By Wazir Jahan Karim
From time immemorial, the Malay fisherfolk of Penang have been evicted from their homes along the northeast and southwest shores to make way for prestigious housing projects, with paltry compensation and enormous loss of livelihoods.
From Tanjung Penaga at Fort Cornwallis, to Gurney Drive, Bagan Jermal, Tanjong Tokong, Tanjung Bungah, Batu Ferringhi, Teluk Bahang and Balik Pulau across to the southwest shores of Teluk Kumbar, their economic livelihoods have been disrupted. Not only that, a unique coastal ecosystem which had sustained a pristine aquatic environment for centuries has been eroded.
The Strait’s Quay fishing village is the last of a composite coastal community which has successfully blended coastal village life with environmental tourism.
Here, families offer homestays, BBQ pits and picnic facilities for local and out-of-town visitors to enjoy their catch – fresh sea fish, prawn and crab to be taken home or cooked at the BBQ pits provided.
There’s also clean sand for children to pick shells and build sandcastles and for visitors to dip their feet into the waves after a long walk from this shore to the neighbouring Chinese fishing village in Tanjong Tokong.
This community also coexists peacefully with the Chinese fishing village, where the fisherfolk share a valuable network of information on fishing seasons, boat maintenance and sea conditions – tidal changes, impending storms, seawater toxicity and pollution.
The residents of Tanjong Tokong and Tanjung Bungah are aware that this village was discovered by a community which suffered tremendous losses when the tsunami hit Penang in 2004. The people of this community opened up this enclave themselves without any help from the state government. They constructed their own homes, using the rocks as foundations for fishing houses and created many pathways for the public to approach the village and enjoy leisurely walks on the beach.
This is a refreshing change, compared to the northeast coastal construction of high-rise condominiums and hotels on beach fronts, blocking public access to the sea.
If this unique fishing enclave becomes yet another centre of sports tourism to cater for the students of the Stonyhurst International school, what a shame this would bring to the state, when a self-sustaining local fishing community is yet again evicted for no rhyme or reason other than to pander to the needs of elite children. The evictions of the people here and the introduction of sports facilities like speed boats and jogging paths are not educational tourism.
Educational life-long learning projects are successful when local fishing communities like this are blended with and integrated into the teaching-learning curriculum of such schools.
Valuable knowledge can be obtained on sustainable coastal lifestyles, boat construction, community-constructed half-masonry-half wooden blended coastal architecture, seasonable varieties of different species of local sea fish; tidal movements and coastal pollution.
There is also emerging beach art, using shells and organic produce from the sea which we residents of Tanjung Bungah enjoy.
Another private school, Prince of Wales Island International School (Powiss Primary) has started to do community work by engaging its students in beach cleaning with their teachers and parents.
I had wondered if these teachers knew that Tanjung Bungah residents have for years done beach-cleaning on their own. Nevertheless, it was reassuring to see the school engaging in a weekend coastal community project.
Further inland, residents here have also started community farming, focusing on organic farming for sustainable livelihoods. Everywhere, environmental tourism is the new catchword, as visitors and tourists search for pristine coastal and inland villages to bring their children to experience local indigenous lifestyles.
We appeal to the state government to approach the board of Stonyhurst International School to ‘adopt’ the fishing village as part of a lifelong learning programme on environmental education: integrate the wealth of knowledge of the local fishing community with its modules for outreach programmes.
Note that famous scholars like Raymond Firth produced classic works on Malay Fishermen; Their Peasant Economy (1946), which is cited to this day by economists and social scientists.
Note that with global climate change, marine biologists, aquatic and oceanic scientists are among the most sought-after professionals globally.
In Malaysia, the Malay fishing village is their only opportunity to engage in community outreach research projects, to understand one of the most self-sustaining ecosystems in the peninsula.
Singapore destroyed its pristine fishing villages along Tanjung Katong, Geylang Serai coasts and now realise they have lost an important coastal ecosystem, which could have offered students, researchers and tourists astounding insights into its early economic geography and history.
Penang was once called the “Pearl of the Orient” but for now, development trends are escalating the demise of this jewel. This jewel of an island once tempted European and Asian adventurers, explorers, scholars and gentlemen to want to claim a piece of it and call it ‘home’.
Prof Emerita Dato Seri Wazir Jahan Karim lives in Tanjung Bungah, Penang