Another day, another mega-project…
You would have thought the pandemic and economic slump would have made our planners a little more circumspect about indulging in more mega-projects.
But nooo, the economic slump has offered few lessons to our ‘planners’. Even as the Covid threat appears to be receding a little, we hear of more mega-projects in the pipeline: the cable car is still in the picture (despite Penang Hill and surroundings being selected as a Unesco Man and Biosphere site), there’s more reclamation in Langkawi, there’s the Kulim airport project, and now another 1,000 acres of reclamation in Butterworth followed by a proposed third Penang bridge.
Hold on a sec… The idea for a bridge-tunnel in northern Penang was first mooted by none other than then-Works Minister Samy Vellu in 2001 – yes, 20 years ago.
Back then, I wrote a piece (“The Parking Lot of the Orient”) for Aliran Monthly opposing the 9.2km cross-channel road link estimated at a cost of RM2.3bn (back then) from Bagan Ajam on the mainland to Bagan Jermal (near Gurney Drive) on the island as it would choke the island with cars.
In the event, the bridge-tunnel idea was scrapped. Instead, a second bridge was built in southern Penang from Batu Kawan on the mainland to Batu Maung on the island (while a politically well-connected tycoon bought land cheaply around Batu Kawan).
But before this second bridge can be fully used, we witnessed the tunnel debacle in northern Penang and now we hear of talk of a third bridge that could cost RM3bn, once again in the north. This third bridge talk comes soon after the once-acclaimed Penang ferry service, with a dozen ferries in service in the 1970s, was intentionally reduced to a single boat ride presently.
And surprise, surprise, the plan for an “elevated bridge” (when does a bridge become an ‘elevated bridge’?) is just a few kilometres north of the landing point in Butterworth that Samy Vellu had proposed 20 years ago. The more things change, the more they remain the same!
As always, the real prize seems to be the proposed land reclamation on the mainland from Bagan Ajam to Teluk Air Tawar, going past the airforce base to Robina Park in northern Butterworth. (This reminds me how the real prize of the controversy-plagued Penang tunnel project was actually the high-density property development planned at the roundabout end of Gurney Drive.)
For about a decade, developers have coveted the seafront land around the airbase on the mainland. This site offers spectacular vistas of Penang Island and awe-inspiring sunsets (see above). At one stage, there was even a plan to relocate the airbase further inland under a swap deal. But thankfully, that did not work out.
And now this 1,000-acre reclamation. Note the short pink strips – “proposed beaches” – when there is already a lovely beach front at Robina Park, where people flock to for picnics and take Instagram-worthy photos.
The spruced up Robina Ecopark is a popular site for recreational and fitness activity. From the promenade, you can sometimes see fishermen in boats in the still waters casting their nets to catch ikan senangin (threadfins). Further south, garupa (grouper) and siakap (barramundi) are also found. Sometimes, ordinary folks wade in to look for siput mentarang (angelwing clams) and siput remis (mussels). Even smooth-coated otters have been spotted here.
These fishermen have had to move north as their traditional waters to the south grew polluted and muddy with reclamation and port activities. But now the reclamation extends northwards.
Is this really the time to embark on more property development and massive land reclamation, when even foreign buyers are scarce and the local population is barely rising? Strolling in the area, a Robina Park resident points to a gated community. “You know that condo block over there? It was built about 20 years ago, and I hear it is only 40% occupied.”
So who gains and who losers? What will happen to the few remaining fishermen in northern Butterworth? Over the years, they have gradually lost out the southern bit of the Butterworth coast line from the ferry terminal past Bagan, all the way to Bagan Ajam, where there are still some fishermen.
Will high-rise blocks eventually block cut off much of the magnificent sunset views now easily seen by all?
Why this obsession with land reclamation and mega-projects, which grab the commons – a gift from God to the people – for private interests? Why not focus on the things that really matter to the people: genuinely affordable housing, quality education, decent public healthcare and efficient public transport.