New bridge to liven up Penang mainland

PENANG - The Penang mainland may finally start to shed its image as the dowdy sibling to the more glamorous island, with the Second Penang Bridge slated to open as early as next month.

Developers are flocking to the Batu Kawan district, which will soon be connected to the south of the island by a 24km bridge - South-east Asia's longest and spanning roughly the distance between Marina Bay and Woodlands.

The state government hopes that the modern city rising rapidly on the mainland, where land costs are lower, will take some pressure off the crowded island.

Since 1985, the first Penang Bridge has brought workers and businesses from the mainland to the island.

As the island - a major electronics hub, tourist magnet and, increasingly, cultural centre - has become increasingly filled with people and traffic, the Penang authorities now hope the second bridge will make it easier for even more people to live on the mainland and commute to the island for work.

The population of Penang grew from 770,000 in 1970 to 1.7 million in 2010, and is estimated to hit more than two million by 2020, according to the Department of Statistics.

Construction of the Second Penang Bridge began in 2008, and the RM4.5 billion (S$1.7 billion) structure is slated to be opened by Prime Minister Najib Razak soon.

It is expected to reduce by one-quarter the number of vehicles using the existing 13.5km Penang Bridge.

In Batu Kawan, the boom has begun.

Property prices have risen by at least 50 per cent in the last few years and high-end gated residential areas have sprung up in the former backwater with its factories and basic shops.

Interest in Penang's mainland surged anew a month ago when the Penang government announced that Batu Kawan will host Swedish furniture giant Ikea's second Malaysian store.

There is now only one Ikea store in Malaysia, located at the edge of Petaling Jaya in Selangor.

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng said planning permits will be issued by the end of this year. The project is being undertaken in a joint venture with a local company, Aspen Vision Land, which has bought 99ha in Batu Kawan.

Ikea and an adjoining mall will take up 12ha, with the rest to be used for houses and an international school.

"Batu Kawan will be more exciting in the next 10 to 15 years," said Aspen group chief executive, Datuk M. Murly, noting that more people already live on the Penang mainland than on the island.

Besides Ikea, the state has inked deals with developers to build malls, a premier discount shopping outlet and a branch of Britain's University of Hull.

The masterplan also shows an 18-hole golf course and a waterfront theme park. Two international schools are in the pipeline.

Not every project will come to fruition but the state government hopes the development in Batu Kawan can help resolve the overcrowding on the island, where property prices have soared out of the reach of many local people.

Property developer Tambun Indah is now the biggest developer on the mainland, building 1,000 houses every year.

Its managing director Teh Kiak Seng said land prices on the mainland have more than doubled in the last five years.

"With the opening of the new bridge, the mainland will start to look very different as it will become the centre of development," he said.

Still, getting Penangites to consider making this backwater district their home might take a while.

Today, with its sprinkling of low- to medium-cost houses and industries, it is nowhere as chic as the island.

Driver C.L. Teh, who grew up on the island, said he cannot see himself living on the mainland.

"Penang," he said, "is about the island."

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