Penang reclamation stirs up controversy

Aerial view of Georgetown from the Top Komtar in Penang, Malaysia. Credit: Getty Images

Fishermen and environmentalists are up in arms over Penang’s plans to expand its land area through a massive reclamation project. The Penang South Reclamation (PSR) development had been in the works since 2015, but approval was delayed by concerns over the environmental impact.

On 5 July 2019, Chow Kon Yeow, Penang’s chief minister, said that the federal government gave the green light to the PSR project, which will involve the building of three artificial islands off the main island’s southern coast, adding 4,500 ha to the Malaysian island. An environmental impact assessment (EIA) was first carried out in 2017 and this was rejected by the Department of Environment (DOE) in 2018, resulting in a revision that was displayed between April and May 2019. The second version, said Chow, was approved by the DOE, with a list of 72 conditions, which he did not disclose.

Chow said, “We will wait for the official copy of the approval letter to be sent to us. We are still studying the content. We will see each other again to talk further about the project.” Last year, the environmental impact assessment report of the reclamation project was initially rejected by the DOE. The state government then revised the report and again put it on public display in April.

Announcements that the Penang reclamation had been approved prompted hundreds of fishermen and environmentalists to protest near the Parliament building in Kuala Lumpur on 11 July 2019. “Our catch will be reduced because the reclamation will ruin the seabed. Prices of seafood will soar,” Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) president Mohideen Abdul Kader said.

The protesters then marched to Parliament to hand over a memorandum containing their demands. These include withdrawing from the reclamation, a review of the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP), and suspending sand mining off Perak’s coast. Penang Fishermen’s Association chairman Nazri Ahmad said, “We are not against PTMP because we know it’s a necessity. We are only protesting the Penang South Reclamation. We really hope the state government can find a better way to fund the project. Penang still has lots of underdeveloped land on the mainland, so why can’t they be developed for funds?”

Despite the DOE’s approval, Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told reporters on 11 July 2019 that the government will look into the fishermen’s complaints and “if it is as they said, we will take immediate action”. However, there is also opposition to the PSR plan from within the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition, with Sim Tze Tzin, agriculture and agro-based industries deputy minister, saying at a press conference on 3 August 2019 that the reclamation would affect fishermen’s livelihoods.

He said, “We feel that reclamation should be the last resort because we know about the serious environmental effects on sea life and the fishing community’s livelihood, to the extent the state would have to import possible lesser quality produce from other countries.

“We also want to clearly state that we are not against the Penang Transport Master Plan but we have our reservations on Penang South Reclamation.” Environmentalists assert that the reclamation will damage the marine ecology in the surrounding waters of the Malacca Strait, while the Penang Transport Master Plan will do the same to the island state’s environment without adequately solving its traffic woes.

CAP and Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) have urged the DOE to reveal the 72 conditions for the implementation of the PSR project. In a joint statement released 5 July 2019, both non-governmental organisations said they were alarmed by the DOE’s approval amid objections raised by numerous parties. The NGOs said, “We are most dismayed to learn that the EIA for the Penang South Reclamation project has been approved by the Department of Environment.

“Our comments and that of other civil society groups including members of the public have been pushed aside by the department.” The Penang government is offering assistance to local fishermen affected by three man-made islands plan.
Afif Bahardin, in charge of agriculture and agro-based industries, said that a state task force will meet the Penang Fishermen’s Association chairman Nazri to discuss their concerns and possible compensation.

“This task force will discuss the model of ex-gratia we can consider for the affected fishermen,” he said in a joint press conference with Chow. Afif said the task force was formed several years ago and has been discussing the compensation packages for affected fishermen.

In a press conference, Chow assured that the PSR will not affect any existing residential areas or fishing villages. The minister said, “All reclamation works will be conducted in the sea so fishing villages will not be torn down or evicted, they can remain there.” He said that some fishermen seized the chance to ask for low-cost housing or rent-to-own units due to the reclamation works and had included this in their memorandum seeking compensation from the state over the project.

However, Chow said that the task force will look at all requests and demands submitted by the fishermen and consider the options. “We will continue to discuss and negotiate with the fishermen on their demands,” said the minister.
Chow said that the Penang Fishermen’s Association had a closed-door meeting with him and Afif on 31 May, during which the association presented a proposal for their compensation, including ex-gratia payments to affected fishermen.

He said that a summary of the proposed ex-gratia payment was that each boat owner would be given a fisherman transformation boat funded by the state and that each be given options to buy low-cost housing units or rent-to-own units. “They also ask that crew members be given an option to buy low-cost housing units or rent-to-own units,” he said.

Chow added that the fishermen had requested that a temporary jetty be built for fishermen during the construction period of the PSR. He said that the jetty will be designed based on feedback from fishermen and through consultation with the Fisheries Development Authority.

SRS Consortium, a local consortium between engineering and construction company Gamuda and real-estate developers Loh Phoy Yen Holdings and Ideal Property Development, has been appointed as the main contractor for the PSR project. The MYR11 billion (USD2.67 billion) reclamation project is intended to fund the MYR46 billion (USD11.18 billion) TMP.

Land on the reclaimed islands will be sold to raise funds for the master plan, which includes the construction of a light rail transit network and a highway, to be named Pan Island Link 1 (PIL 1). The reclamation is expected to take about 15 years to complete. The PTMP is Malaysia’s most expensive infrastructure plan to date; the Penang government said that the construction of highways, an undersea tunnel, and rail links is necessary to prepare for future development and a growing population.

Developers have touted the project as one that could put Penang on the world map and rival other cities such as Dubai and Singapore.