Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser 29 July 2019

Once again, we see Malaysian politicians trying to justify their developers-driven projects in the name of “development” – land reclamation and transport plans, the continuing deforestation of indigenous peoples’ land for plantations, etc. Meanwhile, illegal factories and dump sites continue to pollute our water sources with impunity.

The urgent and important question we must of our elected representatives is what do you mean by “development” and for what purpose? It is time to ask “new Malaysia” to decide whether so-called “development” projects are actually of long term benefit to the people and our precious natural environment? Current plans indicate that it is developers who benefit most, reaping huge profits in projects that benefit the rich and ruin the natural environment. It is not surprising that the party that runs Penang has been given the moniker “Developers’ Action Party”.

The prevalent ideology of economic growth has dictated that development is geared toward ever-increasing growth in production, construction and consumption. This ideology presumes that there is a “trickle down” effect to benefit those at the bottom of the social heap, a trickle down of benefits for which there is little if any global evidence.  

Reclamation for whom?

While land reclamation in Singapore and Hong Kong may be justified because these two cities have run out of land, can we say the same for Penang, Malacca and other Malaysian cities? From what we have seen in Johore Baru and Malacca and what has been proposed in Penang, land reclamation will result in high-rise monstrosities and become the investments of the rich and second-homers. The gentrification of Georgetown has already led to high rents that have driven out the poor and lower middle class.

Penang and Malacca have extensive hinterlands and it makes good equitable developmental sense to develop their hinterlands. I am surprised PM-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim has not considered the alternative development of Penang’s hinterland and the Northern Corridor which will benefit the rural folk as well instead of praising the Penang State Government’s reclamation and transport plan. Thus, uplifting the living standards of the rural folk is best posed in such a context of equitable development of the rural hinterland instead of being treated as a question of “racial” inequality.

Equitable development of the hinterland

Penang’s hinterland is the logical development direction in order to disperse the over-populated island instead of building more highways and tunnels to allow more motorcars to clog the congested island. What would Singapore and Hong Kong give to have such ample land for development!

Penang’s hinterland and the Northern Corridor must be carefully monitored and planned for the benefit of the island dwellers as well.  The scandal of illegal dumping of chemical waste for years beside the Sungai Muda in Kedah should make Penang folk be more aware of the importance of protecting their hinterland. The dumpsite is 15km upstream from a major raw water intake point for Penang and has existed since 2008. It was reported in 2016 but no action had been taken like so many other sites of water sources elsewhere in the country.

There is ample land in our country without the need for destructive land reclamation or deforestation of our forest reserves for plantations. Peninsula Malaysia has more than 100,000 hectares of ‘tanah terbiar’ (neglected farm land). Penang has 2,600 hectares while Kedah has 2,600 hectares of such land which can be developed without destroying our mangrove and fishing grounds.

‘No’ to profit-driven projects

It is time for the people to say “No” to irresponsible destruction of the environment; blatant pollution by factory owners; mindless proliferation of highways and land reclamation of our seas; forcible evictions of fishing communities for questionable property development projects; the sacrifice of irreplaceable natural heritage such as our mangrove resources.

Development must not be dictated by developers using so-called “market pressures”. It makes sense to diversify the economy and develop the rural hinterland for more equitable development as well as to create a more liveable environment on Penang island as well as other cities in Malaysia. A diversified economy also provides positive effects such as a check on falling wages and increased social mobility. The state has an important role to play in supporting such initiatives, mitigating ill-effects such as the pollution of the city’s water sources as well as ensuring spatially equitable growth.

‘Yes’ to planning for the people

It is time to say “Yes” to planning guided by a high level of participation of the people. It is vital for Malaysian democracy and sustainable development that communities are empowered in their struggle against the misconceived projects and the accompanying oppressive methods used to push them through. Other communities in the rest of Malaysia have carried on the fight for a safe living environment free from radioactive and toxic contamination.

In other words, there is a need for a sustainable development and planning to meet the challenges of climate change and the economy – decentralisation, diversification and democracy are the best guarantees for Malaysian ecology, food security and the rights and interests of the people. 

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