GERTAK SANGGUL, Penang: Waves lapped on the beach while sea breeze rustled the leaves. Wooden fishing boats anchored near the shoreline bobbed in the tide, with Pulau Kendi – the “jug island” resembling a flask lying on its side – far out in the background.
Unlike Georgetown, the southern coast of the Penang island is not top of the tourists’ must-visit lists, but seafood lovers know these coastal towns as where they can buy fresh out of the sea produce before the middlemen and fishmongers swoop up all the stock.
The serene seascape, however, might soon be a thing of the past.
A drastic change is on the horizon, with the Penang state government determined to push through an ambitious reclamation project to build three islands in the waters off Penang’s southern coast. The islands, which will take 15 to 20 years to complete, will add 1,821ha of land to the 29,3000ha Penang island.
Gesturing at the sea at Gertak Sanggul in the southwestern tip of Penang island, a local resident sighed: “The view won’t be the same anymore. People like the current natural state. Visitors who come here ask why this won’t be preserved.”
A total of 2,757 registered fishermen operate in the impact area of the mega reclamation, while critics said those from the vicinity and unregistered ones who catch fish on the side will also be affected.
In 2015, fishermen from the southern coast contributed RM42.09 million (US$10.2 million) worth of catch, which amounted to about 12 per cent of the total fish landing from Penang.
Penangites are divided over this massive reclamation. On one hand, environmentalists and fishermen are up in the arms, going as far as protesting at the parliament and urging the federal government to interfere.
On another hand, there are residents and fishermen, too, who are in support of the reclamation. They are confident that it will increase the state’s land bank and generate revenue for the state coffers to fund the Penang Transport Master Plan.
With the Department of Environment approving the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) report in early July, the coast is now clear for the state government to go ahead with the project.
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MEGA DEVELOPMENT TO FUND AMBITIOUS TRANSPORTATION PLAN
The idea to add three man-made islands in the backyard of Penang was first mooted in 2015. Officially known as the Penang South Reclamation, the mega project is touted as the funding vehicle for an ambitious RM46 billion transport plan to ease Penang’s traffic woes with an undersea tunnel, highways and rail lines.
Once built, about three quarters of the three islands will be put up for sale via open tender. The state government is the project owner, and its project delivery partner SRS Consortium, a joint venture between Gamuda and two local developers, has been tasked to execute the development.
The sheer size of the reclamation, which will alter the geographical landscape of Penang forever and cause possible irreversible impact on the environment, is alarming to the local fishing community.
“This is our rice bowl, our fishing ground. If they build islands here, where can we go?” said Mr Mohd Ismail Ahmad, 59, the chief of the fishing unit at Sungai Batu, as an airplane flew past the coast and headed towards nearby Penang International Airport.
Designed to be a smart city, the three islands are said to be the growth engine for Penang’s economy in the next 50 years. There will be housing and industrial zones, with the reclamation of the first island to begin in 2020.
Penangites are no stranger to reclamation, as over 404ha of Penang island was created over the years, altering the edges of the turtle-shaped island. Ongoing works are currently seen at Tanjung Tokong in the northeast for a property development.
The fishermen have in the past complained about being sidelined by modern development at these sites and dwindling catch due to changing water conditions. Therefore, the fishing community in the south fear that the mitigation efforts, however grand they may appear, might turn out to be empty promises.
The glossy illustration of the mega project means nothing to Mr Zakaria Ismail, who has been a fisherman for 44 years.
“This is a ‘golden area’ for fishermen. We catch big prawns and expensive fishes here: pomfret, grouper, mackerel, red snapper, and more. If islands are built, our sea will be gone. This is no joking matter,” the 63-year-old told CNA.
“They say we can go further to fish in other areas, but where? Show me now where can we find fishes, I want to go now. The truth is there is none, the only area is here.”
Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow and SRS Consortium's head office declined to comment when approached by CNA.
RETHINK RECLAMATION, FISHERMEN AND ACTIVISTS URGE
At their wit’s end, hundreds of fishermen from Penang and Perak travelled to Kuala Lumpur and marched towards the parliament on Jul 11, calling for the cancellation of the reclamation.
The fishing communities in Perak were involved because the sand to build the islands in Penang will be mined off Perak’s coast. The Fisheries Development Board told the Malaysian Insight that sand mining could hurt fish supply and drive up seafood prices, as Perak contributes about 30 per cent of landed fish in Malaysia, the highest among all states.
Environmental researcher Evelyn Teh, who joined the fishermen at the rally, felt that Penang should not sacrifice its heritage and culture in the name of development.
“We may embark on buzzwords like sustainable and inclusive development, prosperity sharing but have we really put them into action? Have we scrutinised our policies to see whether they translate into real programmes that help people on the ground?”
“No matter how you look at it, it is a big expenditure that focus on large infrastructure and real estate development. At the end of the day, there’s no promising us that wealth will be equally distributed,” she said.
A meaningful development, she said, does not leave behind or marginalise the people, simply because their livelihood does not contribute to the gross domestic product (GDP).
“Right now, the label of development is like a trump card for everything. There are so many hidden costs that are being brushed aside. We don’t know that we are endorsing something that is costly in people’s lives and driving a deeper inequality,” she said.
At a press conference in Penang on Jul 17, Penang Fishermen's Association chairman Nazri Ahmad reiterated that the fishermen reject the reclamation, as it would jeopardise their livelihood.
“If the state wants to carry out the project, what we want is a transformation plan, not compensation,” he said.
MITIGATION EFFORTS A MUST: MARINE SCIENTIST
Dotted with bright blue wooden vessels, the southern coast of Penang exude the charm of rustic life. Fishermen steer their boats - some fitted with shades while some are not – within five nautical miles off the coast, netting marine bounty for local consumers every day.
“The richest fishing ground is the area closest to the shore,” marine biology professor Zulfigar Yasin told CNA.
“We think the further we go out, the more fishes we are going to get, but it’s (actually) the opposite. Most of the fishes, such as the groupers, are very close to the shore because it is rich in food. It’s also the nursery ground for the fishes and prawns.”
Small boats are preferred for practical reasons, the professor from the School of Biological Science of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) added.
“It’s not so much of the fishermen being nostalgic and wanting to keep using small boats. It’s a matter of convenience. Also, small boats can come in whatever the tide situation is, while big boats have to wait for big tide to dock,” he explained.
Prof Zulfigar noted that the island’s southern coast and areas close by are also hatcheries for oysters and prawns. In addition to capture fishery, Penang is also home to culture fishery, with cockles being the biggest landing tonnage.
Any coastal reclamation will affect a bigger spectrum of downstream industry in the country, not just Penang, he noted.
Unlike terrestrial development, marine development has a bigger impact area because water flows and fishes swim. Food security will also be a problematic issue when the fishing ground becomes land, Prof Zulfigar cautioned.
There must be conservation and offset projects at alternative sites, he said. “One area we have suggested is the Middle Bank – between mainland and island Penang – which is still rich in biodiversity. We get sea grass, commercial fishes, sea anemones, and even turtles and dolphins.”
“We would also recommend a lot more artificial reefs be placed near Pulau Kendi, and facilities be made on the reclaimed sites, such as jetties, fish landing areas and storage places.”
Granted, the waters off southern Penang are not pristine, but the quality should not be made worse with the reclamation, Prof Zulfigar said.
Most urgently, the state authorities should also look at all reclamation projects around the island and consider the summation effect of all projects on the environment, he said, instead of looking at specific projects on an ad hoc basis.
“What is Penang without the sea? The subject of sea is close to the heart of Penangites,” Prof Zulfigar said.
LOCALS HOPEFUL THAT MEGAPROJECT WILL GENERATE JOBS
Not all at the southern coast are against the reclamation project, Ms Zuraini Mad Zin, the information officer at SRS Consortium’s service centre for the fishermen, pointed out.
On a whiteboard displayed inside her seafronting container office at the coast of Permatang Damar Laut, she noted that 654 people – fishermen as well as residents of nearby neighbourhoods – have signed up for potential jobs with the consortium in the first half of the year.
SRS Consortium is offering positions like general workers, boat drivers, car and lorry drivers, machine operators, security guards, and technical and professional roles, she listed.
Many of them see the reclamation as a window to seek new opportunities, while stressing that the compensation given must be fair.
Mr Ang Hock Hin, who has been a fisherman since he was 12 years old, knows the hardship of plying the sea. “Putting food on the table is always a challenge. When the waves are high, we cannot go out to the sea,” he said.
The 69-year-old was not too worried about the environmental impact of the project and believed the pollution caused to the seawater would only be temporary.
“Reclamation is good, we are not objecting. In the future, when there are three islands, we will have more fishes and prawns,” he said.
Fisherman Mr Idris Ismail, 64, was so fed up with the trawlers encroaching into the fishing ground that he hoped the reclamation activities would deter them from coming once and for all.
“They come in the evening and take away with them big and small fishes, pomfret and threadfins, as well as prawns,” he said.
When the project gets off the ground, the fishermen hope they would be adequately compensated.
“We have no say if the government proceeds with the reclamation, but there must be fair compensation for us, not just a token sum,” Mr Teoh Tien Soo, 76, said.
In order for fishermen to venture further, Mr Idris said they have to be equipped with bigger nets and machines to haul the catch back into their vessels.
“Reclamation is not a problem for me. I have no objection if they want to start tomorrow, but the compensation must be fair,” he said.
On Facebook, a civil group called AnakPinang (Children of Penang) is actively backing the reclamation project.
Mr Joshua Woo, a former councillor of the Seberang Perai Municipal Council, declared: “I love Penang. I want to see Penang grow.”
Instead of taking up huge loans to fund the transport master plan, he was convinced that the three-island project is a more viable option. Furthermore, he also believes that the three islands, as an extension of the Penang Free Industrial Zone (FIZ), would provide a land bank for investors and create jobs for the locals.
He recounted how in the 1960s, unemployment rate in Penang was very high. To solve the problem, then Penang chief minister Lim Chong Eu cleared the paddy fields in Bayan Lepas to create the FIZ, with ‘eight samurais’ including Intel and Hewlett Packard being the first big electronic companies to set up plants there.
Today, the electrical and electronics sector provides at least 300,000 jobs with a monthly salary of more than RM1.5 billion for locals, he noted. The manufacturing industry also contributes to 46 per cent of Penang’s GDP, just behind the service sector at 49 per cent.
“It’s only logical for Penang to continue its development along this path,” Mr Woo said.
Meanwhile, with uncertainties clouding the future of their livelihood, the fishermen - regardless of their stance on the reclamation - are taking it a day at a time. They continue to head out to the sea when weather permits, returning with sustenance provided by the ocean.
At the Jul 17 press conference, where fishermen raised their fists and chanted “tolak tambak (say no to reclamation)” for the cameras, Mr Zakaria was describing his week thus far.
“It was gloomy on early Tuesday morning, so I went back to sleep, or else I will be dancing on the sea,” he said, swaying to demonstrate sailing on choppy waters.
“I always tell those who have never been out on the sea, come look for me here and together we will joget (dance) to the rhythm of the waves,” he said, flashing a cheeky grin.