Dear Guan Eng

Dear Chief Minister Of Penang,

Hello there, CM. How are you? I am very well myself, thank you. I hope you have time to read this letter. I'll try not to ramble.

The first time I went to Penang was more than 30 years ago, when Penang was a free port like Singapore was. KL had the War Memorial and Stadium Negara and nothing else but Penang had shopping!Food! Things were cheap! Penang was vibrant and in my memory, it was equal to Singapore. My second trip to Penang was 7 years ago. Although I enjoyed the food, I was surprised by the backwardness of the state--the narrow and broken roads in the city, the lack of shopping malls, the deplorable state of Batu Feringghi and the dirty alleys. What happened to Penang in the last few decades when Singapore breezed past it and has become one of the world's top cities in terms of trade, finance and tourism? Who denied Penang its glory?

I know you just got the job, and your predecessor (and his boss) should be caned for keeping the state in virtual standstill since the 60s. Without going into politics, I am happy that you are the CM but I'm worried. It's been 5 months since you took over. Has there really been postive changes other than you not spending state money by living with your father? (ah, that, we need to talk in private. I have advice for you and your poor wife.)

When my son, my mom and I flew in last Friday, I was first surprised that the air was hazy and smoky. Then I was surprised with your 'international airport'. We walked onto the tarmac because there was no ramp, then stomped up chipped cement stairs. The toilets were wet and unpleasant. I know, I am being cocky just because Kota Kinabalu, where I'm from, has a spanking new low-cost terminal and a new ginormous international airport. And it's not your fault, so I should focus on what you can do.

I've always have a soft spot for Penang. It is a very pleasant state. I used to think that if I don't live in KK, I could live in Penang. It has lots of trees (KK is barren) and it is not a mess of concrete highways and high rise buildings like KL. People are nice. As I sat in the taxi, I was really pleased with the quaintness of your city. There are so many old buildings, Penang's so culturally preserved, unlike Singapore, I thought. Then my son turned to me and said, "This is Penang ah? It's like Sandakan!" If you don't know, that's an insult. The Fed Govt has left Sandakan to die for the last few decades because it has the gall to vote the opposition party, DAP, your party. Suddenly I saw what my son saw: old crumbling buildings, broken pavements and road kerbs, lack of proper road planning, dirty shops, dogs running around on the city streets.

Alright, let me get to my point. Penang, as I see now, has nothing much. It is a small island without much natural resources, no oil and gas, no timber, no large deposits of minerals, no big rivers or lakes or corals or mountains. It has a coastline all around, but no beach or shore. So Penang is really like Singapore then, except Singapore as you know is way ahead of Penang. As a tourist destination, Penang sucks. I did an island tour in under 4 hours: the canon at Fort Cornwallis, Batu Feringghi, Balik Pulau & the durian valleys, the Snake Temple (which I wouldn't go into even if my life depended on it), the sleeping Buddha (again, I wasn't into religious statues so didn't go in), the Butterfly Farm (did that last time), Penang Hill (taxi driver said nothing there) and so on. My conclusion is, the only thing worth going to Penang for is the food. But even that can be a hindrance because I don't see western tourists going crazy over assam laksa and char kuey teow. Come to think of it, I don't even see many tourists, western and eastern.

I know you are a busy man, so let me tell you quickly how Penang can be improved for tourists:

1. Taxis must use meters! I was charged RM15 for the short trip from Midland Mall to Evergreen Laurel Hotel, a 3 minute ride and RM25 from the hotel to Burmah Rd. By the second day, I learnt my lesson: you have to bargain before you step into the taxi. But that is such a bother! Why can't you learn from Singapore where taxis are all metered? Non-metered taxis are like robbers.

I think one of the deterrent for tourists coming to South East Asia is the transportation, with the exception of Singapore which has an efficient bus and subway system and plenty of metered taxis. Penang is hot. Tourists have to walk in scorching sun, and taxis are few. Penang is small too. An efficient transportation system shouldn't be a problem.

2. Forget about your laws on old buildings. Move forward, improve. Areas such as Prangin (sp?) are downright spooky. Don't think, as I mistakenly thought too, that keeping old buildings is so culturallly cool. In many areas of Penang, massive re-building is the only way to bring the city up. You can still keep certain areas, but generally, the city is a mess maze of ruins that have to go.

3. Clean up your eateries! KK's eateries are just as bad, but I thought you guys should be ahead of us. In every stall and restaurant I went to, vendors used their bare hands to prepare food, even cheong fun. In KK, plastic gloves and tongs are used in some places. On Gurney Food Court, one assam laksa stall guy blew his nose with his fingers. A poh piah lady was staking up old cardbox boxes and when she saw me standing at her stall, she was about to prepare poh piah without washing her hands. I walked off. Toilets are nightmarish.

4. Make friendly pedestrians walkways. Tourists walk a lot. Your famous Gurney Drive is hazardous to walk on. There's enough space to widen and level the walkway, just ask the Singaporeans for help. And five-foot walkways along shop fronts are blocked by businesses, goods and rubbish. Doesn't anybody notice that?

5. Make Penang a free port again. I reckon it this way: you don't have much natural resources to work on. The only way to jump-start your economy is tourism, as you have identified, but who'll come for the Snake Temple and beachless Batu Feringghi? You have to be like Singapore, that other no-resource island.

I have a soft spot for Penang. It has charm. History. A home kind of feeling. It has potential. It now has you. Your taxi drivers think highly of you. Like Kuan Yew did for Singapore, you can make Penang a productive, vibrant and prosperous state. You can do it.

Yours respectfully,