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PH shooting itself in the foot with PSR

Pakatan Harapan leaders should oppose this mega-reclamation plan in Penang before it's too late

Photograph: Camden Damian

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Permatang Pauh MP Nurul Izzah Anwar (PKR) and Kepala Batas MP Reezal Naina Merican (Umno) recently made public their opposition to the Penang South Reclamation project. Their reasons were spot on.

This massive reclamation project will irreversibly damage the marine ecosystem of Penang and Perak. It will also destroy the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen in southern Penang and Perak. Not only that, it will erode the food security of both states – and the entire northern region as well.

While concerned groups have written many articles focusing on the cons of this mega-project from an economic and environmental perspective, this article will delve into the ethno-political implications of the project.

Potential racialisation

The Penang South Reclamation bears the signs of a class struggle. You have a state government, backed by wealthy developers, adamant about the project, which will destroy the traditional livelihoods of a low-income, disempowered fishing community.

But this issue, if seen from an ethnic lens, could easily be twisted like this: “Chinese-DAP dominated state government potentially damaging the traditional livelihoods of mainly Malay coastal fishermen.”

This is the last thing Pakatan Harapan needs. As it is, the coalition has been struggling to win Malay voters’ support for quite some time. In the 2018 general election, PH won only 25-30% of Malay votes despite winning federal power.

How will it affect PKR and Amanah?

The Penang South Reclamation project issue might cast further negative light on PH, especially in the eyes of the Malay community in Penang.

It could affect the outcome of two Penang state seats and two parliamentary constituencies, currently held by Amanah and PKR.

State constituencyRepresentative
Bayan LepasAzrul Mahathir Aziz (Amanah)
Batu MaungAbdul Halim (PKR)
Parliamentary constituencyRepresentative
Balik PulauMuhammad Bakhtiar Wan Chik (PKR)
Bayan BaruSim Tze Tzin (PKR)

So far, both state assembly members have pledged their support for the mega-project. As for the MPs, Bakhtiar has not yet spoken out on the issue, while Sim had voiced his objection to the mega-project back in December 2019, when he was deputy minister of agriculture and agro-based industries.

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The supportive stance by the state assembly members, as well as the silence of the Balik Pulau MP, on the mega-project could create the perception that these parties are prepared to sacrifice the socioeconomic interests of the affected mainly Malay working-class fishermen or to appear subservient to the DAP.

Penang PH should expect certain opposition parties in the state to use the Penang South Reclamation issue to accuse them of being ‘anti-Malay’ to their targeted voters in the next general election.

Umno and Pas candidates will probably run on an anti-reclamation platform in targeted seats in the state. These parties might be able to win some or most of their targeted seats, thus increasing their representation in the Penang State Legislative Assembly. However, opposing the reclamation in Penang would make these parties look like hypocrites, as some state governments controlled by them – Malacca, Kedah and Terengganu – are planning to carry out their own land reclamation projects.

If any party racialises the issue, they would earn nothing but scorn from many voters who are sick of racial politics. But here’s the ugly truth about politicians: some of them do not care if they are called racists and hypocrites. All they want is power and influence, and they will do anything to achieve it.

Here are the potential scenarios that Amanah and PKR might experience in Penang in the next general election, if they clash with Umno and Pas:

  • Amanah loses Permatang Pasir to Pas and has a 50:50 possibility of losing Bayan Lepas to Umno
  • PKR loses the Pulau Betong and Pinang Tunggal state seats to Umno. It has a 50:50 chance of retaining the Batu Maung and Telok Ayer Tawar state seats and the Balik Pulau parliamentary seat
  • Both parties fail to take back majority-Malay state seats like Bertam, Telok Bahang and Sungai Acheh (currently held by Bersatu) and other state seats like Permatang Berangan and Sungai Dua (held by Umno)
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(PKR should be able to retain Penanti, Machang Bubok, Batu Uban, Pantai Jerejak, Kebun Bungah, Bukit Tambun and Bukit Tengah. The party should be able to win back Seberang Jaya from Dr Afif Bahardin, who defected to Bersatu last year.)

If the mega-reclamation results in PKR and Amanah losing some state seats, it would be futile then to blame the DAP’s insistence on the project for having contributed to their losses.  

How will DAP be affected?

The DAP stands to lose politically from their support for the Penang South Reclamation, despite enjoying a strong dominance of non-Malay or Chinese-majority seats in the state.

The political loss is likely to be felt at the national level. The party has lacked support from Malay voters for a long time. It has often been (unfairly?) labelled as “Chinese chauvinist”, “anti-Malay”, “racist” and even “communist” by ultra-Malay elements in Umno and Pas. Some within these parties have branded the DAP as a liability to PH, perhaps as part of a heinous plot to create a rift among the PH parties.  

The DAP’s undivided support for the mega-project, which will destroy the traditional livelihoods of thousands of Malay inshore fishermen, will strengthen the narrative among its opponents that it is an anti-Malay party.

So, the mega-project will hurt the DAP’s ongoing effort to engage with the Malay community and dispel the community’s misconceptions about the party. To be frank, the party is shooting itself in the foot at this point. Even if it tries to justify this mega-project by promising that it will create a lot of jobs for the Malays, chances are many of them will brush off such promises as insincere.

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Perhaps the DAP does not seem to be too bothered that PKR and Amanah could lose their Penang state seats to Pas and Umno due to the expected strong backlash from Malay voters. After all, why would the DAP be concerned? The party is comfortable with its dominance of non-Malay or Chinese-majority seats in the state.

But if PKR and Amanah lose their state seats due to a Malay voter backlash, relations within PH could be strained or damaged: it is likely that leaders from both parties will try to pass the blame for their losses to the DAP.

What should PH leaders do now?

It is not too late for PH leaders in the state to do the right thing. PH state assembly members and MPs from Penang should speak out now against this mega-reclamation project if they are against it. PH leaders from other states should also voice out their objections to the reclamation.

Undoubtedly, such dissent would invite a backlash from their respective parties. Penang DAP’s ostracisation of the former state assembly member for Tanjung Bungah, Teh Yee Cheu, comes to mind.

But here’s why Penang PH leaders need to be prepared to brace the storm: Penang South Reclamation is political ‘kryptonite’ that could backfire. The state government’s adamance in bulldozing this project could cost PKR and Amanah some seats in the next general election.

The losses incurred would generate resentment among the affected PH parties towards the DAP. Fissures could break out in the coalition not just within the Penang PH leadership but also at the national level.

So, please do the right thing and oppose this project.


Penang-based R Ganesh is the pseudonym of a staunch follower of Aliran who has closely followed this brewing mega-reclamation storm

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