Will the proposed Kulim airport beat the northern jinx?

Kedah is to have another airport – its third – and Penang is not too happy about it. The Kulim International Airport (KIA) is expected to straddle 600ha of rubber land near Padang Serai and is estimated to cost RM1.6 billion.

But is it necessary? That is the debate going on at the moment, especially among Penang residents.

Is it really about economic growth for Kedah or is it something else? A question of personal legacy perhaps?

Having followed the progress of the proposal for a new airport in the northern region since 1991, the positions forced on some of the players and the position taken by some of the players evokes a sense of deja vu.

Two Penangites spoke to me recently complaining that the KIA was simply an attempt to clip the wings of Penang’s growth and that there was no need for two international airports a mere 45km apart.

They agreed with Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow’s position that the Kulim airport might ultimately cause the closure of the Penang International Airport (PIA).

In reply to questions raised on the proposed KIA at the Penang State Legislative Assembly on May 3, Chow said:

“The Kulim airport will be new and more advanced, and that can have an adverse impact on the Penang airport. When the Kulim airport opens, the Penang airport may be forced to close.” This, he added, could have an adverse effect on Penang’s economy.

Even the Penang Gerakan, the Pakatan Harapan rival formerly in the Barisan Nasional, is against the new airport. Its chairman, Oh Tong Keong, said KIA would deal a serious blow to PIA.

But Kedah Menteri Besar Mukhriz Mahathir thinks the Kulim airport will complement PIA, not destroy it. He said recently: “Being primarily a cargo airport, the KIA will not compete with the Penang International Airport, but complement it.”

Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, strangely, is supportive of the KIA. Strangely because when he was Penang chief minister and Mukhriz first floated the idea in 2013, Lim had objected. Now, he says the airport should be supported because it will be constructed under a private finance initiative and no federal funds will be used.

Lim assured that the federal government would not allow PIA to close down and that plans to expand PIA would go ahead in tandem with the construction of KIA. He expects the airports to complement each other.

But Chow is now suggesting a few alternatives: dropping the KIA plan and expanding the PIA to cater to the future needs of the northern region; building a new airport in Seberang Prai instead of Kulim to cater to the needs of the northern region; or for Kedah and Penang to jointly own and operate KIA.

The KIA, in fact, has been proposed as a regional airport to serve Perlis, Kedah, Penang, Perak and even southern Thailand.

The idea of an airport serving the northern region has been around for years. In the past, Penang wanted it on its mainland, Kedah wanted it in Kulim and Perak wanted it near Parit Buntar close to the borders of Kedah and Penang.

In Nov 1992, when I was working in Penang, I wrote a report about a plan by the Penang government to build a new international airport in Seberang Prai Utara to serve the northern region “for the next 50 to 100 years”.

It never took off, largely I think, due to political rivalries.

It was initially decided that the airport would be sited in Bertam, which lies in the Kepala Batas parliamentary constituency and whose MP happened to be Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the then Penang Umno chief.

Later, the proposed site was suddenly shifted to Byram Estate near Nibong Tebal. The reasoning was that Byram is a short distance from south Kedah and north Perak.

But political observers felt it had to do with the intense rivalry between Abdullah and Anwar Ibrahim who had then become deputy prime minister. Byram was closer to Anwar’s constituency.

But, about a year before the dramatic 1998 sacking of Anwar from Umno, then Kedah menteri besar Sanusi Junid announced that the new northern region international airport would be built on a man-made island on reclaimed land off Kuala Muda.

He said he had just received a fax – yes, a fax – from Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was then in London, approving his proposal to have the airport off Kuala Muda. Dr Mahathir was then into his first stint as prime minister.

It was common knowledge that Sanusi and Anwar could not get along and this snatching away of the proposed airport was read as further evidence that Anwar no longer enjoyed Dr Mahathir’s trust. Sanusi, of course, was a staunch Mahathir man.

Strangely, Anwar’s remarks then were similar to Lim’s now. He said the federal government had decided on the new site but the Bayan Lepas airport, as PIA was then known, would continue to be used and the “government will study how the activities of the new proposed airport and the Bayan Lepas airport can be synergised for mutual benefit”.

But, as I said, the airport never took off.

It was clear to many that, except for then Penang chief minister Koh Tsu Koon, the other major players were not terribly serious about constructing a northern region international airport or the economic growth that could result from it.

I felt sorry for Koh. Just like Chow today, he was a very unhappy man.

This is what Koh told me then: “It is not easy for me to question or oppose a project which has been suggested by a neighbouring state government, especially when it has received the approval of the prime minister.”

That’s the very same predicament Chow is in, except, of course, he can add the words “who happens to be the father of the menteri besar” after “approval of the prime minister”.

In my Sri Tanjung column for the New Straits Times in July 1997, I quoted Koh as saying: “When I proposed the northern region international airport and that it be located in Seberang Prai in 1991, it was with the intention of servicing Perlis, Kedah and north Perak more efficiently, especially with the completion of the North-South Highway. All the northern states agreed to this. In September 1992, we gazetted an area in Bertam under Section 4 of the Land Acquisition Act.”

However, in 1994, a Department of Civil Aviation study found that the Jawi-Byram area was a better site, Koh said. Subsequently, 2000ha of land was gazetted for acquisition there in February 1995.

He told me there was a delay in the project’s progress but not from his side. In mid-1995, however, the federal government decided to put it on hold as Kedah and Perak began to lobby again for the site to be on their land.

It was almost as if there was a jinx on this project.

So, now Kedah has got the go ahead to build the airport. Penang is protesting but Perak appears to have given up. Will we actually see the KIA?

If Mukhriz succeeds in building the KIA, it will be his legacy to Kedahans – for you don’t remember menteris besar simply because they were menteris besar. When we think of the Petronas twin-towers or the KLIA, we remember Dr Mahathir. When we think of Komtar or the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Area, we remember Dr Lim Chong Eu.

One thing is clear: the northern region airport has always been about political personalities, not the economy or even the interest of the people.

A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.