A silent flash protest by a blossoming green movement, many of them young people, took place in full view of Penang state government leaders and their consultants and contractors during a public forum on the RM46bn SRS transport proposals (see video above).
This was the result of growing green activism in the state by those concerned about the quality of life in Penang in the face of unsustainable transport plans. This time, I would say the crowd of about 700 in the auditorium was 60:40 against the SRS proposal, going by their reactions and applause against the plans.
But what for me was most unexpected and the biggest insight I got from today’s proceedings was that all is not well with the timing and financing of the SRS transport proposal.
From my earlier stint in the Penang Transport Council for a couple of years, I learned that SRS’ RM46bn mega transport proposal was to be carried out in two phases:
Phase 1 (until about 2023-2024)
- LRT Komtar-airport (RM8bn)
- Pan Island Link highway Phases 1 and 2A (RM6bn, later increased to RM8bn, after expanding the highway from four lanes to six lanes)
- This was to be financed by land reclamation of Islands A (nearest the airport) and B.
Phase 2 (from about 2023 to 2030)
- LRT (airport to three islands)
- PIL Phase 2 to link up to the three islands
- Monorails, BRT, etc
- This was to be financed by the land reclamation to create Island C.
The three islands would cover some 4,500 acres – much larger than the Forest City land reclamation.
All this seems to have changed. What was revealed in passing at the forum suggests there has been a major delay in the timing of the SRS projects.
Someone from the floor asked why the state government was seeking a RM1bn soft loan from the federal government when previously SRS had said the public would not have to come up with any financing apart from the land reclamation.
The state government responded that if it gets the RM1bn loan from the federal government, it could carry out the Komtar-Airport LRT and PIL1 simultaneously. (But even so RM1bn interim financing seems too little for projects totalling about RM17bn.)
Otherwise – and this looks like their fall-back plan – the state/SRS would begin by building only the LRT line in 2020 and reclaim just Island A, for a start. Only towards the end of the LRT construction would work on the PIL highway begin around 2027 – unlike previously when both were to be constructed simultaenously. If that’s the case, it looks like PIL has been shelved for now.
And because of the longer timeline, a new “Phase 3” was mentioned for the first time.
Glut in high-end property
Why all this delay?
The elephant in the room, which the state didn’t mention, was of course a recent Bank Negara report which pointed to a huge glut or overhang in high-end homes – the highest in a decade. This is going to cast a serious cloud over not just the reclamation of the three islands (for high-end property development) but all the other reclamation projects in the state, including the just announced Pantai Bersih-Teluk Ayer Tawar land reclamation in Butterworth on the mainland.
After all, only 20% of the homes in SRS’ three islands are supposed to be ‘affordable’ and the rest, by extension, unaffordable (except to the wealthy – but where will these wealthy buyers come from?).
Check out this parody of all the reclamation going on which someone uploaded:
Security was tighter during the forum today at the Dewan Sri Pinang this afternoon. About a dozen uniformed security personnel ringed the interior of the auditorium. Even the state police chief was present. But they had little to do apart from a few personnel approaching those who had brought in protest posters into the auditorium before the start of the forum.
But the protesters in the new Malaysia stood their ground and asked the uniformed personnel what section of which law their protest material violated. They asserted their right to freedom of expression. Eventually the security personnel backed off.
Once again, to their credit, the Penang government allowed Penang Forum to make a presentation after the state had presented their plans.
The Penang Forum presentation, made by Penang Forum’s Dr Lim Mah Hui and Youth 4 Transport’s Andrew Ng, was well-received. This time, along with points previously made, they pointed to automated rapid trackless trams now being rolled out in China and Europe at a fraction of the cost of LRT construction and a much-faster construction period.
At the last town hall meeting in Spice on 20 September, only a couple of people from the floor spoke in favour of the SRS plan; the rest strongly against.
This time the pro-SRS camp came better prepared and were fastest to the mikes on both aisles. So the first few pro-SRS speakers generally gave what amounted to long-winded mini-ceramahs. It was only after they had said their piece that the opponents of the plan could reach the mike.
Again, the state government had learned some tricks from Spice. This time they took a few questions from a few people from the floor and then gave lengthy answers, whereas at Spice they left the answers to the end. The panellists from the SRS Consortium team also droned on with lengthy explanations assuring the public of the safety of their drill-and-blast methods and why trams were supposedly unsuitable for Penang (whereas many other cities in the world have successfully implemented them). This ate into the precious time allocated for questions and concerns from the floor.
The state government or SRS Consortium speakers (hard to tell the difference; they are singing the same tune) even screened a video clip showing how drill-and-blast was carried out near tall buildings, although their video was about blasting on flat land. This video may have been counterproductive to their cause as the explosion managed to heave the thick rubber mat (that was supposed to cushion the impact of the blast) several feet up the air despite several heavy boulders placed on it. What happens if hill slopes are blasted like that? The somewhat scary background music did not help allay such concerns either.
Someone from the floor then asked if any guarantee could be given about the safety of the earthen Air Itam Dam, near which PIL is supposed to pass. How can anyone trust the engineers’ assurances and monitoring departments after what happened at the Granito landslide in Tanjung Bungah?
Another asked for details of the 59 conditions that the DoE has imposed on Zenith’s three highways. Surprisingly, the chief minister had not received the information and had to ask the consultants to pass him the details later. What happened to transparency?
With lengthy responses by the state and SRS to each cluster of questions from the floor, about 15 people at the mikes were not able to voice out their questions in public by the time the forum drew to a close at about 5.30pm. Instead they were told to put their questions in writing and submit them using the available forms. In the end, they were denied the right to voice out their concerns by what seemed almost like filibusterring by the pro-SRS side.
But no amount of lengthy explanations can hide the fact that there is a serious glut in high-end homes. After the forum, an experienced engineer told me there was no way that the Penang government could sell industrial land at RM300psf on island A, even if, as the SRS rep had said gamely, they target high-end industries that want to be near the airport.
Clearly, the highly controversial PIL is unlikely to happen for almost a decade. No wonder the state government recently made a beeline to see the transport minister to make him “see the light” about the wonders of much more expensive elevated LRT – over Halcrow and Spad’s preference for bus rapid transit and trams. In short, politicians think they know better than the real transport experts who have recommended more sustainable and cheaper transport solutions. All this in a desperate bid to justify the politicians and developers’ massive land reclamation plans?
Meanwhile, reflecting the growing opposition to the SRS plan, the online petition opposing it has surged past 14,000 signatures – well ahead of the petition in support of the plan, which remains rooted at 12,200.