Adelaide City Council this month celebrates the 40th anniversary of what, with hindsight, seemed a logical extension into Asia.

In 1973, then-premier Don Dunstan suggested the council consider forming a sister-city relationship with George Town, the capital city of Penang in Malaysia.

It was easy to develop a relationship because it already existed.

Captain Francis Light planted the Union flag into the soft sand of what he called Prince of Wales Island in 1786. He established a trading port for the British East India Company in exchange for military protection for the local Sultan of Kedah.

The trading post grew quickly and soon the island was flush with Chinese, Malay, Indian and European settlers who brought with them their culture, architecture, religion and food.

Francis Light planned a city called George Town, named after the King and laid it out in a grid pattern near the port.

He was remembered for showing his commitment to the area by learning local languages, customs and etiquette.

In keeping with the social and professional mores of the day, Light never married his lifelong partner Martina Rozells, who was likely of Thai-Portuguese background and a Catholic. The couple had five children and their first son, William, grew up in George Town before being sent to school in England when he turned eight.

After a career in the navy and as an artist, he arrived in the new British colony of South Australia in 1836 and surveyed the city of Adelaide around a grid-like structure.

According to historian Marcus Langdon, there is no evidence to suggest William followed his father's design plans for the city but the symmetry of the Lights' vision of both places has created a familiar narrative.

Four decades on, what has the sister-city relationship achieved and is it still relevant?

There are hundreds of Australian cities, councils and shires with international sister-city relationships. There are more than 100 alone with Japanese connections.

The Japan-Australia sister cities recently held a forum to celebrate a half-century since Lismore and Yamato-Takada became the first to form an alliance.

Many people believe the relationships bolster understanding, but putting an economic figure on relationships never seems easy.

Sister Cities New Zealand estimates the cultural, sporting, educational, trade and tourism exchanges are worth in excess of $50 million annually to the country.

Adelaide City Councillor Michael Henningsen says the benefits of the sister-city relationship can be seen in tourism, education and information technology, but thinks Adelaide also can learn something from George Town about heritage conservation.

In 2008, George Town was awarded a UNESCO world heritage listing.

A long campaign spearheaded by historian and publisher Khoo Salma ensured the old city's mix of architecture and cultures were preserved.

"Many cities have changed for the worse," she explained.

"Heritage is something that promotes your cultural identity to say we deserve better to keep our identity and not to be swept away by the forces of globalisation."

When she began the campaign, Khoo Salma had help from the National Trust and a group of architects and students from South Australia.

Meetings were held in Adelaide to kick-start the work.

The connection continues, with several Adelaide residents now members of the Penang Heritage Trust.

They contribute their skills in conservation and preservation.

Among them is Deb Lavis, who runs a heritage tiles business in Adelaide.

She was intrigued by the use of tiles in the tropical Malaysian city.

"The first thing that strikes you right in the centre of George Town is all the original architecture with beautiful little shop houses," she said.

Ms Lavis has helped repair and recreate tiles for many shop fronts.

The preservation of old George Town has been a tourism bonanza for Malaysia, as visitors seek an authentic and original destination.

Michael Henningsen believes there is a lesson for South Australia.

"George Town teaches us that development is good and growth is good, but it also teaches us to preserve our historic past," he said.

"That is a point of difference, particularly in Australia where you look at other capital cities, many lose their heritage.

"Adelaide has been prudent in trying to mix and match heritage and combine that with high-quality development and I think that's a lesson paying dividends for George Town and for us in the future."

Adelaide has contributed in another way to Penang's history.

Francis Light died, aged 54, having never had his portrait painted.

When a statue was to be erected in the city he founded, the sculptors used portraits of his son William, supplied by South Australia, to model the facial features.

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