Is Penang’s Iconic Ferry Service Heading for a Watery Grave?

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For over 126 years, ferries have been connecting the Pearl of the Orient to the mainland. But might this historical service be soon headed for decommissioning?

In 1894, a band of brothers lead by local entrepreneur Quah Beng Kee started a ferry service under the Beng Brothers company. Connecting Penang’s Kedah Pier to the mainland’s Bagan Tuan Kecil Pier in Butterworth, the family soon expanded business to other nearby harbours and piers. Operating with three large steamers and seven smaller steam launches, they enjoyed plenty of demand in a time where motorised vehicles had yet to be commercialised.

Like many Straits-born Chinese businessmen, Quah Beng Kee moved to expand his business. Breaking away from his brothers, the little ferry service evolved into the Eastern Shipping Company Ltd, stretching his range to other parts of Malaya, Sumatra, Siam, and Burma.

The ferry’s history was cemented however in 1924, when the Penang Harbour Board took over the Kedah Pier-Bagan Tuan Kecil Pier connection. Numerous trials and demands over two decades saw the development of barges capable of transporting both motor cars, now publicly available and owned, as well as passengers. But when the war arrived on Malayan soil in 1941, the ferries were either destroyed or commandeered by the Japanese.

penang ferries
Pre-war Penang Ferries | Image Credit: Khoo Salma (Penang Heritage Trust)

What We Know It As Today

The victorious British colonists that remained in Malaya to oversee development reinstated the ferry service, bringing in Western technology, expertise, and operation. By 1957, the new double-ended ferries designed to maximise loading and unloading capabilities was operational.

Unfortunately, its high demand became too much for the ferry service to bear, and its crushing popularity prompted second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak to commission the building of an island-linking bridge in the 1970s. The ferry service was relegated to a novelty alternative route upon the bridge’s official opening in 1985 by fourth Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Pulau Kapas-route ferry | Image Credit:

The Uproar

Earlier this month, Penangites and Penang-born across Malaysia collectively voiced dismay upon learning that the iconic ferry service was to be phased out, replaced with modern catamarans.

No cars and motorbikes are to be a part of this new transport, focusing the dwindling service on pedestrian-only services, set to be in full swing by 2022.

But the melancholy nostalgia isn’t the highlight of this scandal. Rather, the confusing messages sent by both state, federal constitution, and the ferry operators themselves have sent questions spiraling through the roof.

While noting the disastrous event of both only-operational ferries breaking down simultaneously, causing a traffic backlog on August 24th of this year, discussions to retire the 47-year-old ferries were sparked.

Official statements by port regulator PPSB and Penang Port Commission (PPC) announced the phasing, declaring that more modern ‘water buses’ had already been commissioned to replace the old, irreparable ferries after a century of their service. A complete halt of their operations is scheduled to take place on the 31st of December 2020.


Former Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng demanded to know the reasoning behind the lack of attention of current Transport Minister Datuk Seri Wee Kia Siong, as well as allegations that Lim himself supported the controversial decision.

But current Finance Minister, Tengku Zafrul Aziz, sparked even more confusion with his comments that the “iconic ferry services” would continue as usual in a hearing at Dewan Rakyat.

A man ponders inside a ferry | Image credit: MalayMail

What’s the Takeaway?

Proper statements on the future of the old ferries and the launching of the new catamarans have, perhaps unsurprisingly, still yet to be clarified.

Motorists and drivers are going to bear the brunt of these miscommunications, as they, the users of the service, will be relegated to join the overcrowding on the bridge. The vehicular service provided by the ferries have been a small comfort, despite the lengthy timing needed to plan disembarking and slow travel over the waters.

Some commentary has indicated that the old ferries still have a use, to be preserved as historical tourist features and provide a round-the-island cruise.

But with money scarce and nostalgia useless to the pursuit of capitalism, these ferries are all but certain to have a future as nothing more than scrap metal.

Updated: It’s official now: The ferries will soon be history.

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