ARI Working Paper Series
WPS 262 Developing Healthy Towns in the Tropics: Urban Governance and the Weather in Colonial George Town, Penang
Publisher : Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
Publication Date : Aug / 2017
Author/Speaker: Fiona WILLIAMSON
Keywords : Colonial, urban, health, weather, governance, Penang

This article explores the development of public health in George Town, Penang. It argues that the extreme weather of the tropical climate led to a unique set of challenges for George Town’s urban governors, as the town grew from a small British base, to a multi-cultural and thriving port. Penang was the earliest British colony in Malaysia but this aspect of its history has been little explored. Weather and public health were (and still are) integrally connected although the framing of this relationship has undergone significant shifts in thinking and appearance over time. One lens into this association is the situation and expression of health and climatic concerns within municipal structures. During the nineteenth century, government departments were fewer and shared roles and responsibilities. A transition toward more dedicated departments with separate functions occurred after the 1880s and gained momentum in the early twentieth century, just as ideas about climate and health also developed. This should not be considered a linear, beneficial or effective process however. Top-down responses to specific issues i.e. floods or epidemics could be ad hoc and could owe more to pressure from below than coordinated governmental policy or action. This article thus considers the different ways in which weather, public health, and urban planning were understood, managed and enacted by the Straits Settlements’ administration over a period of just under one hundred years from the 1840s to the 1930s. It will start by exploring the situation facing the settlement’s inhabitants, in terms of specific climate and health challenges. It will then consider how these challenges were addressed, why and by whom, and how these elements were repositioned over the period in question.