GEORGE TOWN: A Penang-born environmentalist has delivered a scathing lecture on how his home state needs reform regarding governance, transportation and the environment.
Gurmit Singh Kishan Singh, who was a keynote speaker at a sustainability symposium organised by the Penang government, said the current Pakatan Harapan (PH) government was not learning from the mistakes of the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) administration.
“It pains me to see the repetition of follies in Penang and elsewhere. Why do we insist on repeating the mistakes of the previous state government?” he asked participants at Komtar today.
Gurmit is the founding executive director of the Centre for Environment, Technology & Development, Malaysia (Cetdem).
Despite promising to be sustainable, he said Penang had its fair share of environmental problems through unsustainable development.
He listed Penang’s sustainability “follies”, which ran from land mismanagement, hillslope clearing, repeated coastal reclamation and poor urban redevelopment.
“Although some policies are decided at the federal level, why has the state been unsustainable in areas like natural resources, which are under its jurisdiction?
“Then why are you surprised you are getting floods? There is a lot of talk and hype, but there is no implementation.
“In my opinion, the DAP-led government is not much different from the BN government, although I think the current government has made Penang significantly cleaner,” he said.
Gurmit also questioned the need for “tunnels” when the island was already saturated with cars, a reference to the state’s controversial plans to build an undersea tunnel to link the island with the mainland.
He gave an overview of “the march” of problems in Penang over the decades:
1950s — digging away of tram lines.
1960s — massive sewerage spill into Sungai Juru on the mainland.
1970s — the stoppage of local elections, the boom in electronic factories, and cable car mooted for Penang Hill.
1980s — coastal reclamation, rising number of cars and bikes.
1990s — high-rises and slope developments increase.
2000s — change in state government, blame game starts.
2010s — going green talk as flood and land-related problems rise.
‘How can Penang Island be called a city?’
Gurmit said that for starters, the change must begin with how cities and towns are managed, especially the Penang Island City Council (MBPP).
He said the concept of Penang Island as a city was “ridiculous and nonsensical”, as the traditional term of a city cannot be applied to an entire island.
Gurmit said town councils and city councils must represent a town or a city, not the entire island.
“The whole island cannot be a city. You have hills in the centre, padi fields … that is not a city. It is a misrepresentation to call it a city.
“George Town is the only city and should remain so on the island. We can extend the city’s boundaries to cover Island Glades (near Green Lane) and surrounding areas, but as for the rest, it should be under another municipality.
“With the current situation, the administration of Penang Island is a mess.
“It is different administering George Town compared with Bayan Lepas, Penang Hill, Balik Pulau — these are different kettles of fish,” he said.
‘Please don’t rush to call Seberang Perai a city now’
Gurmit said the situation in Seberang Perai is also the same as one municipality is taking care of the entire Penang mainland.
He said that North, Central and South Seberang Perai should be administered by different municipalities to ensure they are managed well.
Penang Island was previously administered by the George Town city council and the rural district councils.
Following the provisions of the Local Government Act in 1976, these councils were dissolved to make way for a single Penang Island Municipal Council to take care of the entire island. In 2014, Penang Island received city status.
The Seberang Perai Municipal Council was also formed in 1976 to replace the short-lived Seberang Perai Local Government Administration Board, which was formed in 1974.
Before that, it had separate town councils such as the Butterworth town council and the rural district councils.
To ensure accountability and the interests of ratepayers, Gurmit said the Penang government must hold local government elections to let people vote in the local council mayors and the councillors.
He said despite the Federal Court rejecting local elections, he said the polls could be held unofficially without requiring the Election Commission.
Gurmit said the current political appointee system was not healthy and did not fulfil the needs and wants of the ratepayers.
“Yes, I am aware it is not possible officially, but why can’t they make it unofficial? The state government could hold its own polls on its own and appoint the councillors and mayors later.”
‘Stop cars from entering Penang Island, rely on buses and trams’
Gurmit said Penang should harness water transport as it was the cheapest way to connect many parts of the island.
He said water had the least resistance and could be the most efficient way to travel from point to point.
Gurmit said the end-of-mile connectivity to ferry jetties was also important. He suggested feeder buses to ferry people from point to point.
He said the ferry idea would be most feasible for those getting off at the airport to the tourist spots of Batu Ferringhi and George Town.
Gurmit said as for the George Town area, the best mode of transport would be trams, as they were proven to be very useful during the mid-20th century.
“They should be limiting cars into the island, and encourage people to take ferries.
“There should be bus rapid transits, which I think would be the best bet for Penang Island.
“Isn’t it funny that we shunned the trams and now we are digging up old tram tracks and I hear of a revival in the transport master plan,” he said.
Trams and trolleybuses were the default mode of transport in George Town from 1925 to 1961. They ceased to operate after the switch to diesel-powered buses.