Home TA Online Pure, unadulterated greed on display in Penang

Pure, unadulterated greed on display in Penang

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The scale of the “development” frenzy in Penang is mind-boggling as much of the island is turned into a massive construction site, writes Anil Netto.

During one of his voyages to Penang, the great Indian Nobel laureate for literature Rabindranath Tagore reflected on the beauty of the natural world.

But upon his arrival in Penang in the early 20th Century and surveying the bustling activity at Penang port, the poet could not help but also ponder over the greed that plagues humanity. Was this a premonition?

Were he alive today, Tagore would have been even more saddened by the manifest greed engulfing Penang.

In recent weeks, for instance, we had the following cases:

– The rush in Penang to sign the project delivery partner (PDP) agreement with SRS Consortium, even though the Sungai Batu fishermen have filed an appeal with the Appeals Board and even though the PH government has scrapped the PDP model in KL and Sabah/Sarawak

– Plans for a cable car station at the Penang Botanic Gardens amid concerns that the place would be increasingly commercialised (see “Just leave the Penang Botanic Gardens alone“) [Why was this plan for a cable car slipped in despite the consultants’ objections?]

– A mysterious fourth artificial island in the southeast of Penang Island inserted into the Penang Structure Plan (see image at the top) even though the draft structure plan showed ‘only’ three islands [Apparently this fourth island was for a new airport but that plan has been superseded by a new plan to expand the existing airport. So why is that fourth island still there in the structure plan? Why wasn’t this fourth island shown in the public display?]

– Another controversial plan for 300 acres of reclamation not far from the floating mosque, north of Penang Island [Why wasn’t this shown in the draft Penang Structure Plan that was put up for public display?]

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– A foreign workers’ housing complex that would cram thousands of migrant workers in a small space in Batu Maung. From what I hear, up to 18 workers could be squeezed into each 800 sq ft flat?

– A RM55m underpass at the Mount Erskine Road-Gottlieb Road junction emerging near Penang Adventist Hospital [Why not just improve the public bus system and give incentives for schoolchildren to commute by school bus?]

Some might think all these projects are for “development”. In reality, these projects are mainly about property development and construction contracts that would reap enormous profits and dividends for the boys.

For the next couple of decades, much of Penang Island – and even its surrounding waters – would be turned into a massive construction site. The scale of “development” – or rather degradation  – is simply mind-boggling. And the haste – it is as if there is no tomorrow.

But who are we building for?  The present total fertility rate in Penang is just 1.4 children per woman in Penang – well below the population replacement rate of 2.1 children.

As you can see from the chart above, the total fertility rate has been dropping over the last few decades. So you cannot use past population growth rates to extrapolate into the future ie the population is not going to soar like in the past, when the fertility rate was higher. All we need to do now is improve our public transport in a sensible and sustainable way.

Already we have a huge glut of high-end condos. And we want to reclaim land and build even more islands for more high-end condos? Where are those 446,000 people on the three artificial islands (and tens of thousands more in the other reclamation projects) coming from?

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Well-heeled buyers from China, Hong Kong and Singapore? I asked this question during Penang Transport Council meetings, and they never gave me a straight answer. Come on, tell us.

Is this what the state government’s Penang Agenda 2030 is all about? Please-lah, give us a break.

Think of the debt implications for Penang arising from the southern reclamation project in particular. Ultimately, it will be the people of Penang who will be saddled with debt, directly or indirectly.

Already, the state government has said it is planning to raise RM10bn sukuk bond financing for the LRT project. Where did this RM10bn figure suddenly come from?

In all the time I was in the Penang Transport Council, which was evaluating the SRS proposal, nothing was mentioned about RM10bn in bond financing. Instead, we were repeatedly told the SRS proposal was selected via “request for proposals” because it would be self-financing through massive land reclamation, apart from small bridging loan financing. Shouldn’t this RM10bn external financing now be enough to render the SRS proposal null and void?

Even the elevated light rail’s projected annual ridership figures and the timeline for construction keeps changing: first it was 42 million passengers per year, then 29 million by 2038 and now 7 million by 2027 and 16 million by 2032? This after Penang Forum had repeatedly banged on the inflated ridership figures.

Remember, the initial justification for LRT was that it could supposedly carry way more passengers than trams (not true). Now that the ridership is much lower (only 7 million by 2027), do we really need a RM10bn elevated light rail line from Komtar to the airport, which woud take years to complete. Remember the Halcrow proposal said RM10bn would be enough to cover the entire state with tram and bus rapid transit lines.

With massive reclamation, fishing catches would dwindle, resulting in soaring prices for fish, prawns and cockles, putting them out of the reach of many ordinary Penang folk. Even the aquaculture farmers are worried. How much more will your char koay teow and noodles cost then?

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You don’t think you will be personally affected? Already city council assessment rates are going to be raised based on a sharp increase in the estimated annual value of your homes (partly due to higher density development approvals which have raised the price of land across the state). In future, it could be even easier to hike assessments further simply by gradually raising the present low “kadar” (the percentage rate applied on the now-increased annual value) up to a maximum of 35%. The addition annual revenue raised (RM54m) by the council will be blown away on that silly Mount Erskine underpass, for a start.

What we have here, folks, is greed. Pure unadulterated greed. Much of this $$$ will be generated by ursurping and monetising the Commons (that rightfully belongs to the public – the hills, the seas and the fish therein) for private gain.

Never mind the debt, the ecological degradation, the highly questionable financial viability of the projects, the degradation of the parks and gardens. Let’s make hay while the sun shines?

Tagore had a deep insight into the human predisposition for greed almost a century ago when he gazed at Penang. The kind of greed that Penangite Jho Low would have imbibed as he grew up. The kind of greed that spawned a proliferation of “money game” companies in Penang where they found a ready base of “investors” keen to get rich quick.

Now Penangites who voted for change must speak out and say this is not the change we voted for and demand a stop to the madness.

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