Five things we learned about Penang’s ‘three islands’ mega project

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Photograph: Lye Tuck-Po

Anil Netto joined a group of hikers on an expedition to southern Penang Island to find a panoramic coastline that could be changed forever by a RM46bn land reclamation project.

It had rained the day before, so some of us were concerned that our little expedition would be washed out. But as it turned out, the downpour the previous day and the clouds above made it a comfortably cool day for a hike.

As morning broke into an overcast Saturday (30 September 2017), a group of 17 intreprid hikers who had signed up for Aliran’s Working with Youth: Hike in Teluk Kumbar, showed up, to be greeted by the scent of the crisp salty sea air.

Teluk Kumbar youth hikeMost were undergraduates, a few reps from Aliran and a couple of fleet-footed guides, friends of ours. Two ‘older youth’ – young-at-heart hiking enthusiasts – also joined in.

We gathered just outside a small wooden seafood restaurant at Sungai Batu, midway along the southern coastline of Penang Island, before trooping to a sandy beach nearby, along a tranquil bay known as Teluk Bayu.

This is what we found.

1. The reclamation plans are larger than Forest City’s in Johor

We had come to check out the panoramic coastline before any work could start on the plan to create three artificial islands off the southern coast.

Teluk Kumbar youth hike

Looking at our maps, we could see that Island A would be towards the East of the southern shoreline of Penang Island, Island B in the middle of the southern coast in the Teluk Bayu area (photo above), and Island C towards the West of the southern coast.

If you thought Forest City in Johor was huge, think again.

The three islands off the southern coast of Penang Island would cover close to 4,500 acres – the equivalent of five Pulau Jerejaks! – much larger than the four artificial islands of the 3,425-acre Forest City project.

This is on top of the 891-acre reclamation along the northeastern coastline of Penang Island at Tanjung Tokong. (There, a 760-acre island is being created under Phase 2 of E & O’s Seri Tanjung Pinang project and another 131 acres is being reclaimed along Gurney Drive.)

Over along the southeastern coastline, another 25 acres is being reclaimed for Ideal Property’s Queen’s Waterfront project in front of Queensbay Mall and 61 acres for Tropicana Ivory’s Penang World City project at Bayan Mutiara.

That makes it a breathtaking 5,500 acres in ongoing and upcoming reclamation projects on the island.

2. Not everyone is convinced the massive reclamation is necessary

Now, why the need for so much reclaimed land when Penang’s population is barely increasing from 1.7m now to about 2.0m in 2030? In fact, the total fertility rate in the state has fallen below population replacement level. The only way the population can grow is if net migration inwards rises. But why promote migration inwards in land-scarce Penang?

The three islands off the southern coast of Penang Island will cater to around 300,000 people but only about 20% of the homes to be built will be ‘affordable’. (And how affordable are these ‘affordable homes’, really?) Where will all these wealthy buyers come from to buy the remaining 80%?

They say land reclamation is needed to finance public transport in the state. But what is being proposed by a consortium is a mega shopping list of expensive highways, elevated light rail transit, and monorails. (That’s on top of Zenith’s three highways – and a tunnel for good measure.)

The first phase has two main components: an RM8bn elevated light rail transit from Komtar to Penang airport and an RM8b six-lane ‘Pan Island Link’ highway that would hug the hills, even ‘flying over’ the Penang Hill railway line.

This is all quite different from the much cheaper transport masterplan of the original consultants, Halcrow, who had proposed bus rapid transit and trams – either segregated or elevated along long stretches – for Penang.

3. Where is our fish going to come from?

Already many fishermen in Penang are claiming that their catch has dwindled. Fisher folk off the coastline of Batu Uban, for instance, have complained that their earnings have sunk. As the catch falls, Penang residents going to the market gasp when they look at the rising price of fish.

Source: EIA report on proposed reclamation in southern Penang Island

According to an environmental impact assessment report, the area affected by the three islands project accounts for 12% of the wholesale value of the fish haul in Penang Island. In fact, over 2,757 licensed fisher folk can be found in the affected region, mainly in Batu Maung, Pulau Betung and Teluk Kumbar with 733 licensed fishing boats.

About two thirds of the fisher folk work within three nautical miles of the southern coastline – which includes the area where the three new islands will sprout from the sea. That’s not all; many leisure angling enthusiasts also throng the area especially during weekends. The area also covers aquaculture business operators such as hatchery operators along Permatang Damar Laut, Teluk Kumbar and Gertak Sanggul.

3. It is not what you think

Not everyone is in favour of the project. Local businesses and tour operators may be in favour and beach users may be divided, but 94% of fisher folk here are against the project, according to the EIA report. They are obviously worried that their monthly earnings averaging about RM2,000 will plummet.

Contrary to public perception, the fisher folk are not predominantly Malay. In fact, they are pretty much a mixed bunch, reflecting the country’s ethnic diversity. Out of the 2,757 licensed fisherfolk in southern Penang Island, 1,550 (56%) are Malays, 1,071 (39%) are Chinese, 23 Indians and 131 “others”. So it would be wrong if anyone were to portray this as an ethnically charged issue.

Also, the project itself is not entirely a state government proposal. In fact, the consortium that proposed land reclamation as a model of funding transport infrastructure for Penang is SRS Consortium. SRS, which stands for Southern Reclamation Scheme, comprises a federally well connected firm, Gamuda Bhd (60%), and two Penang-based property developers (20% each).

4. The best things in life are free

We were pleasantly surprised to find a relatively untouched stretch of beach, accessible to the public, at our starting point, overlooking picturesque Teluk Bayu, fringed by trees.

Teluk Kumbar youth hike

It is part of a shoreline where dozens of turtles land in a year including on rarer occasions, Olive Ridley turtles.

The hike itself was not too difficult apart from a few fairly steep short stretches that were a bit slippery after rainfall. As we headed East, along a jungle trail parallel to the southern coast, we passed by an enchanting, almost mystical inland lake. Its motionless surface mirrored the lush green forest circling protectively around it, branches dipping low, almost touching the water in a deferential bow.

Teluk Kumbar youth hike

Silence enveloped the area so that the faintest sound was magnified. No one swam here after someone drowned in the lake, someone whispered.

Teluk Kumbar youth hike

What secrets lay beneath? Local lore has it that some mysterious creature inhabits the lake – our own Nessie perhaps? We didn’t stay long to find out.

We clambered through wooded areas, shaded by tree cover, where rubber was once cultivated. Occasionally, we would get jabbed this side and that by branches – but no one seemed to mind and no one got hurt. Twigs snapped and undergrowth rustled as we wound our way up and down undulating slopes.

Teluk Kumar youth hike

Along the trail carpeted with leaves, slim trees stretched upwards to the heavens, looming over us like soulful guardians of the forest. The sun, hidden by the clouds and the tree cover, shed just a smattering of light, enough to bathe the jungle in a soft morning glow and keep the creeping shadows at bay.

Amid the damp, dark rotting leaves on the crinkly jungle floor, signs of new life: chalice-shaped champagne mushrooms in a bright orange hue sprouted joyously as if proposing a toast to our expedition.

Teluk Kumbar youth hike

Finally, we reached a rocky clearing, sloping gently above the tip of a yet unnamed cape, mid-way along the route to Permatang Damar Laut. It had been an exhilarating hike, and our reward was to sit at a vantage point, overlooking another serene bay.

Teluk Kumbar youth hike

It seemed like the perfect spot to discuss environmental concerns and our model of development that paid scant regard to a natural paradise like this: we concurred it would be a tragic loss to the habitat if this tranquil setting was destroyed.

Teluk Kumbar youth hike

Below us, soft gentle waves lapped and frothed against the rocks, lulling us into a relaxed frame of mind. From here we could see where Island A would emerge if the reclamation proceeds.

Teluk Kumbar youth hike

On our way back to Teluk Bayu, the chatter of a few migrant workers hinted that we were reaching the end of the blanket of trees. As we passed by, they looked up at us shyly while barbecuing a chicken over a crackling campfire that broke the stillness of the jungle around us. The faint inviting aroma fuelled our hunger pangs.

Back at the bay where we had started the hike, some of us rested thankfully on a fairly large gnarled tree trunk lying horizontally on the ground.

Teluk Kumbar youth hike

One end of the trunk hung five feet in the air, above the slope of the sandy beach leading to the edge of the sea, as if pointing out where Island B would emerge from the depths. Some of us had fun gingerly treading on the wobbly trunk to see who could walk the farthest to its end without falling off.

Teluk Kumbar youth hike

Yes, he’s the champ. Some of the best things in life are (still) free – but for how long?

Like the affected fisher folk, our hiking group was made up of all ethnic groups – and nine of the 17 were women. Some of them had little environmental awareness but gained a greater appreciation of what was at stake after the hike.

“Thanks all for such a wonderful morning. It’s wonderful when you’re around beautiful people who are fighting for a good cause,” said one young participant. “Hope I can contribute something from now on.” Another chimed in, “Thanks everyone for a very nice and educational outing today. Look forward to having more activities like this in the future.”

The seeds of environmental awareness have been planted.

5. Don’t mess with Nature

The recent floods and landslides tell us that we should stop cutting our hills, degrading our water catchment areas and river reserves, and pouring concrete and asphalt all over the place.

As we have seen in recent months, nature has a way of biting back with a vengeance if we go too far. Flash floods, climate change, siltation and sedimentation will not only inflict misery on thousands of people but also cost us hundreds of millions of ringgit in remedial action or ‘mitigation’ work.

Already land reclamation and sedimentation have affected the catch of fisher folk in places like Tanjong Tokong, Batu Iban and stretches along mainland Penang.

We bumped into a fisherman on a motorbike, along a small bridging close to where simple fishing boats, looking resplendent in a bright coat of blue with stripes of red, were moored in a still, sheltered inlet.

Teluk Kumbar youth hike

We told him about our hike, which sparked some small talk.

Pointing to the South West to Pulau Kendi in the distance (beyond the area where Island C would rise), where corals can be found in “fair health”, he leaned forward. Speaking cryptically and sombrely in Malay, as if sharing some ancient secret, he said: “If you ever go there, don’t talk arrogantly. Jangan sombong. Be humble, or else ‘they’ won’t like it.”

Teluk Kumbar youth hike

I wondered who he meant by “they” – was he warning us about insular or parochial inhabitants of the island or fishermen in the area suspicious of outsiders’ intentions?

No, my fellow hikers told me; he was probably referring to ‘spirits’ on the island.

Before we returned home, we adjourned for lunch at a Malay restaurant a short distance away, opposite the local mosque. Some heavenly chendol, sweetened with gula melaka, rounded off a tasty meal – the perfect way to end the trip.

Over much chattering, the discussion turned to what the fisherman had said. One hiker produced a photo of another adventure through a forest elsewhere in the region and pointed to what he said was a bunian – a mysterious faceless human-like dwarf trudging in the shadows of a jungle trail. Was this creature another one of the ‘guardians’ of the forest? Who knows.

What we do know is that the experience of being part of nature and communing with it took us to a world away from our usual urban habitat and left us, though a little tired, feeling calm and stress-free, our batteries recharged.

Teluk Kumbar youth hike

Priceless moments like these are to be savoured – and are yet another reason why our precious coastlines and what remains of our natural habitat should be preserved as a treasure trove for future generations.

Photographs by Lye Tuck-Po and Anil Netto.

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