Many Penangites silent on major projects due to ignorance, says activist

Penang Forum members and residents cheering as motorists along Jalan Masjid Negeri honk in support for their call to stop the reclamation project and unnecessary highway projects in Penang.

GEORGE TOWN: An activist today countered a claim by the Penang government that the “silent majority” of Penangites wanted mega projects such as the reclamation of three islands, highways and rail transit lines, while the “loud majority” did not.

Sahabat Alam Malaysia president SM Mohamed Idris said the silent majority continued to be silent because they do not understand or are ignorant about the projects.

He said these factors have been used by the Penang government to steamroll projects such as the three reclaimed islands’ project and the much-disputed Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP).

“They use that as a weapon to get power. The silent majority will usually speak up if they understand what is going on but, unfortunately, they do not, so they stay silent,” Idris said on the sidelines of a Penang Forum protest along Jalan Masjid Negeri today against reclamation and highways.

Zarina Baharom (left), a native of Permatang Damar Laut.

He was responding to a statement by Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow who said the silent majority continued to support the reclamation work and the PTMP, while the loud majority, alluding to civil society groups, continued to express their dissent.

The Penang Forum, a civil society group which is an umbrella for NGOs in the state, had previously said that most Penangites remain unaware of the major reclamation work or highway projects in the state.

The state authorities, however, claim that they have informed all and sundry about all planned projects, and were mandated to carry out the PTMP, as promised in the Penang Pakatan Harapan manifesto.

‘Why are you throwing sand into our rice bowl?’

Zarina Baharom, 52, whose hometown of Permatang Damar Laut, at the southern tip of Penang Island, will be affected by the reclamation of three islands covering 1,820ha, said it was hard to gauge people’s feelings as they were staying silent.

She said the fishing community in her hometown had been suffering in silence with a drop in catch and sleepless nights as the proposed reclamation would put “sand in their rice bowl”.

The protest against new highways in Penang.

She said the sand was literally in their rice bowl as the three islands would be reclaimed at the very same spot where coastal fishermen haul in their catch daily.

Zarina said while the Penang government had given its assurance that the reclamation would not adversely impact fishing in the area of the three artificial islands, the reality was that these fishermen had to go further out to the sea to make a living.

She said the fisherfolk there had small boats which were not capable of going into the deep sea. To make matters worse, she said most of them could not afford to buy bigger boats.

“Is the Penang government satisfied that it is throwing sand into the rice bowl of fishermen? They already live in hardship. You want them to become poorer and homeless?

“These fishermen are not diploma, degree or master holders to find a different job. Most of them only studied up to Year Six or are school dropouts.

“They can’t get loans to buy bigger boats to go deeper into the sea. These are just small trawlers,” Zarina said.

At the protest today, some 30 people, including Penang Forum leaders and residents, held placards demanding that the reclamation project be stopped and to introduce a Bus Rapid Transit system instead of the state’s proposed Light Rail Transit plan.

Among those present was well-known environmental activist Teh Yee Cheu, who was the former DAP Tanjung Bungah assemblyman,. He is now with PSM.

The protesters holding up signs against new highways and the reclamation project.

Penang Forum claims the LRT would endure losses in the long run as the state does not have a big enough population to sustain it financially. Some placards read: “CM, please help to move people, not cars.”

Meanwhile, Penang Forum steering committee member Khoo Salma Nasution said the state’s projects were clearly putting developers’ interests first and will not benefit the larger populace in the long run.

She compared the Forest City project in Johor with Penang’s plans to reclaim three islands. She says whatever is built there would be out of reach of most people.

“Why isn’t the Malaysian government against the Penang reclamation but is speaking up against the Forest City project?

“Good thing is, this Penang reclamation has yet to be signed and approved. So, we should stop this while we can as it is not beneficial to the people of Penang.”

The PTMP is a series of roads, rail and other transport modes to be financed through the creation of these three islands, which will be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

The state is expected to push for the Pan Island Link 1 highway and the Komtar-Bayan Lepas light rail transit projects to kick off the PTMP, concurrent with the reclamation of the three islands.

The state had said earlier that it is confident of getting the nod from Putrajaya by June to carry out these projects.