Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin may have charmed many Malaysians with her candour and knowledge and the breath of fresh air she has brought to ministerial ranks.
But that breath of fresh air has hit a brick wall in the resistance concerned ordinary Penangites have mounted against the monster highway being foisted upon them under the guise of the Penang
developers plan ‘transport masterplan’.
Over 800 people packed a hall at the Spice convention centre on 20 September 2018 to express their feelings about the 1,200-page environment impact assessment report on the controversial RM8.5bn 19.km six-lane Pan Island Link highway.
The town hall event was supposed to start at 8pm. But organisers had put up a spread to feed the crowd – char koay teow, fried chicken knockers, fish fillets, some chicken mayo wrap, chocolate cake, coffee and tea – all laid out buffet-style on tables surrounded by propaganda posters and videos in support of the highway. Perhaps the organisers figured that a crowd with rumbling stomachs would be a tad bit more rebellious – so, better fill their tummies before the session. One activist complained she was stopped from bringing into the convention centre a large poster opposing the highway.
By the time they called the people into the hall, it was already 8.35pm, eating into the precious time for people to voice their objections. And by the time Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, Yeo Bee Yin and the EIA report consultant from Wiranda had given their presentations, almost an hour had passed. Yeo touched on her “break-up” with plastics. She said that no one in the state government leadership was pocketing anything from the highway project – a remark that struck many in the audience as odd as no one had openly alleged this.
The organisers made a show of saying that all the water bottles laid on the long table for the speakers and consultants were reusable containers made of steel, not plastic. But they failed to see the greenwash irony of their commendable concern over the excessive use of plastic. They seemed oblivious to the elephant in the room: the monster highway that they are trying to ram through will degrade hills, chop many trees, add to air and noise pollution near schools and homes, damage two popular public parks, and increase emissions, thus aggravating climate change. The climate change angle should especially concern Yeo, whose ministry’s responsibility ought to be finding ways and means to reduce carbon emissions – not to raise them!
Someone in the organising team had the bright idea of asking the crowd to stand up for a photo opportunity (for propaganda purposes?). Many in the crowd obliged, including those against the project. But when they were then asked to show a thumbs-up sign, jeers rang out and some even showed a thumbs-down sign. Others remained seated, many among them thinking this cheap propaganda trick was a bit sneaky.
Aware of public disquiet, the consultants said that the three fault-lines on the hills through which the 10.1km of tunnel would pass were “not active”. (Can they guarantee that?) We also learned that the 700-plus kg of explosives mentioned in the report was “per blast” – and so they calculated that the total explosives needed was 4,000 tons (if I heard correctly from the back of the hall). Why was this total figure not stated in the report in the first place? Later, by the end of the evening, the figure appeared to have risen to 5,000 tons. Someone in the audience also brought up the issue of where these explosives would be stored during construction.
To their credit, the state government organisers had slotted in a presentation by Penang Forum critical of the EIA report. But it was already coming up to 9.45pm. When the moderator Zairil said 10 minutes would be allowed for the presentation, more jeers rang out, with some exclaiming it was “too short”. In the end, the Penang Forum reps Lim Mah Hui and Kam Suan Pheng managed to speak for about 20-25 minutes.
Among the key concerns the PF reps raised was that no serious alternatives were discussed in the EIA report such as improved public transport alternatives. If we had better public transport, despite a small population increase in Penang, there would be fewer cars on the road and a highway would not be necessary. The EIA report only discussed minor alternatives within the project such as alternative alignments and alternative methods of tunnelling rather than real alternatives to a mega highway. It also failed to provide a proper cost-benefit analysis and ignored the many other external costs such as pollution, higher accidents, degradation of hills and parks, and the vehicle emissions that would worsen climate change. What’s more, the Penang Forum reps pointed out the highway would be congested again in five to seven years, something that even Chow Kon Yeow and Lim Kit Siang had warned about the aborted Penang Outer Ring Road many moons ago. (Take the time to read the excellent Penang Forum presentation here. It won’t take you long.)
The body language among the politicians during Penang Forum’s presentation was a study in contrast. Yeo turned around to look at the Penang Forum slides, projected on the backdrop behind the speakers at the table on the stage. Chow, for his part, faced the audience grimly, his hands clasped together at chin level.
Penang Forum’s Mah Hui then handed over a stack of some 2,000 objection letters, neatly wrapped in a yellow ribbon, to a bemused Yeo. (The deadline, already extended, for the objection period is supposed to be 24 September – but this must be further extended as many Penangites are still in the dark about the extent of the damage this monster highway will inflict on Penang).
By the time the crowd was allowed to raise questions from the floor, it was already 10.10pm. About 50 people quickly queued up at the two mikes in the aisle. They raised a string of good questions and complaints about the highway. All but a couple of the comments were against the highway. There was no way the state government or consultants could respond to most of these questions or comments satisfactorily.
Among the many questions from the floor: who were the 58% of 3,000 respondents in so-called “focus group discussions” who indicated their support? What was the methodology used? If so, why is it that many people in areas that would be affected by the highway were unaware of the project? Someone pointed out that the highway would be just 300 metres from the base of the Air Itam Dam.
By 10.45pm, Zairil told those still queing up that only a few more questions would be taken, and the consultants would then respond.
I left after the questions and comments from the floor were cut short, convinced that this was largely a stage-managed public relations show, with the state government determined to ram through this highway over the objections of many Penangites who would be affected and who cherish their natural environment. I felt the town hall session was held just so that the state government could say it had “consulted” the public.
The strong opposition to this project displayed by the crowd, was impressive as discontent towards the highway continues to swell. Judging by the applause in response to remarks for and against the project, it was probably 50-50 in terms of support for and against the highway in the hall. And from what I hear, not a few of those in support of the project in the hall were JKKK members, staff of elected reps and staff of the contractors.
Yeo apologised as she had to leave before all the questions from the floor could be asked so that she could catch a return flight to KL. (This is what happens when the floor is open to questions only after 10pm.) Her parting remarks were non-committal, even sympathetic to the chief minister’s predicament in the face of mounting opposition to the project.
Yeo said whatever decision was made in the end, some people were going to be unhappy and compromises would have to be made. She then cited Mahathir’s logic that often the best decisions are the ones that don’t make everyone entirely happy.
This method of decision-making – when applied to something as disastrous as this environmentally damaging highway – is, with respect, rubbish. My hunch is that the EIA for this highway will be approved, with some so-called minor “mitigation” measures requested by the DoE or perhaps some minor modifications to the alignment of the highway. (I would be happy to be proven wrong.)
Far from making everyone unhappy, any decision to approve the EIA for the highway is going to make some people very happy, delighted even. Who? The state government, their partner SRS Consortium and the developers of the three new artificial islands and the Gurney reclamation which the highway appears designed to serve. The latter two stand to reap windfall profits from land reclamation, infrastructure construction and property development. The public will be left with degraded hills and parks as well as noise and air pollution, not to mention all the inherent risks of this project – and congestion once again after five to seven years.
Soon the ball will be in Yeo Bee Yin’s court, and she will have to deal with it according to her conscience and principles rather than loyalty to her party. She has to take a clear stand on the highway and not defer to party seniors. Concerned Penangites will be watching closely to see how she responds and will judge her accordingly.
Next stop: the state government’s presentation on SRS’ mega plan on 30 September.