Much has been said about the momentum building up for Pakatan Harapan as it aims to dislodge Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional from Putrajaya in the coming general election.
With Dr Mahathir Mohamad spearheading the coalition backed by the likes of Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Kit Siang, it is hard to dismiss the possibility of Pakatan doing the unthinkable – assuming they can get past the various obstacles (gerrymandering, postal votes) and restrictions (images on banners, 10-day notice period for rallies involving outsiders as speakers) placed in their path.
Certainly, you have to admire (whether grudgingly or otherwise) the efforts of the 93-year-old Mahathir in spearheading the gargantuan task of defeating the now-tottering behemoth he led for over two decades. He has come a long way from the time he wrote the Malay Dilemma, as Khoo Boo Teik and Allen Fernandez describe in excellent commentaries published on the Aliran website.
Over in Penang, some of us have a somewhat different dilemma though.
Now, I know that for many people, especially those from outside Penang, the state government appears to have done a fantastic job.
Visitors to Penang can testify that the streets of Penang look much cleaner, and the local councils, both on the island and the mainland, appear a lot more efficient.
The arts have been given new life, and the vibrant cultural diversity showcased in Penang – there seems to be a festival celebrated every other week in town – has become a magnet for visitors.
Schools have been given financial aid and there is now more space for civil society groups to operate. I think most people appreciate all this.
But most visitors to Penang rarely see much beyond Batu Ferringhi and George Town.
It is the big policy decisions that affect the everyday lives of ordinary Penang residents. For many locals, the ‘overdevelopment’ in the state is something they have to deal with on a daily basis. They see the numerous high-density high-rise towers that cast a long shadow on their lives and their homes and the resulting congestion – the result of traffic infrastructure being unable to cope.
They see many vacant condominiums largely beyond the reach of the bottom 40% of the population and even the middle 40% (M40). This is no conjecture: a report in the latest Edge (23-29 April 2018) said Penang had the second highest property overhang (16%) in the country after BN-ruled Johor (18%) of the total overhang of 24,738 homes in the country.
If proof is needed that housing is too expensive in Penang (and BN-governed KL, for that matter), consider that the housing price-to-income ratio for Penang is 6.3 just behind KL’s ratio of 6.9 – more than double the affordability threshold of 3.0. So, contrary to what the state government would have us believe, the much higher densities that have been approved have not made housing a lot more affordable for many.
As for the thousands of ‘affordable’ homes that have been built under the current administration’s watch, the state government has to provide a breakdown by each price strata. Bear in mind that for the M40, affordable homes in Penang would have to be priced at around RM230,000 while for the B40, it would have to be around RM118,000 (The Edge, 23 October 2017). But in a number of projects, available prices for ‘affordable homes’ seem to start at around RM300,000.
So, we are looking at a mismatch between supply and demand. In any case, supplying more housing will not solve the problem of affordability as long as the root causes of the lack of affordability are not tackled.
First, the issue of speculation. As long as housing is treated like a commodity (and thus left to full-blown ‘market’ forces) and not a basic need, it will be vulnerable to speculation. Developers will gravitate towards building high-end housing (for that is where the most profits are) and no amount of construction of affordable housing will be able to control soaring prices. As in the UK, the problem of inflated housing prices lies in speculation.
But neither the BN or PH is fully tackling the root causes of speculation. If developers build more high-end housing to maximise gross development value and hence profits, it drives up the price of land not just around the project site but all over the state. Expensive land prices then affect housing prices of all categories of housing including low-cost housing. Higher land prices, higher property prices and expensive rentals then translate to a higher cost of doing business, which is then passed on to consumers, pushing up the cost of living (apart from the impact of GST).
Treating reclaimed land as freehold instead of leasehold land (for which there is strong argument under the National Land Code) has also driven up the value of land prices and hence property prices.
Higher densities have also aggravated the problem. Since 2008, permissible building densities have soared from 15-30 units per acres in many places to four times (128 units per acre), five times, perhaps even six times that figure (184 units per acre in the case of some ‘affordable housing’, which may still not be affordable to a lot of people).
Such eye-popping densities go well beyond what is allowed under the Penang Structure Plan, the main legally enforceable planning document in the state, according to lawyers. For example, even if Tanjung Bungah is regarded as a primary corridor (and that is a big IF), the maximum density should still not be more than 30 homes per acre under the Structure Plan. But what do we see now?
But even with all these higher densities, housing prices did not fall. Instead they grew beyond the reach of many people.
Higher densities, in the absence of supporting transport infrastructure, have also worsened congestion, casting a long shadow on established neighbourhoods.
The haphazard high-density development, which has led to the sprouting of towers, was made possible because the Penang Island Local Plan, approved by the Pakatan-led MPPP in 2008, was never put up for public display, never gazetted. Not much different from what is happening in the BN-controlled Federal Territory, if you think about it.
Meanwhile, so-called special projects and other new high-rise projects on hill slopes have alarmed residents in pockets all over Penang Island.
In Batu Ferringhi, residents are worried about a hill-slope project near Miami Green.
In neighbouring Tanjung Bungah, the once laid-back residential district has all but turned into a primary corridor of development, with towers mushrooming all over the place. This is also the area of the landslide at Granito, now the subject of a state inquiry.
At Mount Erskine, large chunks of the hills next to Fettes Park have been cut. Tower blocks, bearing pretentious names, have sprouted, alarming longtime nearby residents, some of whom are horrified to find a new sewage plant built within smelling distance of their homes.
Over in Paya Terubong, large swaths of the land have been cleared leaving orange soil exposed, resembling moonscape, which pours out teh tarik-coloured mud when it rains. Another high-rise project on a hill-slope above – so, so close to an established neighbourhood – has left neighbouring residents on tenterhooks.
A somewhat similar problem in Bukit Gambir, where one resident showed me a tower popping up on a hill-slope right next door to her home:
Over in Sungai Ara, anxious residents are awaiting the outcome of a case involving a ‘special project’ which will be heard in the Court of Appeal in the middle of the year. It promises to be a landmark case.
In their alarm, some of the affected residents associations are stirring and beginning to network with one another, and this networking could snowball in the years to come.
In the South East of Penang Island, even the eco paradise of Pulau Jerejak, a heritage site in its own right, won’t be spared with at least half a dozen high-rise condominium blocks and luxury hotels poised to sprout on the island’s limited flat land.
Not everyone is happy with the current trajectory of development in Penang. We have seen the disastrous consequences of hill-slope degradation in the major floods and landslides last September and November – though the state government thinks band-aid solutions (more flood mitigation projects) can stem the tide. There is a sense that a little too much has been conceded to developers.
Political alternatives in Penang?
The dilemma for Penangites is that there is no genuine political alternative at the state level to counter this worrying trend.
The BN? People’s memories are still fresh about how BN neglected Penang for years and failed to put in a sustainable transport system including a rail link to the island. Instead they built infrastructure that catered for more cars – including a second bridge, minus any rail link – while running down the once excellent ferry service.
Meanwhile, Penang turned into something of a backwater in the national scheme of things. Many left the state to work in KL, Singapore and abroad. The lack of federal allocations for Penang, whose people contribute a lot in taxes to national coffers, has dismayed many Penangites.
This unforgivable lack of federal allocations is especially seen in the lack of funding for sustainable mobility and public transport infrastructure in Penang. In many other countries with federal systems, the federal government helps to fund public transport solutions in any particular state or region. But not in Penang, it would seem – other than the federally owned Rapid Penang buses, and that too was only set up when the then BN-led Penang state government was thinking of setting up its own state bus corporation.
And who can forget the last straw: the disastrous Penang Global City Centre project, all 40 towers of which would have engulfed the Penang Turf Club land. This was strongly opposed by Penang civil society groups, now in Penang Forum, and the project was mercifully aborted after the BN lost the 2008 general election in Penang.
Let’s also not forget it was the BN-administration that started the trend of lop-sided swap deals involving land reclamation eg in Jelutong.
So, few take the BN parties seriously, and indeed the widespread perception is that they have little credibility now.
But such swap deals continued under the Pakatan administration. Think of the reclaimed land-for- tunnel-and-highways swap and then the three artificial islands-for-expensive transport infrastructure deal, which is now on the table. The whopping RM46bn in transport infrastructure includes a six-lane north-south highway hugging the hills of Penang island – which along with the tunnel will create induced traffic demand, a recipe for more traffic on the island. The proposed elevated LRT and monorail systems now being proposed were not in the original transport masterplan formulated by the Halcrow consultants, which had proposed much cheaper elevated trams and bus rapid transit.
So to fund this expensive shopping list, we are now staring at a prospect of 4,500 acres of land reclamation in the pipeline (in addition to 760 acres now being reclaimed off Tanjong Tokong) – which would dwarf the Forest City land reclamation in Johor. Only 20% of the homes on the three artificial islands would be ‘affordable’ (affordable to whom?) Meanwhile, what will happen to the livelihoods of fisher folk in Penang and what of the implications for our food security? Already the price of fish has soared – and that’s not because of the GST.
Indeed, worrying swap deals have been taken to a new level, prompting Penang Forum to call for a stop to such deals and a stop to more artificial islands (which help to maximise high-end ‘sea-view’ properties but also could lead to easier sedimentation in surrounding waters). After all, who will bear the cost of any dredging (to clear the sedimentation and siltation) in the long-run? The public.
The danger is that, if Pakatan captures Putrajaya and retains Penang, the state government would regard it as a ringing endorsement of its unsustainable development policies; of its tunnel project (as it did in the last general election); of its approvals for high-density high-rise buildings all over the island and now the plan for high-rise blocks in Pulau Jerejak, along with a four-lane bridge to that island.
And yet, there are few other real political alternatives in Penang.
There is Pas and its brand of religious politics, which really doesn’t have much traction in the state.
No one is quite sure who is behind Parti Rakyat Malaysia putting up dozens of candidates in Penang and beyond, and why there is a sudden interest in the party. The only known quantity is former journalist Chua Cheong Wee, who is standing in Tanjung Bungah; he seems sincere enough and his manifesto features many of civil society’s concerns.
I spoke to Gary Nair, who for a long time was seen as ‘Mr PRM’ in Penang, having a sentimental interest in keeping the memory of the party alive. He sounded saddened at what happened to the party and bewildered at the sudden ‘interest’ in reviving the almost dormant party, once headed by the legendary freedom fighter Ahmad Boestamam. Gary now wants nothing to do with the party. “It was a painful decision. You can imagine how I felt when I decided to peel off the sticker bearing the party logo (the horns) from my car after all these years.”
Well, there is former Tanjung Bungah assembly member, Teh Yee Cheu, who quit the DAP and is now standing under Parti Sosialis Malaysia in Sungai Pinang. He could provide an outlet there for dissenting votes, though that is just one seat. It would be interesting to see how he fares.
PSM itself appears to be testing the waters in Penang this time around. Perhaps we will see the party providing a real political alternative in Penang in the 2023 general election.
Then there are the newer parties, the Penang Front Party and the Malaysian United Party, which are unlikely to make much headway as few know what they stand for or who is behind them.
In many respects then, it is a ‘no contest’ at state level in this general election, and it is likely that Pakatan will be a shoo-in to retain power in the state. All that remains is to see whether Umno can hang on to its 10 seats.
Unfortunately, for this election, the debate has been reduced to issues such as flood mitigation and that tunnel – in much the same way it was trotted out ahead of the 2013 general election; in much the same way that Lim Chong Eu brought up the Penang Bridge each time there was an impending general election. Oh yes, and to what extent tolls would be abolished on the Penang Bridge (when in reality bridge tolls should be retained as a form of congestion pricing, the proceeds then being channelled to public transport).
The dilemma we face
To sum up, for sure, we want change in Putrajaya, an end to rampant corruption and to the bleeding of our national coffers. We cannot move forward as a nation without doing away with the politicisation and manipulation of ethnicity and religion. We also want local council elections, a universal healthcare system and a revamp of our education system.
This can only come about if Umno-BN is defeated. Even so, getting rid of corruption and communal politics will take longer as they are deeply embedded in our political culture and in the case of corruption, even in our private sector culture. And it might not be so easy to stop the trend of neoliberalism, which favours the wealthy, given Pakatan’s vague stand on this issue.
If Pakatan wins resoundingly in Penang, its national leaders could mistakenly regard the victory (never mind the absence of a real political alternative in the state) as an endorsement of all the state government’s policies, including the misguided ones.
This then is the Penang Dilemma.
So until the 2023 general election, residents will have to mobilise around residents associations and civil society groups to express their discontent and be vigilant about worrying ‘development’ apart from voicing out their concerns to the state government.
Perhaps the real check and balance for Penang over the next five years will come from within Pakatan. DAP had 19 seats in the now-dissolved 40-seat Penang state assembly, PKR 10, Pas one, and Umno 10..
This time, DAP will contest 19 seats again, PKR 14, Bersatu four, and Amanah three. So if these three smaller Pakatan parties in Penang make inroads into Umno’s 10 seats, they could be in a stronger position to play the role of providing checks and balances in a DAP-led Pakatan administration, minus the racial and religious baggage of the BN parties.
Pakatan backbenchers in the coming term cannot afford to be yes-men and women to policies that may not be in the long-term public interest. This is especially crucial given that only two of the critical ‘PKR 5’ state assembly reps over the last term will be contesting this time around.
So we really have to wait for the 2023 general election, hopefully after BN is dislodged, to come up with a viable alternative to some of the damaging policies being pursued in Penang. Pakatan leaders should remember it took four decades for Gerakan to fall in Penang in 2008 – 18 years after the audacious attempt to develop the much-cherished Penang Hill summit. In this age of social media, the fall of a ruling party might not take as long if policies are not in the people’s long-term interests.
Perhaps in the next 2023 election, there will be more options for a genuinely people-friendly, alternative vision for Penang: a green party or more people-centred party or a combination of the two could step up to the plate and provide a more people-friendly vision for Penang.
A philosophical question
Maybe it is a philosophical dilemma, even a spiritual problem that we face. Life is not about maximising FDI and uncritically propelling economic growth, which tends to disproportionately reward those with capital while squeezing workers (especially when wages are suppressed) and degrading the environment. In any case, we cannot pursue limitless economic ‘growth’ that eventually harms the planet and all living creatures, us included. Even the term ‘sustainable development’ is problematic. What exactly is it that we are trying to sustain?
Perhaps in our unthinking embrace of materialistic capitalism, we have lost our spiritual connection to the land, the hills and indeed the sea, the biodiversity that sustains us all. In the absence of such a connection, we think of these natural gifts not as jewels to be treasured but as disposal utilitarian ‘factors of production’ to be exploited and depleted in the relentless quest for profit maximisation. That would be tragic.
We need holistic development that embraces human beings, all living beings, and the natural world. We do need political change in Putrajaya, there’s no doubt about it. But holistic change will not come about solely through political and even economic transformation. It requires a different vantage point to see the world and all creatures in it as interconnected. (The human economy is just a subset of the ecological system.) Degrade any part of it and the whole is also compromised and weakened. It is time we come up with a saner model of development that puts people and the planet above profits.