By Debra Chong | The Malaysian Insider
GEORGE TOWN, Aug 20 — Six months ago Dr William Khor quit his London flat in affluent Kensington to fly home to Penang with little more than a rough plan to build a boutique health resort by the sea.
The former student of St Xavier’s Institution had jetted to the UK near a decade ago in pursuit of a medical degree and initially planned to head home immediately after graduating in 2007.
“The prospects then were not good,” the 28-year-old said, explaining the change in his plan.
He decided to stay on another year and complete his housemanship there to qualify as a doctor while reconsidering his options.
It was during that time that he was scouted by the Singapore General Hospital, which offered him a monthly salary of S$7,000 (about RM17,326) to serve as a general practitioner; he accepted and moved to the Lion City to be closer to his family.
He left after two years, to travel and think over his options for a way he could move home permanently to be a support to his grieving father, alone after Dr Khor’s mother died of cancer.
The UK was his base during that period.
Dr Khor said his homecoming in February was spurred by Penang’s rapid economic growth in the last few years as foreign investors pumped more money in the state than any other in the country and boosted business opportunities.
Dr Khor is not the only one.
Former banker Goh Soo Sing is excited by the property boom going on full throttle in space-strapped Penang.
The 27-year-old had been away since his secondary school years, and is looking forward to putting to work the knowledge and strategies gained through stints with various corporations in his family-owned property development firm.
The eldest in his family, and one groomed to inherit the family business, Goh said business today had gone global and a broader perspective was needed to tackle the challenges ahead.
“If I had entered the family business straight from school, my views would have been limited. I had a choice and I chose to come back. There’s no lack of business opportunities on the island,” said the lanky property developer whose previous experiences included the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad in Kuala Lumpur.
Both Dr Khor and Goh are leading the charge of young, educated professionals heading back to the northern state in what appears to be a reversal of the brain drain malaise afflicting Malaysia.
In January, the Najib administration had set up Talent Corporation to revive to revive the nation’s stagnating economy.
A brain drain is depriving Malaysia of talent, and accounts for a third of the country’s one-million strong diaspora, according to the World Bank Economic Monitor.
Singapore alone has absorbed 57per cent of these departing educated workers.
Only 23 per cent of Malaysia’s current work force is highly skilled and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said this number must rise to 37 per cent by 2015 if it is to become a developed nation by 2020.
To Goh, there is ample room to grow in the property sector including on the island.
He is relishing translating architectural designs from paper to stone, steel and glass to draw out Penang’s full potential as “the first custom-made city of globalisation” as dubbed by influential international weekly The Economist in its August 13 issue. He noted with delight the increased value and heightened interest to acquire Penang properties among outsiders, especially those based in the Klang Valley, to expand their operations.
And as these talents return, Penang’s fortunes have been rising.
Shophouses within the George Town heritage enclave today easily fetch RM2 million, minimum, a five-fold rise from two years ago; yet many have not hesitated to fork over the astronomical amount to transform the units — some in highly decrepit states — into attractive boutique inns offering both global and domestic visitors a comfy, clean and calm place to lay their heads at night.
Among them is Penang-born director and performer Chee Sek Thim who managed to purchase property on Malay Street, on the outskirts of the enclave at a reasonable RM400,000, before the market went crazy.
Chee has spent the better part of his three years since moving back applying for all sorts of development permits to renovate his double-storey unit into a bed-and-breakfast-slash-performance-gallery downstairs.
The 48-year-old, whose Petaling Jaya art gallery shuttered in the late noughties, is now running his performance outfit Pocketsize Productions from the turtle-shaped island and said the proceeds from the business will be channelled to pursue his real love — performance art.
Despite the exceptional number of creative- and artistic-minded talents who hail from this Pearl of the Orient, example dancer extraordinaire Aida Redza and world-famous visual artist-turned-social activist Wong Hoy Cheong, Chee lamented the lack of a vibrant arts scene.
“There is no arts scene to speak of,” he insisted when met recently, explaining the lack of systematic efforts to build up infrastructure and train as well as manage local talent.
But he is optimistic there can be one, saying the arts was growing albeit in bursts and spurts, and hoped to play a key role in cultivating that creation.
The personable artist had recently directed River Meets Light, a mixed media performance as part of the George Town Festival 2011, a month-long celebration commemorating the city’s listing as a Unesco World Heritage Site July 7, 2008.
The 2011 festival, into its second year, had coincided with the bigger Penang Arts festival to showcase over 80 programmes on the arts, ranging from film to food and music, even opera and was estimated to have drawn one million visitors this year.
For returnees like Dr Khor, this mix of cultures is what flavours Penang’s lifestyle and cannot be found anywhere else, not in cosmopolitan London or Singapore.
“Penang’s got soul,” he said proudly.