George Town is the capital of the Malaysian state of Penang and the core city of the George Town Conurbation, Malaysia's second largest metropolitan area with a population of 2.84 million and the second highest contributor to the country's GDP. The city proper spans an area of 306 km2 (118 sq mi) encompassing Penang Island and surrounding islets, and had a population of 794,313 as of 2020.

Initially established as an entrepôt by Francis Light in 1786, George Town serves as the commercial centre for northern Malaysia. It has the highest potential of any city in Malaysia for revenue growth and contributed nearly 8% of the country's personal disposable income as of 2015, second only to Kuala Lumpur. Its technological sector, anchored by hundreds of multinational companies, has made George Town the top exporter in the country. The Penang International Airport links George Town to several regional cities, while a ferry service and ...Read more

George Town is the capital of the Malaysian state of Penang and the core city of the George Town Conurbation, Malaysia's second largest metropolitan area with a population of 2.84 million and the second highest contributor to the country's GDP. The city proper spans an area of 306 km2 (118 sq mi) encompassing Penang Island and surrounding islets, and had a population of 794,313 as of 2020.

Initially established as an entrepôt by Francis Light in 1786, George Town serves as the commercial centre for northern Malaysia. It has the highest potential of any city in Malaysia for revenue growth and contributed nearly 8% of the country's personal disposable income as of 2015, second only to Kuala Lumpur. Its technological sector, anchored by hundreds of multinational companies, has made George Town the top exporter in the country. The Penang International Airport links George Town to several regional cities, while a ferry service and two road bridges connect the city to the rest of Peninsular Malaysia. Swettenham Pier is the busiest cruise terminal in the country.

George Town was the first British settlement in Southeast Asia and its proximity to maritime routes along the Strait of Malacca attracted an influx of immigrants from various parts of Asia. Following rapid growth in its early years, it became the capital of the Straits Settlements in 1826, only to lose its administrative status to Singapore in 1832. The Straits Settlements became a British crown colony in 1867. Shortly before Malaya attained independence from Britain in 1957, George Town was declared a city by Queen Elizabeth II, making it the first city in the country's history. In 1974, George Town was merged with the rest of the island, throwing its city status into doubt until 2015, when its jurisdiction was reinstated and expanded to cover the entire island and adjacent islets.

The city is described by UNESCO as having a "unique architectural and cultural townscape" that are shaped by centuries of intermingling between various cultures and religions. It has also gained a reputation as Malaysia's gastronomical capital for its distinct culinary scene. The preservation of these cultures contributed to the city centre's designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008.

Historical affiliations

  British East India Company 1786–1858
  British Raj 1858–1867
  Straits Settlements 1826–1941; 1945–1946
  Empire of Japan 1941–1945
  Malayan Union 1946–1948
  Federation of Malaya 1948–1963
  Malaysia 1963–present

Establishment A map created by Rear Admiral Home R. Popham in 1799 depicting the settlement of George Town. Fort Cornwallis at the tip of the cape is prominently shown amidst a grid of streets, surrounded by plantations and a cemetery. A 1799 map of George Town created by Rear Admiral Home R. Popham. Fort Cornwallis at the tip of the cape is depicted in the map.

In 1771, Francis Light, a former Royal Navy captain, was instructed by the British East India Company (EIC) to establish trade relations in the Malay Peninsula. He arrived in Kedah, a Siamese vassal state facing threats from the Bugis of Selangor.[1] Kedah's ruler Sultan Muhammad Jiwa Zainal Adilin II offered Light Penang Island in exchange for British military protection. Light noted the strategic potential of the island as a "convenient magazine for trade" that could enable the British to check Dutch and French territorial ambitions in Southeast Asia, and tried unsuccessfully to persuade his superiors to accept the Sultan's offer.[1][2]

Light was finally authorised to negotiate the British acquisition of Penang Island in 1786.[1] After the cession was finalised with Muhammad Jiwa's successor Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah, Light and his entourage landed on the island on 17 July that year.[3] They took formal possession of the island "in the name of King George III of England" on 11 August.[1][4][5] Penang Island was renamed Prince of Wales Island after the heir to the British throne.[6][7][8] George Town was the first British colonial possession in Southeast Asia and marked the beginning of the gradual British colonisation in Malaya.[8][9]

When Light first landed on the cape, it was densely covered in jungle.[10] After the area was cleared, Light oversaw the construction of Fort Cornwallis, the first structure in the newly established settlement.[1][3] The first roads of George Town – Light, Beach, Chulia and Pitt streets – were created in a grid-like configuration.[10][11] This urban planning method facilitated the easy division, transaction and assessment of land, as well as efficient military deployment. The grid pattern was also replicated in Singapore following the acquisition of the island by Stamford Raffles in 1819.[10]

British rule Vessels docked along a seafronting street in the city circa 1910. The Port of Penang at Weld Quay c. 1910. Port functions were eventually relocated to mainland Seberang Perai in 1974.[12]

As Light intended, George Town grew rapidly as a free port and a conduit for spice trade, taking maritime commerce from Dutch posts in the region.[13][14][15] The spice trade allowed the EIC to cover the administrative costs of Penang.[16] The threat of French invasion in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars forced the British to enlarge and reinforce Fort Cornwallis as the garrison for the settlement.[3]

Local governance committees were formed from 1796 to resolve specific matters of administration.[17] However, there were no unified legal systems in place to maintain order in the settlement. Light, who believed that feudal laws instituted by the newly-immigrated settlers were incompatible with British law, initially implemented a system in 1792 whereby matters of justice were partially delegated to local leaders.[18] This decision was ratified by Lieutenant-Governor George Leith in 1800. However, further legal disputes meant that under the directives of the Bengal Presidency, this system was replaced by a set of regulations in 1805, drafted by Leith and revised by John Dickens, the presidency's appointed judge and magistrate for Penang.[19]

In 1807, a Charter of Justice was granted which mandated the establishment of a "Court of Judicature" composed of the Governor, a recorder and three councillors.[20] The high court was inaugurated at Fort Cornwallis in the following year, with Edmond Stanley as recorder.[21] With the establishment of the court, George Town became the first settlement in British Malaya to possess a modern judicial system.[22]

In 1826, George Town was made the capital of the Straits Settlements, which also comprised Singapore and Malacca. In 1832, the administrative centre was relocated to Singapore, as it surpassed George Town in commercial and strategic prominence.[23][24] Despite its secondary importance to Singapore, George Town continued to play a crucial role as a British entrepôt. Following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and a tin mining boom in the Malay Peninsula, the Port of Penang became a leading exporter of tin.[3][25] By the end of the 19th century, George Town emerged as the foremost financial centre of British Malaya, as mercantile firms and international banks were established.[3][5][25]

Throughout the century, George Town's population grew rapidly in tandem with economic prosperity. Between 1797 and 1830, an influx of immigrants from all over Asia quadrupled its population.[2][20] A cosmopolitan population emerged, comprising Chinese, Malay, Indian, Peranakan, Siamese and migrants of mixed European-Asian lineage referred to as "Eurasians". The population growth also created social problems, such as inadequate health facilities and rampant crime, with the latter culminating in the Penang Riots of 1867.[26][27][28]

George Town came under direct British rule when the Straits Settlements became a British crown colony in 1867.[24][29] Law enforcement and immigration control were gradually strengthened to suppress organised crime.[30][31] More investments were also made on the settlement's health care and public transportation.[2][26][32]

Advances in education and living standards gave rise to a non-European gentry and middle class, which in turn fostered nascent intellectual activities and political movements.[30][33] George Town, according to historian Mary Turnbull, emerged as "a Mecca for Asian intellectuals", who perceived it to be more intellectually receptive than Singapore.[2][30][33] The settlement was a centre for reformist newspapers, and attracted political and intellectual figures such as Rudyard Kipling, W. Somerset Maugham and Sun Yat-sen.[3][30][34] However, political turmoil in Qing China and the influx of Chinese migrants posed security concerns among the British authorities. Sun chose George Town as the headquarters for revolutionary activities by the Tongmenghui in Southeast Asia that eventually launched the Wuchang Uprising, a precursor to the Xinhai Revolution that ushered in the beginning of Republican China.[34][35]

World wars Civilians lining the city's streets to welcome British troops arriving on jeeps in 1945. British Royal Marines liberating George Town from the Japanese on 3 September 1945.

George Town emerged from World War I relatively unscathed, except for the Battle of Penang where the Imperial German Navy cruiser SMS Emden sank two Allied warships off the settlement.[36][37] World War II, on the other hand, caused unprecedented social and political turmoil in George Town.[37]

In mid-December 1941, the settlement was subjected to severe Japanese aerial bombardment, forcing inhabitants to flee George Town and take refuge in the jungles.[37] While Penang Island had been designated a fortress before the outbreak of fighting, the British high command led by Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival decided to abandon the island and secretly evacuate George Town's European population, leaving the settlement's Asian residents undefended against the Japanese advance.[37][38] According to historian Raymond Callahan, "the moral collapse of British rule in Southeast Asia came not at Singapore, but at Penang".[39][40]

The Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) seized George Town on 19 December without encountering any resistance.[37] During Japanese occupation, George Town was only lightly garrisoned by the IJA, while the Imperial Japanese Navy converted Swettenham Pier into a major submarine base for the Axis powers.[37][41][42] Japanese military police imposed order by massacring Chinese civilians under the Sook Ching policy; the victims were buried in mass graves all over the island, such as at Rifle Range, Bukit Dumbar and Batu Ferringhi.[37] Poverty and wanton Japanese brutality towards the local population also forced women into sexual slavery.[37]

Between 1944 and 1945, Allied bombers based in India targeted naval and administrative buildings in George Town, damaging and destroying several colonial buildings in the process.[3][37] The Penang Strait was mined to constrict Japanese shipping.[43] Following Japan's surrender, on 3 September 1945, British Royal Marines launched Operation Jurist to retake George Town, making it the first settlement in Malaya to be liberated from the Japanese.[37]

Post-war Aerial view of the Esplanade seafront, flanked by the City Hall to the right. The cityscape forms the backdrop. The Esplanade was where George Town's city status was proclaimed in 1957.[44]

After a period of military administration, the British dissolved the Straits Settlements in 1946 and merged the Crown Colony of Penang into the Malayan Union, which was then replaced with the Federation of Malaya in 1948. At first, the impending annexation of the British colony of Penang into the vast Malay heartland proved unpopular among Penangites.[45] Partly due to concerns that George Town's free port status would be at risk in the event of Penang's absorption into Malaya's customs union, the Penang Secessionist Committee was founded in 1948 and attempted to avert Penang's merger with Malaya.[37][45] A petition at the time warned that the incorporation of Penang into Malaya would "reduce it to the churn of filth of a fishing village... trade assiduously built up during the last one and a half centuries will be turned to nothing, entailing untold monetary losses and hardship to the merchants in Penang".[37]

The secessionist movement was ultimately met with British disapproval.[46][47][48] To assuage the concerns raised by the secessionists, the British government guaranteed George Town's free port status and promised greater decentralisation. Meanwhile, municipal elections, which had been abolished in 1913, were reintroduced in 1951, further diminishing the secessionists' commitment to their cause.[17][46] Nine councillors were to be elected from George Town's three electoral wards, while the British High Commissioner held the power to appoint six more.[49] In 1956, George Town became Malaya's first fully-elected municipality and in the following year, it was granted city status by Queen Elizabeth II.[44][50] This made George Town the first city within the Malayan Federation, and by extension, Malaysia.[44][50]

Post-independence Komtar Tower, with the podium visible below and surrounded by low-rise buildings. Completed in 1985, Komtar was for a brief period the tallest skyscraper in Southeast Asia.

During the early years of Malaya's independence, George Town retained its free port status, which had been guaranteed by the British. The George Town City Council enjoyed full financial autonomy and by 1965, it was the wealthiest local government in Malaysia, with an annual revenue almost double that of the Penang state government.[49] This financial strength allowed the Labour-led city government to implement progressive policies, and to take control of George Town's infrastructure and public transportation. These included the maintenance of its own public bus service, as well as the construction of public housing schemes and the Ayer Itam Dam.[51][52]

However, longstanding political differences between the George Town City Council and the Alliance-controlled state government led to allegations of maladministration against the city government.[51][53] In response, Chief Minister of Penang, Wong Pow Nee, took over the powers of the George Town City Council in 1966.[53][54] Local government elections nationwide were also suspended in the aftermath of the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation, never to be reinstated.[49]

The period of relative prosperity vis-à-vis the rest of Malaysia came to an end in 1969, when the Malaysian federal government rescinded George Town's free port status.[33][47] This sparked massive unemployment, brain drain and urban decay within the city.[55][56][57] The federal government also began channelling resources towards the development of Kuala Lumpur and Port Klang, leading to George Town's protracted decline.[33]

To revive Penang's fortunes, newly-elected Chief Minister Lim Chong Eu launched the Komtar project in 1974 and spearheaded the establishment of the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone (Bayan Lepas FIZ) which, at the time, was outside the city.[33][58] Although these were successful in transforming Penang into a tertiary-based economy, they also led to the decentralisation of the urban population as residents gravitated towards newer suburban townships closer to the Bayan Lepas FIZ.[57][58][59] The destruction of hundreds of shophouses and whole streets for the construction of Komtar further exacerbated the hollowing out of George Town.[33]

In 1974, the George Town City Council and the Penang Island Rural District Council were merged to form the Penang Island Municipal Council. This led to a prolonged debate over George Town's city status, in spite of Clause 3 of the Local Government (Merger of the City Council of George Town and the Rural District Council of Penang Island) Order, 1974, which stated that "the status of the City of George Town as a city shall continue to be preserved and maintained and shall remain unimpaired by the merger hereby effected".[60]

Renaissance Aerial view of the city centre of George Town, situated at a cape flanked by the sea. The city centre of George Town in 2023, with Penang Hill in the background.

George Town had benefitted from a real estate boom towards the end of the 20th century, but in 2001, the Rent Control Act was repealed, worsening the depopulation of the city's historical core and leaving colonial-era buildings in disrepair.[33][61][62] The city also suffered from incoherent urban planning, poor traffic management and a brain drain which left it without the expertise to regulate urban development and arrest its decline.[63][12]

In response, George Town's civil societies banded together and galvanised public support for the conservation of historic buildings, and to restore the city to its former glory.[61][64][65] Following subsequent heritage conservation efforts, a portion of the city centre was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.[66][61]

Widespread resentment over the city's decline also resulted in the then opposition Pakatan Rakyat bloc (now Pakatan Harapan) wresting power in Penang from the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) administration in the 2008 state election.[61][67][68] The newly-elected state government took a more inclusive approach to heritage conservation and sustainable urban development, while concurrently pursuing economic diversification.[69][70][71] The city has since witnessed an economic rejuvenation, boosted by a growth in the private sector.[72][73]

George Town's jurisdiction was expanded by the Malaysian federal government to encompass the entirety of Penang Island and the surrounding islets in 2015.[74][75] This expansion resulted in an enlargement of the city government's manpower and responsibilities, as well as enhancing the regulation of heritage conservation.[76][77]

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