The environmental impact assessment to reclaim 4,500 acres of land off the southern coast of Penang and turn it into three artificial islands is now on public display. But in the first place, is this land reclamation to finance the massive RM50bn Penang transport masterplan justified?
1. Transport-as-a-service trend: The transport plan is too ambitious and projects well into the future. But recent trends and reports suggest more and more people will turn to transport-as-a-service (transport on demand). Uber and Grab are just the beginning. Do we really need to spend RM8bn on the so-called ‘Pan Island Link’, a six-lane north-south highway that will ‘fly over’ the Penang Hill Railway not far behind the Kek Lok Si Temple?
2. Population only inching up: Fertility rates in Penang (and the rest of Malaysia) have plunged below the population replacement level – and will continue to decline.
This means that the population of Penang will increase only barely (with the help of inward migration) over the next couple of decades – unless we try and attract more people to live in Penang. But why would we want to do that if Penang is already densely populated? Moreover, only about 20 per cent of the homes on the three artificial islands will be “affordable” (less than RM400,000?). Out of these, how many will be really affordable (less than RM250,000)?
Why the need to spend RM50bn in infrastructure, when smaller, more sustainable improvements to mobility could be more cost-effective? Has the transport masterplan been subjected to international peer review by sustainable mobility experts, apart from being reviewed by USM? Why not? And has any study been made of the financial operational feasibility of the expensive overhead light rail transit from Komtar to the Airport? What if ridership projects are not met?
3. Fisheries affected: The plan is to reclaim 4,500 acres of land off the coast of southern Penang Island. But an overwhelming majority of fisherfolk in the south of Penang are against the project as they believe it will affect major fish and prawn landing grounds in the region.
This could further erode food security in the state. The area in the south has over 2,757 licensed fisher folk with 733 licensed fishing boats.
4. Little to show so far: So far RM220m has been paid for the tunnel and three highways project further north of Penang island: RM209m to Consortium Zenith Construction Sdn Bhd as the project contractor and RM11m to HSS Integrated Sdn Bhd as the independent project technical consultant. But work on the tunnel has not even started – and now there is talk of the tunnel being scrapped in favour of a third bridge!
5. China again: A new law, the Loan (Bank and Other Financial Source) Enactment was passed by the Penang State Assembly a couple of days ago. The bill is to allow the state to borrow money from the Export Import Bank of China (China Exim) to finance the expensive transport infrastructure proposals.
Three elected state reps from PKR and two from the DAP questioned Section 3(2) of the enactment which states, “Any loans made by the state shall as soon as possible, be notified to the state legislative assembly.” They argued that the decision to borrow should be made at the state assembly, instead of the elected reps merely being notified after the fact.
But the state government said the state ExCo should be given the power to make such decisions; otherwise what is the point of having the ExCo. It also said it is an honour that a China bank was willing to lend to Penang and that borrowing from a national institution (like Exim) would result in lower interest payable. In any case, it said the federal government would have to agree to any borrowing from abroad.
But the larger issue should be, why is Penang emulating the federal government in turning to China? Much concern has been expressed about China’s geopolitical designs and how the federal government is perceived to have tilted too far towards China.
And now Penang is following in the same direction. Already, the RM2.3bn Gurney Drive/Tanjong Tokong reclamation is being undertaken by a China firm.
What is the Exim facility for? Who will pay the contractor for the land reclamation in the south? The Penang government (with financing from a bank)? And if a China firm was to land the job of land reclamation, would that mean that a bank from China would be financing the work of a contractor from China? If that’s the case, how would that be an honour for Penang?
Of course, the Penang government could recover the capital expediture on transport infrastructure by selling 4,500 acres of reclaimed land – but is such massive land reclamation for a mega transport plan justified in the first place?
6. Environmental impact: Huge amounts of sand and rocks – 189 million cubic metres – will be required to reclaim 4,500 acres of land for three artificial islands in the south of Penang.
Sand – Four potential sand sources have been identified off the coast of Perak.
Rocks – Potential rock source locations:
- Batu Kawan, Penang
- Kampung Batu Sepuluh, Kulim, Kedah
- Near Bandar Seri Mahkota
- Teluk Tempoyak
In addition, a site west of Pulau Kendi has been proposed as the location for the disposal of 7 million cubic metres of dredged material, which has sparked concern among some of the fishermen. A separate EIA on the infill extraction and transport is required for this – but when will that be out? Can the EIA on the land reclamation be evaluated in isolation?