‘It was like someone putting a gun to our heads’

Consortium Zenith Construction Sdn Bhd senior executive directors Zarul Ahmad Mohamad Zulkifli (right) and Lee Chee Hoe speaking to the media today.

GEORGE TOWN: A key figure in Penang’s Undersea Tunnel and Roads project today revealed that during the previous federal administration, his company received threats from conmen who demanded protection money and claimed they had close ties with those in the Barisan Nasional government.

Consortium Zenith Construction Sdn Bhd senior executive director Zarul Ahmad Mohamad Zulkifli.

Consortium Zenith Construction Sdn Bhd senior executive director Zarul Ahmad Mohamad Zulkifli said he only dared to tell all following the change of government in Putrajaya.

He said the change in government was a “breath of fresh air” and an unshackling moment over what he claimed were politically motivated attacks against him and the company.

Zarul said the company was forced to protect its interests by paying spurious consultation fees to individuals claiming to represent senior people in Putrajaya.

“It was not bribery. It’s like someone putting a gun to our heads. I believe the MACC is conducting an investigation on this and it will come up with its findings soon.

He said the company was threatened that action would be taken against them if they did not pay up.

“They claimed to be with the powers that be, but eventually we found out that it was not true… we were conned in that sense. During those turbulent times, it was terrible for us, we went through tough times.

“We have done everything in accordance with the law, but at that time, we did not know what was the rule of law, as you know, anything could happen under the last government’s administration,” he said.

Zarul said the company had told the Penang government two months ago about what took place.

Earlier this year, it was reported that Zenith had paid RM22 million to two individuals to close a graft probe into the project.

The two individuals were supposed to do “consultancy work in regulatory compliance and risk management” for the undersea tunnel project.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission has since arrested five individuals and recorded over 120 statements in their probe into the “consultancy fee” payout.

Moving on

Zarul said he had put aside the past nightmares and the company would now focus on building the three major roads on Penang Island, followed by the undersea tunnel.

He said the Penang government had been given alternative options for the tunnel.

Zarul said an over-the-sea bridge was one of the proposals and it would include an LRT track below the bridge, just like the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

He also said the long-awaited tunnel feasibility study would be ready by September or October this year, as it is currently 96% completed.

If the feasibility studies are favourable, he said, construction is expected to start as early as 2023 and will be completed in 2027.

“After licking our wounds, we have moved on. With the environmental impact assessment (EIA) granted to one of our road projects, we are eager to get our job done according to the book.

“There is also no increase of costs in the RM6.3 billion project. Mind you, (Finance Minister) Lim Guan Eng is a kedekut man, he would only allow increase in costs if absolutely necessary,” Zarul said in an interview at the G Hotel today.

The Penang tunnel-roads project was awarded to a consortium through an open tender by the state government in 2013.

The 7.2km undersea tunnel will connect George Town’s Pangkor Road and Bagan Ajam in Butterworth.

The “three main roads” stretch from Air Itam to the Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway (5.7km); Tanjung Bungah to Teluk Bahang (10.53km); and Jalan Pangkor-Gurney Drive junction to Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway (4.1km).

Traffic from the north

Zarul said the issue of tolls at the tunnel had yet to be decided but the government might consider making it toll free.

However, he felt it was better to collect toll at the tunnel so as not to adversely affect the other two bridges.

On an NGO’s claim that the second bridge was under utilised and therefore, there was no need for the tunnel, Zarul said there was more traffic from the north than the south.

(The proposed tunnel is in Butterworth in the north and the second bridge lands in Batu Kawan in the south.)

“The second bridge should have been this undersea tunnel (connecting Butterworth and George Town). Every Penangite knows the traffic is coming from the north, like Sungai Petani, Kulim and even southern Thailand.

“The southern Thais, especially, prefer to come to Penang by road rather than flying to Bangkok. The testament that the traffic is higher from the northern side is the first Penang bridge. It is packed, always,” he said.

Environmental safeguards

Zarul said the construction of the 10km Tanjung Bungah to Teluk Bahang road (also called the North Coast Paired Road or NCPR) would adhere strictly to conditions imposed by the Department of Environment.

Strict conditions have been imposed as the project will hug the hill slopes in the area.

Zarul said environmental regulators had imposed 59 measures under the environmental management plan.

“We are very careful about protecting the environment, such as protection of indigenous dusky leaf monkeys and trees in the area.

“We expect to begin construction in the first quarter or second quarter of the year,” he said.

The NCPR will run along the foothills, some 200m from the Teluk Bahang town roundabout, and end near the Muniswarar shrine at Jalan Lembah Permai.

It will have three interchanges — Jalan Sungai Emas; Persiaran Sungai Permai and near Chin Farm Waterfall, which are all in Batu Ferringhi.

The NCPR has received objections from residents and the Penang Forum over the cutting into forest land, among others.