“I AM NOT CRAZY. It is just that I love my childhood”, Sim Choo Kheng highlighted in 2009 when his company Sim Leisure won a development tender to build ESCAPE Penang. The land, however, was a leftover brownfield of abandoned office buildings, workers’ quarters, and warehouses from the Teluk Bahang Dam construction back in 1998. But that did not hinder Sim’s determination or passion to rejuvenate the land.


No engineers, architects, and contractors had the expertise or skills to revitalise this neglected brownfield. Most entrepreneurs would not know what to do with such a wasteland. Sim had hoped the current laws, local regulations, scientists, and engineers could address the social and environmental problems of traditional wisdom, excessive reliance on energy and technology. “Well, I was dead wrong,” Sim lamented.


Theme park developers would not know how to create a community and environment-friendly theme park out of such a using their current siloed technical methodology and “go by the book” thinking. Sim believes this mindset problem comes from selfishness, greed, and apathy towards communal and environmental responsibility. Prompted by such a predicament and lack of expertise, Sim began his journey to transform the brownfield into the greenfield ESCAPE Penang is today.


Sim recalls his “lightbulb moment” during his tenure in Vietnam, where he lived in an old cashew plantation in the rural outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. There, he saw the everyday scenes of people and families living the simple life to the fullest. The children had fun from playing in the natural environment, reminding Sim of his younger days of playing in the villages. Witnessing those children triggered a strong desire to recreate the playground he once enjoyed.


Sim observed that human behaviour and value systems have shifted over the last few decades, to the extent where people do not realise their actions are degrading the environment and culture. “I see more and more sensible and traditional messages being overwhelmed by superficial pressures,” Sim remarked. Sim believes that his brainchild ESCAPE has to go green and low impact because it is the most natural approach – regardless of the prom and pageantry of green certification.


Many argue that green certification programmes raise awareness of environmentally sustainable development to industries and the public. Sim, however, believes that “being kind to nature is what we should do naturally. We should not be doing it for certification sake”. After all, no one should request a certificate from the police department for being law-abiding. “Sustainability” in green certifications really just mean completing checklists confined to water, energy, and material consumption, marginalising the real problems affecting people, plants, and wildlife such as human health concerns and biodiversity loss. Moreover, those who pay attention to our towns and cities can’t help but be struck by manifestations of growing economic inequality and loss of employment. Expensive technologies are shipped in from faraway countries to replace human labour thus more and more communities are being marginalized by each completed project.


The core issues are happening at ground zero where developments are built top down by decision-makers who has no understanding of the true meaning of “sustainability” thus do not respond to the local realities. The elites, lacking a vision beyond satiating their own greed, take pleasure in the intoxicating power to destroy. They confuse destruction with creation. They know nothing of the past. They do not think about the future. There is no human dimension in their projects and this emotional numbness is the core of many land development projects nowadays.


So how do we reverse the environmental damages we started? ESCAPE Penang’s design and execution encompass the following aspects, namely:


  1. Low-impact development

  2. Energy saving

  3. Water sensitivity

  4. Biomimicry landscaping

  5. Education through play

  6. Communal responsibility


1. Low Impact Development


Upon entering the park, visitors will notice the minimalist low-impact play structures. What used to be workshops, pump houses, worker quarters, and storage warehouses during the Teluk Bahang Dam construction period are not restored and re-purposed into staff offices, function halls, bathrooms, cafeterias, and other facilities.


“We are able to do this because we looked at the old buildings as potentials, not problems, in our quest for low-impact development”, Sim recalls. ESCAPE Penang gave the old buildings a new lease on life, reducing waste and energy consumption. The buildings are further cooled with lush vegetated roofing and enhanced with window openings that allow daylight to provide cool illumination.


ESCAPE Penang also substitutes building structures with shipping containers which assemble quicker and easier while polluting a construction site less. Their standardised sizes provide endless possibilities of configurations and interventions to suit different uses. Moreover, containers can relocate easily with minimal labour and energy, playing into ESCAPE’s low-impact development mantra.


2. Energy Saving


A typical wave pool uses a pneumatic system, which requires at least 100kW to generate waves. ESCAPE Penang uses a “wave ball” which only requires 4kW to generate waves. The wave ball has a low voltage electric motor, which drives the ball mass up and down to generate waves in accordance to the resonance principle. On the other hand, our “Kite Flyer” attraction utilizes the weight of a tank steadily filled with water to pull fun-seekers up before releasing them. This method saves ESCAPE Penang the need of a power-hungry mechanical winch.


ESCSAPE runs 13 units of centrifugal pumps, totalling to 143kW capacity, to circulate water. All water parks require a large amount of energy to ensure the entire water volume is circulated, sanitized, and filtered every 2 hours to preserve water hygiene. The series of pumps, however, only operate at around 50% capacity as they are manually monitored and tuned to match the intensity of pool use by visitors.


Conventional motors which drive the pumps are typically “brushless” hence lower air flow and oscillatory instabilities develop when they operate at low speed. This causes overheating and demands more energy to operate the pumps. To overcome this inefficiency, ESCAPE Penang’s filtering and pumping systems are enhanced with artificial intelligence based sensorless Vector Control Drive (VCD) to reduce electromagnetic interference, provide superior regulation at low speed, and better dynamic response.


Natural Solar Energy and Daylighting


ESCAPE Penang plans to invest RM1.2 million on photo-voltaic technology infrastructure. This is to fully operate ESCAPE on solar energy in the daytime. The first phase entails installing a solar-energy farm over a passive space of sewage treatment plant.


ESCAPE Penang, however, has no intention of storing solar energy in batteries for night-time use. The conventional batteries contain hazardous lead and sulfuric acid, and could emit an explosive combination of hydrogen and oxygen gases towards the final stage of charging. On the other hand, the more advanced lithium ion batteries pose a fire hazard as they are more prone to “thermal runaway”, causing rapid vent flame or even explosions. All batteries have limited lifespan and disposing them raises major issues which some environment advocates and companies are unwilling to acknowledge or report. Ultimately, photo-voltaic technology can create other environmental problems if not applied properly. ESCAPE is aware of the shortcomings and bears its responsibility to reduce toxic waste which affects surrounding communities.


3. Water Sensitivity


Conventional stormwater techniques usually convey runoff water to the nearest river, causing flooding in the downriver community areas. ESCAPE Penang’s landscape, however, utilises native grass, vegetation growth, and shrub species which retain and slow down water runoff on roof surfaces, parking lots, and pathways throughout the park. Soil, sand, gravel and plants are further combined in the landscape as biofiltration strips and swales, thus removing water-borne pollutants primarily by filtration through plants, infiltration through the soil, and evapotranspiration.


ESCAPE Penang has a responsibility to maintain sanitation in play pools, as well as ensuring the methods applied are not harmful to the visitors and the environment. Conventional water parks utilise liquid or gaseous chlorine for controlling communicable diseases, which are practical and easier to feed through pumps. However, these forms are unstable in nature, loose strength rapidly in sunlight and has high pH (10-13) thus raising the pH in pool water. The residual and escaped chlorine gas from pool surfaces also irritates the skin, eyes and affect biodiversity and environmental components around the pool. ESCAPE Penang’s pools use tri-chloro-iso-cyanuric acid tablets as disinfectant, algicide and bactericide. Cyanuric acid stabilizes and binds to free chlorine thus the gas is released very slowly and extending the time needed to deplete each dose of sanitizer. With such approach, water pH can be maintained at 6.9 which is friendlier to humans and surrounding biodiversity. Also, free chlorine will be available consistently in the pools where visitors are and not only in the balance tank as the conventional system. 


The pressurized water filtration system uses recycled crushed-glass as media to filter out impurities. Crushed-glass has more angled surface areas, enabling higher efficiency in trapping suspended solids. Moreover the crushed-glass is negatively charged to attract more fine particulates. All these factors make crushed-glass the ideal filtration method, in addition to saving a lot of energy. The backwash processes are run twice weekly and the sludge is processed in the sewage treatment plant. The treated sludge is further broken down and purified by semi-aquatic plants and microbes in a constructed wetland before final discharge to the local drainage.


4. Biomimicry landscaping


ESCAPE envisions its theme parks to host a high-level biodiversity for embodying a healthy local ecology and providing micro-climate cooling. When rainwater held on tree foliage evaporates into the atmosphere, it cools its surroundings. Since 2012, ESCAPE Penang has planted more than 1,500 trees in the park, including 300 coconut trees, Angsana (Pterocarpus indicus), Ketapang (Terminalia catappa), and Acacia. So far, ESCAPE Penang has transplanted 104 trees in the playpark at around RM6800 per tree. These trees, originally from construction sites where they would have been cut down, are in average 50 years old and weigh between 15 and 42 tonnes. Additionally, ESCAPE Penang has a “tree adoption” programme which encourages land owners to contact ESCAPE Penang for transplanting unwanted trees from their lands to sites operated by ESCAPE.


Additionally, ESCAPE Penang vegetates its roofing with native grass and shrub species, serving multiple benefits: its substrate retains rain water, its drained water is cleaner from substrate filtration, cools roofings, its roofing materials have longer lifespans due to insulation against tropical heat and sunlight, sound reduction, and reduced costs to cool down buildings.


Natural Micro-Climate Cooling Landscape


Most land development projects have concrete, asphalt, building roofs, and compacted vegetated sites which increase rainwater runoff and decrease surface water quality and groundwater infiltration. ESCAPE Penang’s biomimicry approach allows rainwater to seep into the ground to support groundwater recharge. ESCAPE Penang does not construct its pathways and bare surfaces with cement or asphalt, using layers of natural sand, pebbles, and small rocks at least 20cm deep instead. This slows rainwater runoff, enables microorganisms in the substrates to digest any water-borne pollutants, purifying the water on its path back into the aquifer. Thanks to the biomimicry interventions, 90% of raw water utilised by ESCAPE Penang’s play pools are harvested on-site.


5. Education through Play


Sim believes visitors can learn a thing or two while playing at ESCAPE with their friends and family. Most attractions at ESCAPE are intentionally designed to be self-directed and self-powered (e.g. Coco Climb, Gecko Tower, Zoom Bug) to stimulate creativity, problem solving skills, communication skills, perseverance and courage.


ESCAPE also offers activities powered by water kinetics, gravity and elastic potential energy that jolts visitors with a rare dose of adrenaline rush (e.g. Kite Flyer, Tubby Racer, Slingshot). ESCAPE’s wave pool utilises a “wave ball” that bobs up and down, perpetuating waves throughout the pool. Visitors are exposed to and appreciate the fun derived from applications of physics principles. Moreover, ethnobotanical plants with cultural and culinary values are planted all over the park to rekindle the appreciation for traditional living.


6. Communal Living and Shared Responsibility


In addition to ESCAPE’s educational aspects, ESCAPE Penang strives to address the following – How can we make Teluk Bahang a better place for the local people?


When developing ESCAPE Penang, Sim factored in the consideration of ethics, social responsibility, and reducing dependency on external resources. ESCAPE Penang desires to be transparent and committed to its local community by supporting local businesses and employing local staff. It is a self-sustaining socio-economic hub just as village communities in the past with a strong sense of belonging and shared responsibility. When there was work to be done during the planting or harvesting season, everyone from the village lent a helping hand. When there was more than enough, natural resources like food or medicine was often bartered or given away to neighbours. Sharing resources ensured nothing goes to waste and foster kinships. This was how our forefathers lived within their means without any dependence on external resources.  


“By making commitments to the local community, endowing visitors with a greater understanding and providing fun activities which are educational across time, I hope to spread the message in a scale that I could never reach alone”, Sim proudly says. If replicated globally, he believes the ESCAPE approach can yield a bigger return on creating more socially just, economically equitable and resilient communities.