THE sight of an elderly man enjoying a cup of kopi — the local lingo for a dark, sweet and full-bodied brew of coffee — while reading a newspaper is a befitting reflection of Ipoh’s leisurely pace.

It is such a ubiquitous pastime that famed Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic saw it fit to immortalise the image in the form of a larger-than-life mural in the tourist enclave — the city centre, which locals fondly refer to as “Old Town”.

Ipoh, which was built on tin mining, flourished in the late 1800s, when tin mines had aplenty to give and the demand for the ore was insatiable. But it began to wane after the lustre of the commodity wore off in the 1970s, when Malaysia was still the world’s premier producer of tin, producing 40% of the global demand.

However, things have changed rapidly for Ipoh and the entire state in the last decade. Perak, eponymously named after its rich alluvial deposits of silver-coloured tin ore, is picking up steam after close to four decades of lull.

The state, which was once considered the jewel in the British colonial government’s crown, is slowly working to gain a competitive advantage with numerous industrial developments and by becoming a tourism hot spot the likes of Penang and Melaka.

Perak’s industrial progress can be seen in the encouraging growth numbers. According to the Department of Statistics, the state’s gross domestic product was RM39.63 billion in 2012, up 21.7% from 2007.

Last year, International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed was reported as saying that 1,161 manufacturing projects had been implemented with investments valued at RM25.7 billion in Perak in 2014. Almost 62% or RM15.9 billion of these were local investments. The investments also provided 134,425 job opportunities.

Nevertheless, despite the strong numbers, Perak’s industrial movement has remained under the radar. The state agency entrusted with promoting investment activity — Perak Investment Management Centre (InvestPerak) — is not too concerned though, as it has not hampered the state’s much overdue progress.

InvestPerak CEO Datuk Muhammad Hafni Ibrahim says one of the main drivers behind investment promotions is the attractive proposition of the state in the manufacturing sector. “The Perak Industrial Development Action Plan (PIDAP) has targeted an average growth of 7.1% per annum for the manufacturing sector between 2011 and 2020, which is expected to contribute 25% to the state’s total GDP of RM50.88 billion by 2020. These targets were based on an average annual GDP growth of 5%,” he says in an email interview.

Since PIDAP’s inception in 2011, it has drawn some big names to the state, including Brazilian mining giant Vale International, which set up a RM4.3 billion iron ore hub in Teluk Rubiah, Lumut, last year and brought back to life a languishing port area.

Chinese mosque, Ipoh

Prior to that, companies such as Bromma (M) Sdn Bhd, a leading crane spreader manufacturer from Sweden, and Tigges Fastener Technology (M) Sdn Bhd, a high-end fastener manufacturer from Germany, had already set up operations in Ipoh.

Muhammad Hafni says Bromma, which fabricates telescopic spreaders and equipment, controls more than 60% of the global market share and all of its products are made in Ipoh. “Finisar Malaysia Sdn Bhd is another company that continues to expand and diversify in the manufacturing of transponders and transceivers for the information and communications technology sector. It is the largest manufacturer of such products in the world, controlling more than 17% of global market share.

 “According to data released by the Department of Statistics, Finisar was estimated to have contributed 1.05% and 1.23% to the state’s GDP in 2013 and 2014 respectively. This is considered a significant contribution, and from just one company. It also contributed about 1% to the total export of electrical and electronic products in 2013 and 2014.”

These businesses are just the tip of the iceberg, says Muhammad Hafni. Under PIDAP’s framework, the state has outlined 12 industrial subsectors, ranging from machinery to biotechnology, to spur growth.

“These sectors are based on the many advantages the state can offer and are in line with the national objective of moving towards a developed and industrialised Malaysia as well as a competitive trading nation globally,” he adds.

Unlike other rapidly progressing states, Perak did not lose its cherished tranquillity and peaceful environment at the cost of development, says Muhammad Hafni. “Everyone wants a good environment that is peaceful and safe to live and work. Perak does not lack in these areas. There are plenty of established schools, spaces for recreational activities and state-of-the-art healthcare facilities, not to mention a slew of shopping malls.”

The agency also has a hand in stimulating the state’s tourism sector. Muhammad Hafni says InvestPerak has been actively promoting the RM450 million Malaysia Animation Park (MAP), which is expected to open in June. “Perak is looking forward to this park.”

Datuk Nolee Ashilin Mohammed RadziAlso eagerly anticipating the opening of MAP is the state’s tourism, arts, culture, multimedia and communications executive councillor Datuk Nolee Ashilin Mohammed Radzi (pictured, left). She says the theme park is expected to display jaw-dropping animation and special effects and generate more than 500 permanent value-added jobs for the locals.

This, the state hopes, will reverse its negative migration rate. According to the Department of Statistics, Perak saw the migration of 3,300 individuals in 2010/11, which more than doubled to 7,900 in 2011/12.

The data shows that 17.8% of them moved to Penang while 11% migrated to Selangor. However, despite the outflow, a Department of Statistics census shows that Ipoh’s population grew from 529,906 in 2000 to 757,892 in 2010.

“Once a tin mining powerhouse and the richest state, Perak lost its lustre and we were labelled a city ideal for retirement. But now, we are getting back on the map as a vibrant city,” says Nolee Ashilin. “The state government is doing quite a bit to invigorate the economy ... our menteri besar is hoping to make tourism the second biggest contributor to GDP.”

The state plans to reposition Ipoh as a hub for arts and culture by capitalising on the growing interest in the preservation of memories and nostalgia, says the Tualang Sekah assemblyman.

“We initiated an agency called Colony Karyawan Aman Jaya, or better known as People of Remarkable Talents (PORT), in 2013. The agency was created to help bring special talents to Perak, to help them develop their skills and turn that into economical value. ‌

“We have also joined hands with art and culture enthusiasts, like Kakiseni, with whom we did a major programme called the Other Festival (Otherfest) last year. It got local and international artists to come to Ipoh and worked on creating performances with a local flavour but still appeal to international audiences.”

Tin dredge Ipoh

The Otherfest, which showcases the rich tapestry of Ipoh Old Town’s history, food and arts, saw the participation of renowned Ipoh natives who told their stories through a lively mix of performances, guided tours, movie screenings, food trails, creative forums, exhibitions, bazaars, music and various art forms.

Apart from that, the state is an ecotourism attraction. It is home to the protected Belum rainforest, pristine PangkorLenggong Valley — a cave settlement dating back to the Palaeolithic age — and extraordinary limestone caves.

“Ipoh has a lot of value in terms of culture and heritage and this is very well reflected in the pre-World War II shophouses in Old Town, coupled with the enticing history of tin mining,” says Nolee Ashilin.

But to catch up with the other cities in the peninsula, a lot more has to be done. She hopes that having a number of reputable educational institutions and federal government-driven project 1Malaysia Youth Cities (1MYC) will attract talent to the state to assist in its progress.

“We are getting there, but we are still far behind because we have been quite slow on the uptake after the tin mining activities crashed and we didn’t transition. But on the plus side, our growth rate now is above average compared with the other states,” says Nolee Ashilin.

Having to cope with an influx of interest, Ipoh City Hall (MBI) and other state instruments need to work hard to revitalise the public transport system and enhance safety of the city, she says.

“As Perak moves progressively, we need to make the city and towns safer, especially Ipoh. MBI needs to tackle issues like waste management, which has always been a priority, but we are having problems with the disposal and management of waste ... rubbish is being dumped illegally in Papan, not far from Ipoh.”

Victor ChewIpoh City Watch (IWC) is filling in the void by keeping the city authorities on their toes. The non-governmental organisation’s secretary, Victor Chew (pictured, right), says now is the time for stakeholders to work towards making Ipoh the most liveable city in Malaysia. IWC even launched a cooperative to recycle waste and get the community involved in social entrepreneurship while reducing the number of illegal dumpsites.

Already known as a perfect place to retire, Chew says, Ipoh will be an ideal city if the government aims higher in improving public facilities, particularly bus and taxi services. “Taxis do not run on meters. There is no fixed rate from one place to another. Everyone drives, although the population is quite small — about 700,000 — and we don’t have to go far for work. It usually takes 15 to 20 minutes to get to your destination. But during peak hours, the traffic is horrendous,” he adds.

“The buses have improved, but the central interstate bus depot is in Jelapang and people have to rely on taxis to get to their destinations ... but the fares are ridiculous. That’s why we are pressing for the LRT type public transport for people to commute in and out of the city and to the suburban areas. People tell us that it is a far-fetched idea and Ipoh doesn’t need it. But if you look at the geographical setting of the Kinta Valley, it goes up to Chemor and as far south as Gopeng and Kampar.”

Chew says if the state’s progress goes on without proper planning or a vision, it may find itself trapped in the doldrums like when the tin mining industry collapsed.

But even before the state capitalised on Ipoh’s heritage, private stakeholders such as Dexter Song, co-owner of Burps and Giggles and Buku Tiga Lima, and landscape architect Ng Sek San, who built boutique homestay Sekeping Kong Heng, saw immense potential in the laidback city. These entrepreneurs chose the locations as their establishments are close to the famous Kong Heng coffee shop and Thean Chun coffee shop (also known as the Hall of Mirrors) — famous for their popiah, kai si hor fun and pork satay — which are swamped with out-of-state visitors on weekends and long holidays.

Following these developments, Ipoh is today home to seven street murals by Zacharevic and has close to 50 cafés scattered around Old Town, mostly operated by young local entrepreneurs.

Also deserving mention are the people behind the Perak Heritage Society (PHS) — vocal critics of the state government — who have fought to keep all of Ipoh’s historical landmarks out of harm’s way. PHS founding member and former president Law Siak Hong organises regular heritage walks around Old Ipoh as well as other parts of Perak to highlight forgotten relics such as the home of pre-Independence war hero Sybil Kathigasu.

Bigger names like Kinta Properties have also dabbled in preservation efforts. Executive chairman Datuk Lim Si Boon, whose father Datuk K K Lim was an ardent proponent of heritage, is working closely with retired British naval commander Ian Anderson and his team from IpohWorld.


One of their projects was the revival of the Hakka Miners’ clubhouse, better known as Han Chin Pet Soo, a two-storey shophouse turned villa built by Hakka Miners Clubhouse founder Leong Fee, a tin miner, in 1893. The clubhouse, which is now run as a private museum, bears an art deco façade and tells the tale of tin mining, including the power plays and evils during the epoch.

Anderson says Ipoh is not doing well in preserving its heritage. “A lot people say Ipoh Old Town is undergoing a renaissance. What has happened is that a lot of people have come in and done quick renovations, not a proper restoration. Much of the ‘renaissance’ is people visiting trendy cafés, small hotels and, in some cases, pseudo museums.”

He says more government support is needed to have buildings recognised for their heritage value and for proper restoration to be done. “You can use the new town for the fancy restaurants, hotels and business district, but the Old Town should be preserved. I am not saying all the buildings should be turned into museums, but converted into boutiques, bistros and hotels like what is being done in Penang.

“It is almost too late now. Many of the buildings have been demolished with the state’s approval.”

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This article first appeared in the Special Report Rejuvenating Cities Together, of The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 28, 2016. Subscribe here for your personal copy.

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