949 was narrowly defeated by British official votes, while another petition sent to London also met with British disapproval in 1951.[72][73][74] The British government responded to the concerns raised by the secessionists by guaranteeing George Town's free port status, as well as reintroducing municipal elections in George Town in 1951.[72]

Komtar Tower, built in 1974, is Penang's tallest skyscraper. However, it failed in its original purpose of rejuvenating George Town.

On 1 January 1957, George Town was declared a city by Queen Elizabeth II, becoming the first city in the Federation of Malaya. George Town continued to be the only city within Malaysia (other than Singapore between 1963 and 1965) until 1972, when Kuala Lumpur was granted city status.


The revocation of George Town's free port status by the Malaysian federal government in 1969 caused unemployment in the city to soar to 16% and per capita income to plunge considerably.[73][75][76][77] This also contributed to George Town's gradual decline, which lasted until the early 2000s.[78] As the Malaysian federal government continued to develop Kuala Lumpur and nearby Port Klang by controlling investments in communication, transport, education and health, Penang began to suffer considerable brain drain as younger Penangites started emigrating out of the state for better employment opportunities.[75][79][80][81][82][83]

To reverse Penang's economic downturn, the then Chief Minister of Penang, Lim Chong Eu, created the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone adjacentnext to the Penang International Airport, thus transforming the former agricultural town by industrialisation. Pioneer tax status was offered to attract multi-national electronic firms to set up factories and assembly plants in Bayan Lepas.[84] Complemented by low-cost labour, the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone managed to pull Penang out from its economic slump and grew to become the Silicon Valley of the East.[85]

The Penang Bridge, opened for public use in 1985, was once the longest bridge in South-east Asia.

In an attempt to reverse George Town's decline, the Komtar project was launched in 1974. Hundreds of shophouses, schools and temples, as well as whole streets, were erased from the map in order to make way for the construction of Penang's tallest skyscraper.[75] However, instead of arresting George Town's decline, Komtar itself became a white elephant by the 2000s.[86][87][88][89]

The Penang Bridge linking Penang Island with the rest of Peninsular Malaysia was opened in 1985 by the then Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad. It was the longest bridge in South-east Asia until 2014, when it was superseded by its southern sibling, the Second Penang Bridge.


A part of George Town's UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of the pre-war buildings were in a dilapidated state by 2000 and have since been restored.

The pre-war houses in the centre of George Town was, for half a century until January 2001, protected from urban development by the Rent Control Act which prohibited landlords from arbitrarily raising rentals as a measure to provide affordable housing to the low-income population.[90] 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 heritage houses, and the mushrooming of high-rises and office blocks; and the dilapidation of the city centre. Uncontrolled development sparked concerns of the continued existence of heritage buildings and Penang's collection of pre-war houses, leading to more vigorous conservation efforts.

In 2008, George Town was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a recognition of the conservation efforts to protect the "unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia".[6][91] The subsequent sprucing up of George Town and strict measures to improve traffic flow, pedestrianisation and environmental aspects by the newly elected Pakatan Rakyat state government also led to George Town being ranked the 8th most liveable city in Asia by ECA International in 2010.[7][8][9][92][93][94][95]

The Indian Ocean tsunami which struck on 26 December 2004 hit the western and northern coasts of Penang Island, including George Town, claiming 52 lives (out of 68 in Malaysia).

Whilst George Town had been declared a city by Queen Elizabeth II in 1957, the entire Penang Island was also granted city status by the Malaysian federal government in 2015.[96]


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 293 km2 (113 sq mi), slightly ⅓ the size of Singapore, Penang Island is the fourth-largest island in Malaysia.[97] It is also the most populated island in the country with an estimated population of 738,500.[5] Therefore, Penang Island has the highest population density of all Malaysian cities.[98]

Satellite view of George Town.

Penang Island is geographically separated from the Malay Peninsula by the Penang Strait. As for the terrain, much of the centre of Penang Island consists of granitic hills covered by rainforest jungles. The central hills of Penang Island, including Penang Hill, serve as a giant green lung for the entire island and an important forested catchment area.[99]

Generally-speaking, the island can be distinguished into five areas:

  • The northeastern plains form a triangular promontory where George Town is centred. This densely populated city centre is the administrative, commercial and cultural centre of Penang.
  • The southeast, where Bayan Lepas is located, was once an agricultural area consisting of rice fields and mangroves. Due to the massive industrialisation of the 1970s, this area has been developed into new townships and industrial areas.
  • The north, including Batu Ferringhi, Tanjung Bungah and Tanjung Tokong, consists of narrow sandy beaches lined with resort hotels and residences that form the north-western edge of George Town.
  • The southwest (Balik Pulau) contains the only large pockets of scenic countryside with fishing villages, fruit orchards, and mangroves.
  • The central hill range, with the highest peak being Penang Hill at 735 metres above sea level, is an important forested catchment area.

In recent decades, the urbanisation of George Town has led to the development of residential suburbs, such as Pulau Tikus, Air Itam, Paya Terubong, Jelutong and Gelugor. The southward expansion of George Town along the eastern seaboard of Penang Island has merged its southern-most suburb, Gelugor, with Bayan Lepas, thereby urbanising the entire eastern coast of Penang Island.

As with most island cities, land scarcity is a pressing issue on Penang Island. Land reclamation projects have been carried out to provide more low-lying land in high-demand areas, such as at Karpal Singh Drive, Gurney Drive, Tanjung Tokong and Queensbay.


Panoramic view of George Town, as seen from Jelutong.
A bilingual road sign at Victoria Street, George Town.

Street Names[edit]

Unlike other cities in Malaysia, George Town still keeps most of its English street names. Even for roads that have been officially renamed in Malay, such as Jalan Masjid Negeri, Penangites in general still prefer to use the road's former English name, which in this particular case is Green Lane. This is partly because the new names are often unwieldy (e.g. Pitt Street vs Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, Northam Road vs Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah), but also indicates strong conservatism among Penangites, who see Penang's colonial history as part of their local identity.

In addition, since 2008, multi-lingual road signs have been in use throughout Penang Island. Each of the new road signs has the road's official Malay name and either the street's English, Chinese, Tamil or Arabic name.[100][101][102] To this day, Penang Island is the only city in Peninsular Malaysia to have multi-lingual road signs.

Aerial view of Tanjung Tokong looking towards Gurney Drive, George Town.
A Rapid Penang bus navigating the narrow streets of Air Itam, west of George Town proper.
Residential properties in Gelugor, the southern-most suburb of George Town.

Urban and Suburban Areas[edit]

The expansion of George Town has created suburbs to its north-west, west and south. The north-western suburbs are somewhat more affluent, given their seafront locations which attract tourists and expatriates. The southern suburbs, such as Jelutong, grew due to industrial activities.[103] On the other hand, Air Itam and Paya Terubong emerged to the west of George Town as a result of agricultural plantations on the central hills of Penang Island.

The suburbs of George Town are as follows.

At the south-eastern part of Penang Island, the former agricultural town of Bayan Lepas has grown into an industrial town, while townships and neighbourhoods have spread, merging with George Town's southern suburbs and urbanising the whole eastern seaboard of Penang Island. The townships and villages around Bayan Lepas are as listed below.

The south-western part of Penang Island, where the agricultural town of Balik Pulau is located, also consists of a number of fishing villages and fruit orchards. These fishing villages include Gertak Sanggul and Pantai Acheh.

Tucked away near the north-western tip of Penang Island is the fishing village of Teluk Bahang, which has been experiencing increased tourist arrivals due to the opening of a handful of attractions there.

Batu Ferringhi, the most famous beach destination on Penang Island.


Monkey Beach, situated within the Penang National Park at Teluk Bahang.

The north-western edge of George Town - at Batu Ferringhi and Tanjung Bungah - is lined with some of the most popular beaches in Penang, as well as a hotel and resort belt that includes Hard Rock Hotel. However, decades of sea pollution have degraded the beauty of the beaches somewhat and led to the infestation of jellyfishes along the northern coast of Penang Island.[104]

More pristine beaches can be found within the Penang National Park, which covers the north-western tip of Penang Island. These include Monkey Beach and Kerachut Beach.

View of George Town from the peak of Penang Hill, the tallest hill on Penang Island at 735 meters above sea level.


The central hills of Penang Island serve as a gigantic green lung and water catchment area for the urbanised island.

Penang Hill, with tallest peak on Penang Island, lies near the centre of the island and west of Air Itam. The peak, 735 meters above sea level, is accessible via the Penang Hill Railway from its base station at Air Itam. Once visited by British officials and Queen Elizabeth II, the peak of Penang Hill is one of Penang's most well-known tourist attractions, with 1.36 million tourist arrivals in 2014.[105][106]

The Penang Botanic Gardens Waterfall. It should be noted that public access to the waterfall is restricted and permission has to be obtained in advance from the Penang Water Authority.

Parks and Gardens[edit]

The main park within George Town is the Penang Botanic Gardens, located to the west of Pulau Tikus. Founded in 1884 as an offshoot of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, the Penang Botanic Gardens is the oldest botanical garden in Malaysia. It now serves as the city's green lung and a major recreational area, receiving about 5,000 visitors every weekend.[107] The botanical gardens also encompasses a youth recreational park and Penang's biggest waterfall, which contributes between 10% to 15% of Penang Island's water supply.[108]

Gazetted in 2003, the Penang National Park, west of Teluk Bahang, is the country's smallest national park. Within the 2,562 hectares of protected rainforest, lie mangrove swamps, mud flats, coral reefs and pristine beaches where turtles can be occasionally spotted laying eggs.[109]

Climate chart (explanation)
Average max. and min. temperatures in °C
Precipitation totals in mm
Source: Bayan Lepas Regional Meteorological Office

Teluk Bahang is also home to unique agricultural attractions, such as the Penang Butterfly Farm, Tropical Spice Garden and Tropical Fruit Farm.[110][111][112]

Drainage System[edit]

The major rivers on Penang Island include the Pinang River, Air Itam River, Gelugor River, Dondang River, Teluk Bahang River, Tukun River and Betung River. Two dams store Penang Island's water supply - Teluk Bahang Dam and Air Itam Dam. The Penang Botanic Gardens Waterfall also contributes between 10% to 15% of Penang Island's water supply.


Like the rest of Malaysia, Penang Island has a tropical rainforest climate under the Köppen climate classification (Af), although it also borders on a tropical monsoon climate. Penang Island does experience slightly drier conditions between December and February of the following year. The city sees on average around 2,477 millimetres (97.5 in) of precipitation annually with the lowest being 60 millimetres (2.4 in) in February while the highest was around 210 millimetres (8.3 in) between August and October.[113]

Penang Island's proximity to the island of Sumatra, Indonesia makes it susceptible to dust particles carried by wind from the perennial but transient forest fires, creating a yearly phenomenon known as the Southeast Asian haze.[114][115] The haze season typically hits between July and October.

Weather forecasts in Penang Island is served by the Bayan Lepas Regional Meteorological Office, which acts as the primary weather forecast facility for northern Peninsular Malaysia.[116]

Climate data for Penang
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °C (°F) 31.6
Daily mean °C (°F) 26.9
Average low °C (°F) 23.2
Average rainfall mm (inches) 68.7
Average rainy days (≥ 1.0 mm) 5 6 9 14 14 11 12 14 18 19 15 9 146
Mean monthly sunshine hours 248.8 233.2 235.3 224.5 203.6 202.4 205.5 188.8 161.0 170.2 182.1 209.0 2,464.4
Source: NOAA[117]

Government and Politics[edit]

Local Government[edit]

The City Hall in George Town, built in 1901, now serves as the headquarters of the Penang Island City Council.

Local administration of Penang Island, including George Town, is under the purview of the Penang Island City Council, an agency of the Penang state government. With a history dating back to 1800, it is the oldest local council in Malaysia and the successor to the country's first city council - the George Town City Council.

Headquartered in the City Hall, George Town, the city council is responsible for urban planning, heritage preservation, public health, sanitation, waste management, traffic management, environmental protection, building control, social and economic development, and general maintenance of urban infrastructure.

The Mayor is appointed by the Penang state government for two years, while each of the 24 councillors is appointed for a one-year term.[118] The current Mayor of Penang Island is Patahiyah Ismail, who took office in 2015.[119]

State and Federal Legislature[edit]

For the unicameral Penang State Legislative Assembly, Penang Island is divided into 19 state constituencies. The Assemblymen and -women are elected into office via Penang-level elections, which by convention is held simultaneously with the Malaysian General Election every five years.

Penang Island is also represented by six Members of Parliament in the Parliament of Malaysia. The Members of Parliament are elected via the Malaysian General Election, which is held every five years.

The current State Assemblymen (and -women) and Members of Parliament for Penang Island are as listed below.

Federal Constituency Party Member of Parliament State Constituency Party State Assemblyman
Bukit Bendera DAP Zairil Khir Johari Tanjong Bunga DAP Teh Yee Cheu
Air Puteh DAP Lim Guan Eng
Kebun Bunga PKR Cheah Kah Peng
Pulau Tikus DAP Yap Soo Huey
Tanjong DAP Ng Wei Aik Padang Kota DAP Chow Kon Yeow
Pengkalan Kota DAP Lau Keng Ee
Komtar DAP Teh Lai Heng
Jelutong DAP Jeff Ooi Chuan Aun Dato Keramat DAP Jagdeep Singh Deo
Sungai Pinang DAP Lim Siew Khim
Batu Lanchang DAP Law Heng Kiang
Bukit Gelugor DAP Ramkarpal Singh Seri Delima DAP RSN Rayer
Air Itam DAP Wong Hon Wai
Paya Terubong DAP Yeoh Soon Hin
Bayan Baru PKR Sim Tze Tzin Batu Uban PKR Jayabalan s/o Thambyappa
Pantai Jerejak PKR Mohd Rashid Hasnon
Batu Maung PKR Abdul Malik bin Abdul Kassim
Balik Pulau BN Hilmi Yahaya Bayan Lepas BN Nordin bin Ahmad
Pulau Betong BN Muhammad Farid Saad
Telok Bahang BN Shah Haedan bin Ayoob Hussain Shah

As the capital of Penang, George Town houses both the Penang State Legislative Assembly and the office of the Chief Minister of Penang, which is located at the 28th. floor of Komtar Tower, the tallest skyscraper in Penang.[120] George Town also hosts federal government agencies and departments. Moreover, several nations have set up or appointed consulates within Penang Island, befitting its status as an important Malaysian city.


The Supreme Court of Penang in George Town occupies the top of the hierarchy of Penang courts.

The Malaysian legal system had its roots in George Town. In 1807, a Royal Charter was granted to Penang which provided for the establishment of a Supreme Court. This was followed by the appointment of the first Supreme Court judge designated as the Recorder.

The Supreme Court of Penang was first opened at Fort Cornwallis on 31 May 1808. The first Superior Court Judge in Malaya originated from Penang when Sir Edmond Stanley assumed office as the First Recorder (later, Judge) of the Supreme Court of Penang in 1808. The Supreme Court was then relocated a short distance away to Light Street, where the present building was built in the 1903. The legal establishment in George Town was then gradually extended to the whole of British Malaya (including Singapore).

The courts in Penang consist of the Magistrates, Sessions, and the Supreme Court. All three courts are located at Light Street, George Town to this day, while a Sessions Court has also been established in Balik Pulau.[121]

The Syariah court is a parallel court which hears matters under Islamic jurisprudence.


Penangites celebrating Songkran in George Town.

According to the 2010 census by the Malaysian federal government, Penang Island had a population of 708,127. More recent estimates from the Penang Institute, a Penang-based think tank, indicated that the island had about 738,500 residents by 2012.[122] These figures placed Penang Island as Malaysia's second largest city by population.

In addition, Penang Island's population is part of the approximately 2.5 million inhabitants within the Greater Penang conurbation, which also covers Seberang Perai (the mainland portion of Penang) and the southernmost part of neighbouring Kedah. Thus, Greater Penang is the most populous metropolitan area in Malaysia outside of Klang Valley (Greater Kuala Lumpur).


Statistics from Universiti Sains Malaysia showed that in 2010, the racial composition on Penang Island was about 45.8% Chinese and 36.8% Malay.[123] These were in addition to small Indian and Eurasian minorities. In particular, most of the nearly 1,500 Eurasians remain concentrated at Pulau Tikus.[124][125][126]

During the colonial era, there were also Siamese, Burmese, Filipino, Ceylonese, Japanese, Sumatran, Arab, Armenian, and Parsee communities in George Town, as well as a tiny but commercially significant community of German merchants.[127][128] Although most of these communities are now extinct, they lent their legacy to several street and place names in George Town, such as Siam Road, Armenian Street and Gottlieb Road.

The Jewish Cemetery in George Town is believed to be the oldest in South-east Asia.

The Peranakans, descendants of mixed Malay and Chinese ancestries, had simultaneously lived throughout the Straits Settlements for generations. The Peranakan community on Penang Island, which included tycoons like Chung Thye Phin, Lim Boon Keng and Khoo Sian Ewe, would go on to wield considerable influence in protecting Penang's commercial and political interests; the Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the Penang Straits Chinese British Association were led by Peranakans, and Penang was represented by the Peranakans in the Straits Settlements Legislative Council.[129] As the Peranakans tended to be more loyal to the British Crown than to China, they were also known as the King's Chinese. To this day, Peranakan influence is still visible in the form of Straits Chinese architectural styles and dishes like asam laksa.

A Jewish enclave in George Town had existed prior to World War II, but the Jewish community in George Town is believed to be all but extinct.[127][130][131]

George Town currently has a significant expatriate population, particularly from Singapore, Japan and various Asian countries as well as the United Kingdom, many of whom chose to retire in Penang as part of the Malaysia My Second Home programme. In recent years, George Town has been acknowledged as one of the best cities to retire within South-East Asia, as reported by CNN and Forbes.[132][133]


As with other multi-ethnic cities in Malaysia, all four major languages are widely spoken on Penang Island - Malay, English, Chinese and Tamil. However, the island is best known for its distinct Hokkien dialect, known as Penang Hokkien.

Under British rule, English was the official language. This was helped by the growth of missionary schools throughout George Town, including Penang Free School, St. Xavier's Institution, St. George's Girls' School, Catholic Convent schools and Methodist schools, all of which used English as their medium of instruction and were held in high esteem by the locals.[134] Most Penangites have at least reasonable command of the language; while British English is formally used, spoken English usually takes the form of Manglish.[135] Notably, Penang Island is the only city in Malaysia that retains most of its English street names, as can be seen on the multi-lingual street signs in the city.

As with the rest of Malaysia, Malay is currently the official language on Penang Island. The Malays of Penang Island also use a unique dialect similar to Kedah Malay, with characteristic words such as hang, depa, pi and kupang. Syllables ending with aq are usually stressed.

Due to their Tamil ancestry, most Indians speak Tamil. Punjabi, Malayalam and Telugu are also spoken by smaller numbers of Indians on Penang Island.

Meanwhile, the Chinese population uses a variety of Chinese dialects, reflective of their forebears' different places of origins in southern China. These include Hakka and Cantonese, while Mandarin, more widely used by youths, has been the medium of instruction in Chinese schools throughout Penang.

However, it is Penang Hokkien that serves as the lingua franca, particularly in George Town. Originally a variant of the Minnan dialect, over the centuries, Penang Hokkien has absorbed a large number of loanwords from Malay and English, yet another legacy of the Peranakan culture.[136] It is spoken by many Penangites regardless of race for daily communication, so much so that even police officers also take courses in Penang Hokkien.[137][138][139] In recent years, steps are being taken to maintain the dialect's importance in the face of increasing influence of Mandarin and English, including through books, dictionaries and movies.[140][141]


View of George Town from the Penang Strait. Penang Island serves as the main economic pole for northern Malaysia.

Penang Island is one of the major economic powerhouses of Malaysia. The 'Silicon Valley of the East' is one of the top contributors of Malaysia's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and tax income.[142][143] While George Town was originally established as an entrepôt by the British, the economic sectors on Penang Island now vary, from commerce to manufacturing.

Penang Island also acts as the economic pole of northern Malaysia, with relatively well-developed logistical connectivity. The Penang International Airport is one of the country's busiest in terms of cargo tonnage and passenger traffic, while the Port of Penang remains the most important entrepôt in northern Malaysia, handling the second largest total container throughput (TEU) in Malaysia.[144]

The top sectors in Penang's economy are services and manufacturing. The major component of Penang's manufacturing sector, in particular, is the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone, where numerous multi-national electronics and engineering firms have set up factories since the 1970s. Meanwhile, the services sector is slated to become the largest economic sector in Penang, due to the island's reputation as a famous tourist destination and the outsourcing of advanced services to the state. The high concentration of international banks in George Town has also made Penang Island the financial centre of northern Malaysia.

Overall, Penang has the third largest economy of all Malaysian states, contributing as much as RM6.302 billion of Malaysia's tax income in 2014.[145][146] As of 2015, Penang's GDP per capita has risen to RM44,847, the highest among Malaysian states (excluding Kuala Lumpur).[147][148][149] Furthermore, Penang constantly records one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country - 1.5% in 2015.[150][151] Penang's Gini coefficient is also one of the nation's lowest, standing at 0.364 in 2014, which was lower than the national mean of 0.401.[152] In terms of foreign direct investment, Penang attracted nearly RM4.5 billion in 2015, the largest amount in Malaysia; this underlines Penang's potential as a favourite for foreign investors.[153][154]


Massive industrialisation since the 1970s has led to manufacturing becoming one of Penang's top economic sectors, contributing as much as 47.4% of Penang's total GDP in 2015.[155] Penang's manufacturing sector is one of the largest in the state's economy, contributing as much as 48.3% of Penang's GDP in 2013.[156] Of Penang's total exports during the first nine months in 2014, machinery and transport equipment accounted for 71%.

As the 'Silicon Valley of the East', the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone is now home to the factories of several multi-national firms specialising in electronics and engineering.[157] Among them are Bosch, Dell, Intel, Osram, Plexus Corporation, Motorola, Hitachi and Hewlett Packard.


Beach Street still serves as the commercial heart of George Town. The bank buildings along the street were built in the same colonial architecture as in Shanghai.

George Town was once the centre of banking in Malaysia, at a time when Kuala Lumpur was still a small outpost. The first international bank to open a branch in Malaysia was Standard Chartered Bank (then the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China) in 1875, with a main branch in George Town.[158] The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) and the Royal Bank of Scotland (then ABN AMRO) followed suit by opening their George Town branches in 1885 and 1888 respectively.[157]

To this day, George Town remains the banking centre of northern Malaysia, with branches of Citibank, United Overseas Bank, Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation, Bank of China and Bank Negara Malaysia (Malaysian central bank) together with local banks such as Public Bank, Maybank, Ambank and CIMB Bank. Most of the older international banks still retain their Penang headquarters at Beach Street, George Town's financial centre.


Penang Island has always been one of the most popular tourist destinations in Malaysia. Over the centuries, the island has even welcomed some of the most influential personalities, including Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, Noël Coward, Lee Kuan Yew and Queen Elizabeth II. In 2014, Penang attracted about 6.84 million tourists.[159]

Penang Island's various attractions include the impressive array of heritage architecture, its multicultural society, a wide range of modern entertainment and retail choices, natural features such as beaches and verdant hills, and the world-famous Penang cuisine. The city's low cost of living and well-developed infrastructure have also been cited as pull factors.[83]

In recent years, George Town has received numerous international accolades, further putting the city on the world stage. In 2016, George Town was recommended as one of the 16 must-see destinations by the Los Angeles Times, as well as one of the top ten by the Lonely Planet.[160][161] Forbes has also listed George Town as one of the best budget tourist destinations in 2016.[162] These are in addition to Penang Island's reputation as a gastronomic haven, with the CNN placing the city as one of Asia's best street food cities.[163]


In recent years, the services sector, driven mainly by tourist arrivals into Penang Island, has become one of the top economic sectors in Penang. With nearly two thirds of Penang's workforce employed in services-related industries, this particular sector has also overtaken manufacturing as Penang's biggest economic sector, contributing 48.6% of Penang's total GDP in 2015.[155]

Within Penang's services sector, the greatest proportion of employment was recorded in the retail, accommodation, and food and beverages (F&B) sub-sectors, clearly indicating the influence of tourist arrivals on service-related industries.

Penang's services sector is also boosted by shared services outsourcing (SSO) firms, including AirAsia, Citigroup and Temasek Holdings; the SSO sub-sector has earned a yearly revenue of RM12.79 billion by 2013 and created over 8,000 jobs.[164][165]

Medical Tourism[edit]

Loh Guan Lye Specialist Centre in George Town is one of the many private hospitals located within the city.

An integral part of Penang's services sector is medical tourism, which has made George Town the medical tourism hub of Malaysia. The city attracted approximately half of the nation's medical tourist arrivals in 2013 and generated about 70% of Malaysia's medical tourism revenue.[11][12][83] About 1,000 patients arrive on Penang Island daily, mostly from Asian countries such as Indonesia, Singapore and Japan.

The success of Penang's medical tourism industry is mainly due to the specialised medical treatments offered at more affordable costs by the numerous private hospitals on Penang Island, coupled with well-trained professionals and advanced equipment.[83] Indirect factors that were cited include the low cost of living, the laid-back lifestyle and the ease of travel facilitated by the relatively well-developed logistical infrastructure.[11]


Gurney Plaza, one of the more popular shopping malls in George Town.
Queensbay Mall, the biggest shopping mall on Penang Island, is situated in Bayan Lepas.

Due to the several shopping malls and hypermarkets on Penang Island, the city is the main shopping hub of northern Malaysia. The retail sub-sector is supported by the large number of tourist arrivals, and Penang's well-developed logistical connections and infrastructure, which facilitated the import of goods. Since 2001, shopping complexes in George Town registered the biggest increases in Malaysia.[166]

Shophouses along George Town's Little India sell Indian fabrics and textile, as well as Hindu prayer paraphernalia.

In particular, the shopping malls in George Town are the major draws for shoppers. Within the vicinity of Komtar are 1st. Avenue Mall, Prangin Mall and Penang Times Square. Upmarket shopping malls, Gurney Plaza and Gurney Paragon, are located next to each other along Gurney Drive. Suburban shopping malls have also sprung up in recent decades, including Straits Quay and Island Plaza at Tanjung Tokong, Udini Square at Gelugor and All Season's Place at Air Itam.[167][168][169]

The largest shopping mall on Penang Island is Queensbay Mall, located in Bayan Lepas. The 73 acre, 2.5 million ft2 complex was opened in 2006.

While shopping malls now dominate the retail scene, many centuries-old shophouses are still operating alongside the city's flea markets and wet markets. In George Town , these smaller retail establishments cater more to locally-made products, including spices, nutmegs and tau sar pneah, a famous Penang delicacy.[170]

This combination of both old and new creates a unique bustling retail sector on Penang Island.[171] In addition, as many as 24% of Penang's workforce are employed in the retail sub-sector, the largest of all economic sub-sectors in Penang.[155]

Entrepôt Trade[edit]

George Town was originally founded by the British as an entrepôt, and right up to the 1950s, George Town maintained the role of one of the major entrepôts in British Malaya.

This entrepôt trade has now greatly declined, due in part to the loss of George Town's free-port status and to the active development of Port Klang near Kuala Lumpur.[75][76][78] However, the Port of Penang still serves as the major harbour within the northern region of Malaysia. As of 2010, the Port of Penang handled over 1.1 million TEU of cargo, the second highest amount in Malaysia.[144]


Centuries of development have brought a mix of architectural styles to Penang Island, both historical and modern. The centre of George Town has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its 'unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia'.[91] Just outside the UNESCO zone lies the modern cityscape, with skyscrapers, residential high-rises, office blocks and shopping malls built all over the island city.

Eastern & Oriental Hotel, opened in 1885, also features colonial architecture.
The Moorish-style Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower is among the most prominent clock towers in the city.

In particular, the older architecture reflects the legacy of 171 years of British rule, coalescing Malay, Chinese, Indian, Peranakan, Siamese, Burmese and other cultural influences. This blend of architectural styles is also ubiquitous in Malacca and Singapore, two fellow Straits Settlements which shared similar British colonial legacies. However, unlike Singapore, where many heritage buildings have been replaced by modern skyscrapers and high-rise apartments, George Town's architectural heritage has enjoyed a better fate. Since the 2000s, conservation efforts have brought previously derelict heritage buildings such as the famous Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion back to life.[172]

Sri Mahamariamman Temple, with a history dating back to 1801, is the focal point of George Town's Little India.

Historical Architecture[edit]

Most of George Town's famous heritage landmarks are located within its UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the first structures to be constructed in George Town was Fort Cornwallis, which was built just weeks after Captain Francis Light had first landed in 1786.[44]

Kapitan Keling Mosque was built by Indian Muslims in the early 1800s, one of the first in the city.
Wat Chayamangkalaram at Pulau Tikus was constructed in 1845 by the Thai community in George Town.

The governmental buildings in George Town were built in various colonial architectural styles. For example, the City Hall was built in the Edwardian Baroque style, whereas the Supreme Court features a Palladian architectural style, similar to that of St. George's Church.[173] The Eastern & Oriental Hotel is a sibling of Singapore's Raffles Hotel; both were founded by the Sarkies Brothers and built in colonial architecture.

Kek Lok Si, with its main pagoda incorporating Chinese, Burmese and Siamese influences, is a major tourist attraction at Air Itam.

Many of the bank headquarters along Beach Street, such as Standard Chartered Bank and HSBC were also constructed in the Art Deco styles.[174][175]

In addition, various Asian architectural styles can be seen throughout the UNESCO World Heritage Site, some of them combining different cultural influences. Kapitan Keling Mosque, the largest mosque within the zone, combines Moorish, Mughal and Islamic styles. Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and the Pinang Peranakan Mansion both merge Chinese architecture and European interior design, while the Sun Yat-sen Museum is one of the countless examples of a typical Peranakan townhouse which dominates the cityscape.[176][177] Other unique examples of Chinese architecture include Khoo Kongsi and the Clan Jetties. Little India contains more Hindu and Indian Muslim architecture, such as the Sri Mahamariamman Temple and the Nagore Durgha Shrine.

Impressive heritage architecture outside the UNESCO World Heritage Site includes the colonial bungalows built by nouveau riche Chinese tycoons in the 19th century along Northam Road (now Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah), and stately bungalows like The Residency and Suffolk House.

The Thai and Burmese communities have left their mark on George Town's landscape. At Pulau Tikus, Wat Chayamangkalaram is a Thai temple that is famous for its reclining Buddha statue, while Dhammikarama Burmese Temple is located nearby. Kek Lok Si, situated at Air Itam was completed in the 1930s, merging Chinese, Siamese and Burmese architectural styles into its main pagoda.

Komtar Tower, the tallest skyscraper in Penang, forms an imposing backdrop of George Town.

Modern Architecture[edit]

Since the mid 20th century, modern urbanisation has transformed much of Penang Island. Skyscrapers and high-rises have sprung up all over the city, sometimes side-by-side with heritage buildings. Industrial estates are concentrated within Bayan Lepas to the south.

High-rises at Jelutong, Gelugor and Air Itam can be seen in this picture taken from Penang Hill, the highest point of Penang Island.

Just south of the UNESCO World Heritage Site stands Komtar, the tallest skyscraper in Penang at nearly 250 meters tall. It forms the core of George Town's modern centre, surrounded by residential high-rises like Hotel Jen, St. Giles Wembley Hotel, Neo+ Hotel and Penang Times Square, as well as shopping centres including Prangin Mall, 1st. Avenue and Gama.

Skyscrapers and high-rises have also been constructed along George Town's northern shoreline from Northam Road (now Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah) to Gurney Drive. Notably, the East and West Towers of Gurney Paragon, at 155 metres tall, are the second tallest skyscrapers in Penang.

With increasing urbanisation, high-rises are also springing up throughout Penang Island.


Main article: Culture of Penang


A bowl of asam laksa, Penang's most famous hawker dish. It was ranked 7th. in CNN's list of the world's 50 best foods.[178]
Main article: Penang cuisine
A roadside rojak stall in George Town. Roadside hawker stalls are ubiquitous throughout the city.

Penang Island, long regarded as the food capital of Malaysia, is renowned for its good and varied street food, incorporating Malay, Chinese, Indian, Peranakan, Thai and European influences into its literal melting pot.

The island has been acknowledged as one of Asia's top street food cities by the CNN, as well the top culinary destination in the world by Robin Barton of the Lonely Planet in 2014.[163][179] These were in addition to the Time magazine, which acclaimed Penang in 2004 as having the best street food in Asia, citing that "nowhere else can such great tasting food be so cheap".[180]

The best places to savour Penang cuisine include (but not limited to) Gurney Drive, Pulau Tikus, Chulia Street, Kimberley Street, New Lane, New World Park, Penang Road, Air Itam and Balik Pulau. Famous Penang dishes include asam laksa, char kway teow, curry mee, Hokkien mee, nasi kandar, oh chien (fried oyster omelette), rojak and chendol. Besides that, tau sar pneah shops can be found throughout the island, selling delectable bean paste biscuits.

Other than that, Balik Pulau is well known for its durian orchards, which reputedly produce among the best durians in Malaysia.[181] Between May and August every year, tourists from all over Malaysia and Singapore flock to Balik Pulau to taste freshly-picked durians.[182][183]

Performance Arts[edit]

Penang is the birthplace of the Chingay procession, which began with its first parade in 1919.[235] Although Chingay parades are held throughout Malaysia and Singapore, Penang's Chingay is unique in that the balancing of gigantic flags on one's forehead or hands is an essential component. It is held to celebrate the birthdays of the Chinese deities or during the procession of the Goddess of Mercy. It was said that Singapore even copied Penang's Chingay processions for its own Chinese New Year celebrations.[184]

Bangsawan, or Malay opera, is a theatre art form which originated from India and was developed in Penang with Indian, Western, Islamic, Chinese and Indonesian influences. It went into decline towards the end of the 20th century and is a dying art form today.[185][186] Boria, another traditional dance indigenous to Penang, features singing accompanied by violin, maracas and tabla.[187]

Dozens of wrought iron caricatures have been put up within George Town's UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Chinese opera (Teochew and Hokkien versions) is performed especially during the annual Hungry Ghost Festival. There are also puppetry performances, although they are not as frequently performed today.

There are also two major Western orchestras on Penang Island - the Penang Philharmonic (formerly Penang State Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (PESSOC), and the Penang Symphony Orchestra (PSO) - as well as several chamber and school-based musical ensembles.[188][189] Dewan Sri Pinang, Straits Quay and the SPICE Arena are some of the major performing venues on Penang Island.

Ernest Zacharevic's Children on a Bicycle in George Town.

Street Art[edit]

In 2012, as part of the George Town Festival, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic created a series of 6 wall murals depicting local culture, inhabitants and lifestyles.[190] They now stand as celebrated cultural landmarks of George Town, with Children on a Bicycle being one of the most photographed spots in the city.

Penang's street art scene has blossomed ever since. New galleries, such as the Hin Bus Depot, are now curating exciting exhibitions and inviting international artists to visit and paint murals, building on the existing reputation the city has as a vibrant arts and culture centre. Dozens of wrought iron caricatures, which illustrate the history and lifestyles of a particular area, have been set up among the streets of George Town. Wall murals have also been drawn outside George Town, such as the painting of an old fisherman in Balik Pulau.[191]


The Penang Museum and Art Gallery in George Town, which also formerly housed Penang Free School, is an architectural gem on its own right.

The Penang Museum and Art Gallery in George Town houses relics, photographs, maps, and other artefacts that document the history and culture of Penang and its people.[192] Other museums focus on religious and cultural aspects, as well as famous personalities, including the Penang Islamic Museum, Sun Yat-sen Museum, Batik Painting Museum, and Universiti Sains Malaysia Museum and Gallery.[193]

Besides that, the birthplace of Malaysia's legendary singer-actor, P. Ramlee, has been restored and turned into a museum.[194]

More recently, private-run museums have sprung up all over George Town, such as the Camera Museum at Muntri Street and Penang Toy Museum at Tanjung Bungah. A handful of newer 3D visual museums have also been established, such as the Made-in-Penang Interactive Museum and the Penang Time Tunnel.[195][196]


New Year celebrations at Karpal Singh Drive, George Town.

Penang Island's cultural melting pot of various races and religions means that there are a great many celebrations and festivities in any given year.

The Chinese celebrate Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival. In addition to these, the Taoists also observe the Hungry Ghost Festival, Qing Ming, and the feast days of various deities.

Meanwhile, the Muslims observe Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Hari Raya Haji, and Maulidur Rasul with open houses throughout the island. The Hindus celebrate Deepavali, Thaipusam and Thai Pongal, while the Sikhs observe Vaisakhi. Christian celebrations of Christmas, Good Friday and Easter are also celebrated by Penangites. Vesak Day is commemorated by both major schools of Buddhism.

Bon Odori is a yearly event held at the Esplanade by the expatriate Japanese population, while the Thais in George Town celebrate Songkran.

In recent years, the Penang state government has been holding the annual George Town Festival each August.[197] The George Town Festival has evolved into one of the most highly anticipated cultural events in Malaysia, with an estimated annual participation of over 200,000 people from all over the world.[198][199]

Another well-known festival is the Penang Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, which is held every February at the Polo Ground in George Town.[200][201] This festival has attracted Malaysian and international balloonists, such as from Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States.


Chan Peng Soon, a mixed doubles badminton player, won a silver medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Penang Island houses relatively well-developed sporting infrastructure. The City Stadium in George Town is Penang's main football stadium, with a capacity of around 40,000.[202] The stadium is the home ground of Penang FA. The SPICE Arena at Relau has an indoor stadium and an aquatics centre, while the Nicol David International Squash Centre at Gelugor is a major squash training facility.[203] In addition, the Penang Turf Club, founded in 1864, is Malaysia's oldest horse racing and equestrian centre.[232]

Nicol David (currently ranked world number 3 - as of September 2016) hailed from George Town.

The Penang Bridge Marathon is a popular yearly event. The full marathon route starts from near Queensbay Mall and then on to the 13.5 kilometres (8.4 miles) (8.4 mi) length of the Penang Bridge, and finally back to the starting point for the finish. 24,000 athletes participated in this event in 2010.[234]

Sports clubs on Penang Island include the Penang Club, Chinese Recreation Club (CRC), Penang Sports Club, Penang Rifle Club, Penang Polo Club, Penang Swimming Club, Chinese Swimming Club, and the Penang Squash Centre.

Among the national and international sport events that were hosted on Penang Island include the 2000 Sukma Games, 2001 Southeast Asian Games and the 2013 Women's World Open Squash Championship.

In addition, Penang Island has also produced some of Malaysia's sporting greats. Nicol David, one of the world's greatest female squash player of all time, was born in George Town and had trained at Gelugor at a young age.[204][205] Fellow squash players Low Wee Wern and Ong Beng Hee also hailed from Penang Island, as is Chan Peng Soon, who clinched a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics in mixed doubles badminton.


Main article: Education in Penang
Universiti Sains Malaysia, at Gelugor, is the only public university that was founded on Penang Island.

George Town is home to some of Malaysia's oldest schools, making it a pioneer in the country's education system. Under British rule, missionary schools, starting with Penang Free School in 1816, were established across George Town. These English-medium schools educated some of the most influential figures in Malaysian and Singaporean history, including lawmakers, politicians, professionals and businessmen.

Subsequently, Chinese schools, some of which are also among the oldest in the nation, were founded, thus making George Town the nucleus of Chinese education in South-east Asia.

International schools have been established to cater to the growing expatriate population. These schools offer primary to secondary education up to A Levels and International Baccalaureate.

Penang Island is also home to one of the best Malaysian public universities - Universiti Sains Malaysia, as well as several private colleges and institutions.

These educational institutions have contributed to Penang Island's relatively well-educated population and led to Penang having the third highest Human Development Index in Malaysia. Overall, Penang's literacy rate stood at 98.2% in 2010.[206]

Secondary Education[edit]

Missionary Schools[edit]

During the colonial era, George Town boasted a good education system that educated generations of rulers, lawmakers, politicians, professionals and people of social standing. Some of these schools are also among the oldest in South-east Asia.

Since the 1970s, these missionary schools have been converted into national schools, although they still retain their English traditions.

Chinese Schools[edit]

With the establishment of the first Chinese school in the 1900s, George Town became the nucleus of Chinese education in South-east Asia. Since then, Penang Island has been the centre of Malaysia's Chinese-language school system. These schools were founded by local Chinese associations with donations from philanthropists, and have historically attracted ethnic Chinese students from Thailand and Indonesia, where Chinese education was banned. These schools are well-supported by the community and have a reputation for consistent academic results, thus attracting non-Chinese students too.

National, Vocational and Islamic Schools[edit]

National schools (Malay: Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan) use Malay as their medium of instruction. Unlike early Chinese and missionary schools, national schools are mostly built and financed by the Malaysian federal government. Examples include Hamid Khan High School, Bukit Jambul High School and Air Itam High School.

The Tunku Abdul Rahman Technical Institute and the Batu Lanchang Vocational School are government-run vocational schools located in George Town.

The Al-Mashoor High School, also in George Town, is an Islamic religious school.

International Schools[edit]

  • Prince of Wales International School
  • Fairview International School
  • Straits International School
  • Pelita International School
  • Penang Japanese School

Tertiary Education[edit]

Wawasan Open University in George Town is a private institution specialising in open-distance learning.

Universiti Sains Malaysia, located at Gelugor, is one of the top public universities in the nation. Established in 1969 as the second university in Malaysia, it was originally named Universiti Pulau Pinang (University of Penang).[207] As of 2016, it is ranked 330th in the QS World University Rankings, the fifth highest in Malaysia.

Several private institutions have also been established across Penang Island.

  • DISTED College
  • Penang Skills Development Centre
  • PTPL College
  • Olympia College
  • PTPL College
  • Cosmopoint College


The Penang State Library operates two branches - one each in George Town and Balik Pulau.[208][209] Other private libraries can be found in these educational institutions.

Health Care[edit]

Penang General Hospital, the oldest and largest hospital in Penang.

Health care on Penang Island is adequately provided by the several public and private hospitals on the Island. These hospitals have also helped the city to emerge as the centre of medical tourism in Malaysia.

The Penang General Hospital, administered and funded by the Ministry of Health, is the main public hospital for Penang Island. Built in 1882, the hospital in George Town is also supported by the Balik Pulau Hospital, which serves the south-western part of the island. Today, it also serves as the reference hospital within the northern region of Malaysia.[210] A medical school within the hospital is expected to be completed by 2017.

Private hospitals cater not only to the local population but also to patients from other states and medical tourists from neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and Singapore.[211] Penang is actively promoting medical tourism, given its considerable contribution to the state's economy. Penang Island has attracted approximately half of Malaysia's medical tourist arrivals in 2013 and generated about 70% of the country's medical tourism revenue.[11][12][83]

Hospices are also increasingly becoming the choice for long-term and terminal care. Infant mortality rate at present is 0.4% while life expectancy at birth is 71.8 years for men and 76.3 years for women.

Public hospitals
  • Penang General Hospital
  • Balik Pulau Hospital
Private hospitals


George Town was once the centre of Malaysia's print press. The country's first newspaper was founded in the city – the Prince of Wales Island Gazette in 1805.[212] Presently, one of Malaysia's top dailies in circulation today, The Star, has its origins as a regional newspaper founded in George Town in the 1970s, while the oldest Chinese newspaper in the nation, Kwong Wah Yit Poh, was also established in the city in 1910.

The mainstream newspapers on Penang Island include the English dailies The Star, The New Straits Times, and the free The Sun; the Malay dailies Berita Harian, Utusan Malaysia, Harian Metro, and Kosmo!; the Chinese dailies Kwong Wah Yit Poh, Sin Chew Daily, China Press, and Oriental Daily News; and the Tamil dailies Tamil Nesan, Malaysia Nanban, and Makkal Osai. The Malay Mail is an English weekly. Nanyang Siang Pau is a Chinese-language financial daily while The Edge is an English-language financial weekly newspaper. All of them are in nationwide circulation.

In 2011, the Penang version of Time Out was launched.[213] This edition of the international listings magazine is currently published in three versions: a yearly printed guide, a regularly updated website and a mobile app.[214] The Penang state government also publishes its own multi-lingual newspaper, Buletin Mutiara, which is distributed for free every fortnight. The Penang-centric newspaper focuses on the current state matters and policies.

The television stations channels available on Penang Island are national media RTM's TV1 and TV2, and privately-owned TV3, NTV7, 8TV and TV9. Programmes are broadcast in Malay, English, Chinese and Tamil. A pay television service, Astro, is also widely subscribed in the city, as it broadcasts international television channels such as CNN International Asia Pacific, BBC World News, Channel News Asia, STAR World, FOX Movies Premium and HBO Asia.

Due to its well-preserved heritage cityscape, a number of movies have been filmed in George Town, such as Anna and the King and Lust, Caution. Singaporean drama series, The Little Nyonya and The Journey: Tumultuous Times, were also filmed within the UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition, Penang Island became one of the pit-stops of The Amazing Race 16 and The Amazing Race Asia 4.

The available FM radio stations on Penang Island, both government (including Penang-based Mutiara FM) and commercial, are as listed below.

Frequency Station Operator Language
87.8 One FM Media Prima Mandarin, Cantonese
88.2 Hot FM Media Prima Malay
89.9 Fly FM Media Prima English
91.0 Mix FM AMP Radio Networks English
92.8 Hitz FM AMP Radio Networks English
93.9 Mutiara FM RTM Malay
94.5 988 FM Star RFM Radio Mandarin, Cantonese
94.9 Klasik FM RTM Malay
96.7 Minnal FM RTM Tamil
97.1 Sinar FM AMP Radio Networks Malay
98.1 Red FM Star RFM Radio English
98.7 TraXX FM RTM English
99.3 THR FM AMP Radio Networks Tamil
99.7 My FM AMP Radio Networks Mandarin, Cantonese
101.3 Ai FM RTM Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien
102.4 Suria FM Star RFM Radio Malay
103.6 Era FM AMP Radio Networks Malay
104.4 Lite FM AMP Radio Networks English
107.6 Capital FM Star RFM Radio English


Main article: Transport in Penang
Penang Road is one of the busy thoroughfares in the heart of George Town.

As one of Malaysia's major cities, Penang Island's logistical infrastructure is well-developed, enabling extensive connections via land, air and sea. The island's compact size and an extensive road network also allow for ease of travel for locals and tourists alike.


The Second Penang Bridge that links the south-eastern tip of Penang Island with the mainland is the longest bridge in South-east Asia.

Development of Penang Island's roads is an ongoing process that dates back to the early years of British rule. The first roads were laid in George Town, before more roads extending inland to the agricultural plantations were created.[34]

Today, Penang Island has inherited an extensive road network. Outside the narrow streets of inner George Town, more modern roads link the city centre with the surrounding suburbs. Thanks to the urbanisation of the island's eastern coast, George Town and Bayan Lepas are more interconnected than ever before. The Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway runs along the eastern coastline of Penang Island between the city centre and the Penang International Airport, linking both locations with the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone and the Penang Bridge.

The Federal Route 6 is a winding trunk road that forms a circular loop round Penang Island, hugging the length of the island's coastline. In the clockwise direction, this road connects George Town, Bayan Lepas, Balik Pulau and Teluk Bahang.

The 13.5 km-long Penang Bridge, together with the more southerly Second Penang Bridge, links Penang Island with the rest of Peninsular Malaysia. The Penang Bridge connects Gelugor with the industrial town of Perai on the Malay Peninsula, whereas the Second Penang Bridge links Batu Maung and Batu Kawan on the mainland.

A trolleybus in George Town, circa 1926.

Public Transportation[edit]

Rapid Penang buses at the Weld Quay Bus Terminal, George Town.

The first mode of transportation in George Town was the horse hackney carriage, which was popular between the late 18th century and 1935, when the rickshaw gained popularity. The rickshaw was in turn was rapidly superseded by the trishaw beginning in 1941. Until today, trishaws still ply the streets of George Town, primarily catering for tourists.[215]

In addition, horse trams, steam trams, electric trams, trolleybuses and double deckers used to ply the streets of George Town. The first steam tramway began operations in the 1880s, and for a time, horse-drawn cars were also used. Electrical trams were operated from 1905. Trolleybuses commenced in 1925 and they gradually replaced the trams but they were in turn discontinued in 1961. Since then, regular buses have been the only form of public transportation.[216][217]

For a long time, public bus services, troubled by intense rivalry between the different bus companies, were deemed unsatisfactory.[218][219][220] In 2007, the Malaysian federal government announced that Prasarana Malaysia, which runs Rapid KL, would take over all public bus services in Penang under a new entity - Rapid Penang.

Rapid Penang commenced operations with 150 buses covering 28 routes on Penang Island. This service has since been expanded and in the process, public transportation has improved. Public bus usage in Penang has risen from a lowly 30,000 commuters a day in 2007 to 75,000 commuters a day in 2010.[221] At present, there are 350 buses plying 41 routes around the state, with 30 of the routes on Penang Island. Besides that, the Penang Island City Council, with the collaboration of Rapid Penang, has introduced free shuttle bus services for short commutes within the centre of George Town to ease traffic congestion.[218] Open-air double decker buses, known as Hop-On Hop-Off buses, have also been launched, mainly catering for tourists in the city.[222]

Old Swiss-made Penang Hill Railway coach, which was in use between 1923 and 1977.

Express bus services between Penang Island and the rest of Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore and southern Thailand terminate at the Sungai Nibong Bus Terminal, the main express bus terminal on Penang Island.

The new Penang Hill Railway funicular train, which has been in use since 2011.

The only rail-based transportation system on Penang Island is the Penang Hill Railway, a funicular railway to the peak of Penang Hill. When launched in 1923, the railway, then using Swiss-made coaches, was considered an engineering feat of sorts. It was upgraded with new coaches in 2010 and reopened in early 2011.[223]

Within the city centre, efforts are being undertaken to encourage pedestrianisation and the use of bicycles as a greener transportation mode.[224] Rental bicycles have been introduced and marketed by several companies within the UNESCO World Heritage Site, while dedicated cycling lanes are being marked throughout the city.[225][226]

Since 2015, Uber, a private car hailing service, has been made available throughout Penang.[227]

There are plans by the Penang state government to bring in more rail-based transportation systems throughout Penang. The Penang Transport Master Plan envisages the following long-term solutions to counter the island's worsening traffic congestion.

With the completion of the plan slated in 2030, the Penang state government aims to have multiple public transportation options on the ground, at sea and even in the air.


Passenger terminal of the Penang International Airport.

The Penang International Airport, located in Bayan Lepas and 14 kilometres (8.7 miles) south of George Town, was opened in 1935 while Penang was part of the Straits Settlements, making it the oldest airport in Malaysia. It serves as the main airport for northern Malaysia, with extensive links to several major cities in the region.

The airport connects Penang with major Asian cities like Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bangkok, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Taipei, Ho Chi Minh City and Yangon.[233][234] It also serves as the hub for two Malaysian low-cost carriers - AirAsia and Firefly.

The airport is one of the country's busiest, with the second highest cargo traffic and the third largest passenger traffic as of 2013. This reflects Penang Island's role as a famous tourist attraction and a manufacturing hub. Due to its proximity to the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone, the airport is an important logistical link that facilitates the transport of goods and products to and from the factories in Bayan Lepas.


View of George Town and the Port of Penang, as seen from mainland Seberang Perai.
A cruise liner docked at Swettenham Pier, George Town.

The Port of Penang is one of the major ports of Malaysia and the most important port within the northern region of the nation. The Port consists of four terminals - one in George Town (Swettenham Pier) and three in the town of Butterworth across the Penang Strait.

Over the past decades, the revocation of George Town's free port status and the development of Port Klang have significantly reduced the Port of Penang's trade volume.[75][78] Nonetheless, the Port still plays a vital role for northern Malaysia, as it links George Town with more than 200 ports worldwide.[14] As of 2010, the Port of Penang handled over 1.1 million TEU of cargo, the second largest amount in Malaysia.[235]

In addition, Swettenham Pier also accommodates cruise ships and serves as the most direct entry point into George Town, as the pier is located within the UNESCO World Heritage Site.[236] This also makes cruise tourism a crucial component of tourist arrivals into Penang. As of 2014, Swettenham Pier recorded 1.2 million tourist arrivals and attracted some of the world's biggest cruise liners, such as the RMS Queen Mary 2.[159] A number of cruise ships also call Swettenham Pier as their homeport, bringing tourists into and out of George Town towards other destinations like Phuket and Singapore.

On occasion, Swettenham Pier hosts warships as well, including those from Singapore, Thailand and the United States.[237][238][239]

Penang Ferries[edit]

A Penang Ferry crossing the Penang Strait towards George Town.

The Penang Ferry Service links George Town with the town of Butterworth on the Malay Peninsula. It was the first ferry service in Malaysia, having been in operation since 1920. At the time of writing, four ferries ply the Penang Strait between George Town and Butterworth daily.[240] Recently, there have been concerns over the loss-making Penang Port Commission, a Malaysian federal government agency that runs the ferry service.[241]


Water supply on Penang Island, which comes under the jurisdiction of the Penang state government, is wholly managed by the state-owned but autonomous PBA Holdings Bhd, whose sole subsidiary is the Perbadanan Bekalan Air Pulau Pinang Sdn Bhd (PBAPP). This public limited company provides uninterrupted, round-the-clock drinking water throughout the state. Penang was cited by the World Development Movement as a case study in successful public water schemes.[242] PBA's water rates are also among the lowest in the world[243]

George Town was one of the first towns in British Malaya to be electrified in 1905 upon the completion of the first hydroelectric scheme.[244] At present, electricity is provided by the national electricity utility company, Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB).

Telekom Malaysia Berhad is the landline telephone service provider and one of the Internet service providers (ISP) in Penang. Mobile network operators and mobile ISPs include Maxis, Digi, Celcom, and U Mobile.

As of the first quarter of 2014, Penang's broadband penetration rate stood at 80.3%, the highest among all Malaysian states (excluding Kuala Lumpur).[245] Currently, the Penang state government is in the process of rolling out a statewide Wi-Fi service. Known as Penang Free Wi-Fi, it aims to improve internet penetration throughout Penang and is provided for free.[246] As of 2015, its bandwidth speeds are being increased to 3Mbit/s within the centre of George Town, while 1,560 hotspots have been installed throughout the state.[247] When completed, Penang will be the first state in Malaysia to provide its citizens with free Internet connection.[248]

Sewage treatment on Penang Island is managed by the national sewerage company, Indah Water Konsortium. Prior to systematic sewerage piping and treatment, waste water was haphazardly disposed, mostly in the sea, causing the pollution of seawater.[249]

International Relations[edit]


Befitting Penang Island's status as a major Malaysian city with various multi-national economic and social interests, several nations have either established their consulates or appointed honorary-consulates within the island.

Sister Cities[edit]

George Town, and by extension, Penang Island. has six sister cities.

Island Firsts[edit]

The Penang State Mosque in George Town serves as the main mosque in Penang.
The Snake Temple in Bayan Lepas is believed to be the only Chinese temple in the world that is inhabited by snakes.
Sri Aruloli Thirumurugan Temple at Penang Hill is one of the oldest Hindu temples in Penang.[270]
The Church of the Assumption in George Town is the oldest Catholic church on Penang Island.


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