Taiping academic hub will create greater demand, opportunities, and act as economic catalyst

The government has been urged to set up an academic hub or a full-fledged university in Taiping to help spur the local economy that has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Taiping Heritage Society president Yeap Thean Eng said the development of the historical Perak town had stagnated for the past decade. Yeap warned that Taiping – a town of many “firsts” –could soon be “forgotten”.

“Visitors flock to Taiping, typically during long breaks. But on any given day, hawkers, traders, and other businesses struggle,” said Yeap.

Taiping has chalked up a number of significant “firsts” in the country, dating as far back as 1844. They include the first hill resort on Maxwell Hill (1844), first magistrate’s court (1874), the first lake gardens (1880), first museum (1883) and the first railway line between Taiping and Port Weld, now known as Kuala Sepetang, which was opened on June 1, 1885.

The town’s primary economic driver is heritage tourism and it has plenty to offer. However, the lack of funding and political will to restore the many historical sites in town are evident.

Rows of old shophouses and colonial buildings have been left abandoned for decades, slowly being overrun by trees, plants, vegetation, and foliage. Even structures that belong to the Prisons Department, including the old Club House, located opposite the Taiping Prison, are in a sorry state.

Rubbish is also a huge problem in several spots in Taiping, namely in Aulong and in Taman Mas, off Jalan Air Kuning, located ironically, near an eco-park.

“Of course, more can be done to promote heritage tourism. We need to clean things up, restore more buildings. But Taiping needs another industry to keep it going,” said Yeap.

“I’ve stayed here all my life and I’m running my family business, but my four children, aged between 27 and 34, are based elsewhere, as there are hardly any job opportunities here for them. So, once someone leaves secondary school, they quickly leave the town, and perhaps, only return when they retire. We must give people a reason to stay in Taiping,” he added.

Yeap owns Syarikat Bee Poh, a family business established in 1951. The company today specialises in interior decoration.

He said the situation had worsened following the Covid-19 pandemic, as many had lost their jobs.

“What we have seen is a glut of hawker stalls and people selling food. While they were kept busy throughout the recent Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebrations due to the influx of people coming to Taiping, on a normal day, they hardly make sales as the local buying power isn’t big enough,” said Yeap, 61.

There are several colleges and higher learning institutions in Taiping but the student population remains low.

“The best thing to do is to set up a university that can accommodate between 5,000 and 10,000 students.

“These students will create new demand – in terms of housing and accommodation, food and beverage, basic necessities, and ancillary services such as banking, postal services, and so on. It will certainly give the local economy a boost. The hawkers will have a new set of patrons to cater to.”

Yeap pointed out that several big companies had plants based in the industrial area in Kamunting, but they were still insufficient.

“Some plants are fully automated, others rely heavily on foreign labour who tend to save and send money to their families back home. We need industries that will see people spending their money in Taiping.

Yeap highlighted that Kampar is thriving, thanks to the setting up of the Tunku Abdul Rahman College there.

“The same can happen in Taiping, too.”

“More can be done beyond the sphere of heritage tourism. We have plenty of sites in Taiping for a university. Two locations at the top of my mind are the army camps, and the former ISA (Internal Security Act) detention camp in Kamunting.

“In 2018, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had envisioned the establishment of Japanese universities in Malaysia, and there were talks of bringing one of them to Taiping. However, we’ve not heard of anything since.”

He said while waiting for a new industry to inject more opportunities into Taiping, now was the best time to woo foreigners, mainly Singaporeans, to the town by introducing an Ipoh-Taiping-Penang holiday package.

“This is where they get to fly in to Ipoh, enjoy the food and sights there, and spend a day or two in Taiping, before leaving for Penang. If we see visitors continuously coming in, especially over the weekends, perhaps, this would give the locals a reason to stay,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Taiping Heritage Society held its 16th annual general meeting (AGM) and committee elections yesterday. Yeap, who has helmed the society since 2012, remains as president for the 2022-2024 term.

Taiping Heritage Society office bearers (2022-2024): Seated (L-R): Liew Suet Fun, Ong Bok Kin (treasurer), M. Mahendran (secretary), Yeap Thean Eng (president), Abdul Halim Yahaya (vice president), Sharon Ng-Chan (assistant secretary).
Standing (L-R): Azreen Hassan, Anand K. Pillai, Tung Lay Chun, T. Thorairasa, Viji Kishen, Wan Amril Ramirez Wan Mohd Isa.

Visit Twentytwo13‘s Instagram account for more images of the AGM.