The chairman of the Kedah branch of the Malaysian History Society, Datuk Dr Wan Shamsuddin Mohd Yusof, was quoted by Bernama on Friday as saying that the return of Penang island and Seberang Prai, leased to the British East India Company towards the end of the 18th century, was no longer the question.
The issue, he stressed, was “when”. The lease agreements have to be reviewed, or Penang and Seberang Prai must be returned to Kedah, he added. Like Hong Kong and Kowloon being returned to China in 1997?
Mitchell Pier in the 1960s. The history of Penang is closely related to the history of Kedah. Penang was previously part of the sultanate of Kedah until it became a British possession in the late 18th century.
That would be appealing and most interesting. Local geopolitics would be significantly altered. We could be looking at a one state, two-system rule.
As a Kedah-born myself, and despite very close connections with Penang, I, too, would like to see a return to the status quo and the rightful owner getting back its territory.
But, look at the Federal Constitution, the supreme law of the land. Article 1(2) expressly mentions Penang as one of the 13 states in Malaysia. And Article 2(b) states that Parliament may, by law, alter the boundaries to any state, but this shall not be passed without the consent of the affected state through the state assembly.
And this is deemed to include Penang’s consent as well. In true Malaysian-speak, let’s now ask: so, how?
The most appropriate thing left is to bring the terms of the lease up to date and reinforce them, as the RM10,000 annual payment being made to Kedah (if ever the payments have indeed been made) is pittance and surely cannot be equivalent to the 10,000 Spanish dollars the state was paid then.
Even a mid-range condominium in Tanjung Bungah now fetches RM800 per sq ft. History books say the Kedah sultan resorted to leasing the island in 1791 in exchange for British protection from the Siamese.
Though he did not get the security he wanted, he went on to cede Seberang Prai (then known as Province Wellesley, predominantly a swampland) nine years later, and Penang became a free port.
According to History of Malaya by J. Kennedy, “in 1788, the population of Penang was about 1,000 and it increased to 12,000 in 1804.
The main racial group was Malay, but there were large Chinese and Indian communities and a mixture of many other races together with a European minority, mainly British, in trade and administration”.
Actually, until some years ago, most Kedahans regarded Penang as part of their state.
The lingo is very similar, though the islanders prefer to call toilets pancoq. George Town was and is still called Tanjung, where Kedahans would flock to on Fridays (the weekend in Kedah) and especially on and before festive holidays to shop, catch the latest movies and eat.
The people living on the island had all sorts of derogatory names for Kedahans, but that didn’t seem to deter them, probably regarding such vilification as nothing but a family rivalry.
Before there were bridge connections, the only access was by the ferry service connecting Mitchell Pier in Butterworth (called Bagan) and Church Street Pier on the island.
The vehicle queue for the ferries would stretch for miles on certain days. Penang’s free port status was a pull factor as there was a wide selection of goods, especially clothing, not available in Kedah.
They also didn’t mind the Customs checkpoint at Mitchell Pier on the way home, always pleading with Customs officers that the clothes they had brought back with them were merely “for their own use”.
Province Wellesley, where originally car number plates started with W, was similarly non-distant to Kedah, even though the only big town there, apart from Butterworth, was Bukit Mertajam.
Butterworth had the best satay in the north, while Bukit Mertajam was a railway town.
Apart from that, Kedahans had grown very familiar with Pajak Song, Permatang Tok Dik, Sungai Lembu, Macang Bubuk, Ekor Kuching and many other fringe villages with peculiar names.
All this showed the affinity and the close cultural as well as people-to-people connection between Kedah and Penang all those years.
So, going by history, it would not be far-fetched to have Penang and Seberang Prai back into the Kedah fold as its 13th and 14th districts.
Then, it will be a formidable state indeed, with two international airports, a prosperous industrial zone and a rich hinterland. Otherwise, convert the 10,000 Spanish dollars to today’s value.