Development for whom?

Wearing a white skull cap and beige baju Melayu, he showed me a six-point memo that the fishermen had couriered to the Department of the Environment in early June.

Jul 12, 2019

By Anil Netto
When I met him last month, Zakaria Ismail looked a worried man.

Wearing a white skull cap and beige baju Melayu, he showed me a six-point memo that the fishermen had couriered to the Department of the Environment in early June. Their memo outlined their grave objections to a plan to reclaim a whopping 4,500 acres of the sea to create three artificial islands, two of which are mainly for the wealthy.

His thick eyebrows, moustache and short beard now greying, Zakaria, 62 is a director of the southern division of the Penang Fishermen's Association (PNPP) and deputy head of the Sungai Batu Fishermen’s Unit in the southern coastline of Penang Island.

The fishermen had succeeded last year in getting the environmental impact assessment report rejected after voicing their objections. But it was just a temporary reprieve.

On July 4, their worst fears were realised: the Department of Environment faxed a letter to the Penang state government giving its green light for a massive land reclamation project to create three artificial islands off the southern coast of Penang Island.

The approval comes with 72 conditions – but few expect those conditions to pose a serious stumbling block to the grand plans.

The news has alarmed environmentalists, NGOs and fishermen in the affected area. Still, there is a glimmer of hope. On July 7, the agriculture minister said the federal government had not yet made any decision on the 4,5000 acre three-island reclamation proposal.

The coastal waters in the south, not far from the Penang airport, are an important source of fisheries. A few thousand fishermen in Penang rely on these waters to earn their livelihood.

However, the effects of any reclamation will be felt further away. For reclamation fill material, some 189 million cubic metres or sand and rocks will be mined in the coastal waters off Perak. This could affect another 6,000 fishermen in Perak.

So the reclamation comes at a great cost to the fisheries sector and could threaten food security in the northern region.

The project site for the reclamation in the south of Penang Island lies smack in what the fishermen refer to as a golden area (“kawasan emas”).

“This area is teeming with marine life – and evidence of this can be seen in the intrusions of trawler boats reported in the local media,” said the Sungai Batu fishermen in their memo.

It is a place rich in its biodiversity where the coastal fishermen can fish sustainably. “A single rock on land is unable to yield any revenue, but a rock in the deep yields a good income – because it is surrounded by diverse marine life such as cockles, prawns, crabs and fish.”

Is being critical of this project considered “anti-development”? How concerned are we about protecting our this rich coastline that is open to the public for their livelihoods and their recreation – a coastline that is a gift from God.

This mega project should really make us reflect on the nature of development.

There is such a thing as good development and bad development. We have been so conditioned to thinking that development means the building of more of a certain kind of infrastructure: mega highways, gleaming condominiums and skyscrapers and malls — and now artificial islands.

Because we are so focused on this type of physical ‘development’, Malaysia now has has an enormous glut of some

50,000 completed but unsold properties worth MR36bn. That includes 45,000 unsold homes worth RM30bn, mostly priced beyond the reach of many Malaysians. No wonder, the value of these unsold homes has jumped by 635 per cent over the last five years.

Worse could come, a further 123,000 properties are under construction but still unsold.

In the case of the three-island project in Penang, the plan is to build homes for over 400,000 people – but only 20 per cent of these homes will be “affordable” (to whom?).

In any case, no one knows where these 400,000-plus people are coming from, given the declining total fertility rate in the country. In Penang, the rate has fallen to just 1.5 children per woman (well below the population replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman).

There are other forms of development which we have neglected, which would cost far less and prove less environmentally damaging.

For instance, we need to increase the number of buses (and ferries in the case of Penang) – not catering to more private vehicles by building expensive mega highways on ecologically sensitive terrain.

Our overcrowded, understaffed – and in some places under-equipped — general hospitals need more funding. We need to protect our coastal fisheries — not push the fishermen further out into deep unfamiliar waters in the deep sea – and enhance our food security.

We need to build more homes that are priced within the reach of ordinary people – not expensive homes that will add to the glut.

It all boils down to the question of the nature of our development - development for whom? Projects that really benefit the ordinary people — better public healthcare, public transport and improved public schools — or infrastructure projects that will mainly fatten the profits of developers and construction companies?

This is something we must reflect on if we want to live in harmony with Nature and serve the Common good.

Meanwhile, the fishermen are heading to Parliament on July 11 in a last-ditch attempt to highlight their plight.

Total Comments:1

Dorothy Goh Suan
I agree with the writer and I think the Penang government has got their priorities wrong. The time and money spent on these projects should be used to solve the woes and problems faced by the people of Penang everyday such as traffic jam caused by criss crossing of cars,parking problems and motorcyclists riding recklessly on the roads. For example, the Penang government should be planning to build motorcycle lanes to make it safer for every car driver as well as motorcyclists. The immediate problems and long outstanding problems of the people of Penang should be addressed first