Past Events

[Book Launch] The Great Hill: A Short History of Penang Hill

About the Book

A once famed destination for colonists travelling between Europe and the Far East, Penang Hill today has become a household name for everyone residing in Penang. That said, how many of us actually understand its historical significance? Published as part of the centenary celebrations of the Penang Hill railway, The Great Hill captures many tales of its transformation and deep legacy from various aspects in the form of a short, informative and easily readable history. This volume is jointly published by the Penang Hill Corporation and Penang Institute as an effort to preserve the history and heritage of the hill, and is authored by Enzo Sim.

Launch by YAB Chow Kon Yeow, Chief Minister of Penang
Purchase the book here: here.


1. Enzo Sim, Author
2. Dato’ Cheok Lay Leng, General Manager, Penang Hill Corporation
3. Allen Tan, Managing Director, The Habitat Penang Hill
4. Ahmad Chik, Retired Engineer and Long-time Resident of Penang Hill

Moderator: Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng, Executive Director, Penang Institute

About the Panelists:

Enzo Sim

Enzo Sim is a history and international politics researcher who has a lifelong profound interest in the field of Southeast Asian history. As the former Staff Writer at the Penang Institute, he was known for his various articles in Penang Monthly that published his findings on key historical events that occurred in Penang and Malaya as well as the historical background of forgotten historical sites in Malaysia. Due to his passion in documenting the history of Penang Hill, he had also singlehandedly drafted the historical contents of the funicular railway gallery at the Penang Hill Gallery following his appointment by the Penang Hill Corporation as a member of the Penang Hill Gallery consultative panel. After concluding his stint at Penang Institute, he went on to join Joe Sidek Productions where he curated and drafted the contents of the KL Story permanent historical gallery in Central Market KL and BUKU2BOOKS digitised historical archive exhibition in collaboration with the US Library of Congress and the British Library during the KLWKND Festival 2021, as well as being in charge of planning the Jawi Peranakan exhibition during the Peranakan Festival 2021.

Dato’ Cheok Lay Leng

Dato’ Cheok Lay Leng, the current General Manager of Penang Hill Corporation, has over 24 years of R&D, business and senior management experience in semiconductor and embedded business. He has held executive positions at several start-ups and business ventures. He was General Manager of Asia Operations, Communications Infrastructure Group at Intel. LL graduated in Computer Technology from University of Science Malaysia, where he also did post-graduate research in device physics, and an MBA from Nottingham Trent University, UK. He also guest lectures for the technopreneurship workshop for developing countries organised by The International Science, Technology and Innovation Centre for South-South Cooperation (ISTIC), under the auspices of UNESCO since 2010. LL is also an enthusiast about Mother Nature and spends his holidays trekking mountains and trails all across the globe.

Allen Tan

Allen is a lawyer by training and an environmentalist by accident. Allen is proud to be working through The Habitat to prove that business can be a force for good. He is also tremendously proud to have played a part in the successful nomination and subsequent designation of the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme and looks forward to continuing to work to help Penang achieve its ambition of being a centre of excellence for environmental conservation and biodiversity science and studies related to climate change and climate adaptation.

Ahmad Chik

After his secondary education at the Federation (now Royal) Military College, Ahmad worked as the seamanship instructor at the Outward Bound School in Lumut for a year, after which he went to Britain to read engineering at Nottingham University. After graduating he worked for Shell Oil in P Bukum, Singapore and various places in West and East Malaysia before leaving to start his own engineering consultancy firm specialising in the processing of tropical agricultural products. In this capacity he did several World Bank and ADB funded projects in Malaysia, Indonesia and Samoa. Latterly he broadened into construction before selling all his interests and moving to Penang in the early 1990s to volunteer his time with NGOs active in the conservation of the natural and built environment issues.

Key takeaways from the event:

Enzo Sim

  • My interest in Penang’s history began with Captain Francis Light who established the first British settlement in 1786 in Tanjung Penaga, presently called George Town.
  • The lack of documentation made it difficult to piece together the history of the Great Hill.
  • The majority of the sources came from the National Library Board of Singapore.
  • The research began at the National Library of Singapore and continued as far as the National Archive in the UK.
  • A lot of information was found in bits and pieces and putting them together in a puzzle was a real challenge.
  • The evolution of the hill is very important for understanding the formation of Penang’s history and social fabric.
  • The first British military detachment was sent to the Government Hill, presently Bel Retiro’s compound, as early as 1790 to set up a lookout point to oversee the security of Penang, formerly known as the Prince of Wales Island, as it was then facing a real threat from the French naval forces.
  • In the late 18 and 19 centuries, the hill served as a retreat for people to recover from tropical diseases such as malaria, recuperate and convalesce.
  • The hill became a refuge during the Japanese occupation (World War 2).

Dato’ Cheok Lay Leng

  • The idea behind this book was to create a single and good source of information about Penang Hill since there were many requests from students and institutions asking for data and historical facts on Penang Hill.
  • The other objective was to find a local writer to write this book in order to nurture and cultivate more local writers. A local writer would also be able to connect more easily with locals. By being able to speak Hokkien, it is also easier to converse with some locals and even get more stories about certain communities, farmers, the kind of life they had on the hills, etc. There is a lot of oral history, which if not recorded and preserved, may be lost.
  • As part of the conservation effort, we should have more local writers write not just books but folk tales, ghost stories, poems, and songs about Penang Hill.
  • The 100th anniversary of the Penang Hill Funicular Railway is happening this year, on 21 October 2023. To date, the railway, an engineering marvel and the first of its kind in Southeast Asia, has carried over 47 million passengers.
  • The railway has played an important role in tourism and has impacted the socio-economic development of Penang island, more specifically the Air Hitam area. This is why it is being referred to as the ‘100 year of transformation’ as it has transformed the area around the hill, people’s lives and livelihood.

Allen Tan

  • The Habitat Penang Hill’s focus is on biodiversity conservation and promoting nature.
  • You can benefit from nature without overexploiting it and destroying it.
  • One of the Habitat Penang Hill’s missions is to show and prove that you can live in harmony with nature and derive benefits from it in a sustainable way.
  • The Man and Biosphere Programme is about the biosphere reserve and model sites for sustainable development, to re-address our relationship with nature and push our boundaries on sustainability and sustainable development.

Ahmad Chik

  • Penang Hill is very close to our hearts as we all have many fond memories of Penang Hill.

Key question/remark and answers during the Q&A session

Remark from Dato’ Seri Dr. Anwar Fazal – The most prominent thing about Penang Hill was the flag/flagstaff. It identified the place and showed the supremacy of the British. Penang Hill is also known as Bukit Bendera in Malay, which refers to Flagstaff Hill.
Response from Enzo Sim – The flagstaff was originally placed on the peak of Mount Erskine. It was later moved to Bukit Bendera as the panorama on top of the former was limited. It was set up as a lookout point for incoming ships/enemy ships and this sets it apart from other hills such Cameron Highlands and Fraser Hill, which were only used for convalescence and leisure tourism purposes.

Question from Ahmad Chik – What is the story behind the canon near the temple?
Response from Enzo Sim – The canon was used as a signal gun to accompany the hoisting of the flag back then, as this was the only way for the sentinel on the hill to communicate with the authorities down below in George Town. A number of different signal flags were used for different reasons. Marcus Langdon’s book entitled ‘The Fourth Presidency of India’ contains the complete detailed list of signal flags and what they represent.