Who says that ordinary people can’t make a difference?
In the end, it took 2,500 postcards, 500 emails and a concerted civil society campaign to convince Penang Chief Minister Koh Tsu Koon that it would be politically costly for the government to proceed with this project.
It is a fact that many Penangites and all those who care for Penang were furious about the RM25 billion ringgit Penang Global City Centre project, which threatened to choke the streets and destroy a precious vast green space.
Koh reportedly issued a directive to the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) on Monday, 14 January to return the planning application to the developer, who would have to revise the plan before it could be approved. The project had been launched last September by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who, back then, urged the state government to see to it that all approvals were expedited.
So Abdullah is not going to be happy – but perhaps he himself had been misled about the real nature of the project with its 40 high-rise towers. (Only the two infamous “iconic towers” were shown at the launch.)
Koh’s announcement means the project is now effectively stalled for at least a year – that’s how long the whole rigmarole of preparing a new plan and getting it approved will take. It means more time for the PGCC Campaign Group to strategise and mobilise more Penangites. It also means more financial costs for Equine’s Patrick Lim in holding on to an unproductive investment (though granted, Patrick’s initial financial outlay may not have been much and he already has made a huge revaluation profit following the conversion of land use to “mixed development”).
It’s amazing what People Power – and, oh yes, a general election around the corner – can do!
According to Koh, the developer would have to address the following issues, as reported in theSun:
* The proposed density without taking into account the 22ha of hill land (existing MPPP’s guidelines for the Jesselton and surrounding area is six units per acre with a height control of two-storeys. PGCC’s proposal is 36 units per acre inclusive of hill land and 54 units per acre excluding hill land);
* The area nearest to Jesselton Heights must only be low density development and only bungalows must be built (the developer has proposed to build almost 7,000 luxury units in 38 towers, including two iconic towers, but there are no provisions for bungalows); and
* The developer must fulfill the affordable housing policy which is insufficient and has not been included in the original development plan (The developer had planned to improve the six existing blocks of flats in Rifle Range and also build 1,334 low-medium cost units to fulfil its obligations on a 4.5ha MPPP-owned land on Rifle Range).
“These are the concerns which need to be address in addition to other concerns for traffic, social impact and others,” said Koh said after launching the state level integrity month in Dewan Millenium in Kepala Batas today.
For now, the PGCC Campaign Group is celebrating a partial victory. Why partial? Because the project has merely been stalled and not cancelled outright.
Nobody knows what will happen after the general election. Will the Prime Minister brush aside the Penang state government’s reservations and bull-doze this project through – seeing that it is supposed to be one of the so-called “high-impact” projects in the Northern Corridor?
Though the Penang Chief Minister must be given some credit for throwing a spanner in the PGCC works – even at the risk of upsetting his political masters in Putrajaya – he was not entirely convincing. One reporter told me that when Koh was asked if the government would insist on a detailed Environmental Impact Assessment (which would require public participation), he did not give a straight answer and instead waffled on about the KLCC. Why can’t politicians give a straight answer? Just say “yes” or “no”, for crying out loud!
Still, the damage to the PGCC has been done. If there is one thing that investors, property buyers and financial backers hate most it is uncertainty, controversy and public opposition swirling around a major project. And there is plenty of that swirling around the PGCC.
Koh must now make public the recommendations of the MPPP’s building and planning sub-committee which, from what I hear, wanted radical amendments to the developer’s plan. These recommendations probably include a vast reduction in maximum height and density for much of the site and perhaps even a call for a detailed EIA. I gather the recommendations were unanimous, with even the Umno reps supporting them. (As one Gerakan insider told me, Patrick is believed to have “antagonised” even some of the Umno folks in the state.)
Armed with the recommendations of the sub-committee, which met last Wednesday (9 January), and the widespread opposition to PGCC in the state, Koh may have felt emboldened to go public. On Thursday (17 January), he told the press about his order to the MPPP on Monday (14 January) to reduce the scale of the project. He thus preempted the MPPP’s full council meeting scheduled for today (18 January). He must have received a fright when he heard DAP leader Lim Guan Eng – his party is mounting a strong challenge in Penang in the coming election – criticising the PGCC in comments reported in theSun on Monday.
Incidentally, Patrick Lim and his PGCC master planner Nasrine Seraji were in town today attending an IEM seminar. Someone who met Patrick said he put on a brave front, appeared cordial and expressed willingness to comply with any changes required. Sources also told me Nasrine must have been deflated for she did not put up much of a defence of the PGCC in her presentation unlike, on a previous occasion, at the Penang Local Council Consultative Forum, where she tried to justify the project. This time, I was told, she said that the present design of the PGCC was not the final one, so don’t just look at that. But when someone pointed out that the plans submitted for approval were based on the present design, she did not respond.
Someone else who attended the seminar provided a slightly different take:
Seraji, brought in again by PL, who had expected MPPP to approve PGCC’s planning application on the same day, was already well prepared with her powerpoints, but with CM’s announcement, was not sure how she should present her case for PGCC. At the end, I could sense that she just muddled through with PGCC’s ‘layers’ … appealing for us Penangites to try and appreciate her green efforts on this PGCC project. In short, she was wrong-footed upon landing in Penang the night before, and (perhaps) didn’t have any time to ponder how to switch her presentation.
Anyway, this is the official position of the PGCC Campaign Group, which was emailed to me:
We consider the initial process of planning submission by Abad Naluri to be seriously flawed by the fact that the DOE had allowed the plan to go through to the MPPP without even requiring a detailed EIA report. This is clearly an abuse of their discretionary powers to ask for this in a project of such massive scale.
The other omission was the failure of the State Government to draw up a ‘local plan’ of the area that would have been subject to public scrutiny and comment before approval; this would then provide a suitable benchmark against which the PGCC plans could be judged.
We welcome the CM’s directive to the MPPP to hold back the approval pending amendments but we regard these two processes mentioned above to be essential to ensure that the amended planning submission would be legal and properly accountable to the public.
We would urge the CM, the DOE and the MPPP to strictly follow this in considering their renewed submission.
Dr S P Choong,
On behalf of the PGCC Campaign Group
So it is clear what is required at the minimum: a detailed EIA (with public participation) and a local plan.
I believe what many Penangites would like is for the whole area to be turned into a Penang State Park. In fact, the environment – and the lack of open green recreational spaces – is poised to become a major election issue in Penang. Residents in Koh’s own neighbourhood, Tanjong Bunga, for instance, are upset about high-rise towers, tree- and hill-cutting and projects right on the edge of the water-front and even encroaching into the sea!
Clever Koh may think that, by making his announcement when he did, he has taken the wind out of the anti-PGCC campaign’s sails, which have been flapping furiously ahead of the general election.
Don’t count on it. The PGCC Campaign Group leaders have told me that they are not going to let down their guard.
One member of the PGCC Campaign Group warned,
“As they say, however, the opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings! This new mood among the authorities may only last until after the election. Keep their feet to the fire. Don’t remove your car sticker, encourage others to display car stickers and sign the online petition. Spread the word.”
…this is only a small but significant tactical victory, but the fight continues. I fully expect PL to come back with another proposal that may be even more difficult to beat, seeing that it will be after the election, the biggest factor in our favour this round.
… this victory will, I hope, show to the doubters and fence-sitters that we can make a difference, if we speak out together with a loud voice. Perhaps with a supportive, empowered and emboldened public a tough fight will be less difficult.
For now, at least, the dream of a Penang State Park on the Turf Club site lives on!