Open reply to Penang Chief Minister’s open letter to CAP on the RM6.3 billion mega project

Dear Yang Amat Berhormat,
I wish to thank you for the personal invitation, extended in your openletter, to a meeting to discuss CAP’s and SAM’s concerns over the RM6.3 billion mega-project to build a 7 km undersea tunnel and 3 highways. I regret I cannot accept the publicised personal invitation because, in our culture, we do not invite people to meetings by open letters. In any case, a meeting will be futile and not serve any purpose since, according to press reports, the state government has already awarded the project to a private company despite opposition from many NGOs.

Mr Chief Minister, I have met with you twice previously, at your invitation, and we had a free and frank discussion and exchange of views about proposed projects and the differing perspectives of politicians and environmentalists. I appreciate your initiative and said so during the meetings.

There are politicians and then there are politicians. While there are undoubtedly selfless politicians who devote their entire life to serving the people with no thought of pecuniary gain or power, they are unfortunately a vanishing breed.  In contrast, quite a number of politicians are after power, either to secure what they have or to take it away from another party. They can make all sorts of promises, twist and turn, and hand out goodies in the expectation that the recipients will vote for them. They will want to build the longest bridge, the tallest building in the world and wide highways to prove to the electorate that they can deliver and are not do-nothingers.

Many such politicians are also wedded to the neo-liberal economic policy based on profit seeking and high economic growth without real concern for social justice and ecological stewardship. Developers, bankers, investors and others from the wealthy economic elite have critical influence on government policies compared to the rakyat.

On the other hand, genuine environmentalists – not those pseudo ones serving certain political interests – are concerned with the impact of ‘development’ on our ecology, social relations, social justice and inter-generational rights. They are not in the fight for power and the benefits that come with it. Consistent with this perspective, CAP and SAM have been non-partisan on party politics and opposed projects that we were convinced would not be in the long-term interest of society, regardless of the political parties promoting them.

For example, we opposed the Komtar project on the ground that it was not economically viable, would create traffic congestion, and destroy the unique beauty of our urban heritage. We have been proved right with the lack of demand for space there, traffic congestion in the surrounding areas, and the mushrooming of ugly high-rise buildings all over the city.

We also initiated an alliance of civil society groups which campaigned against and stopped the proposed massive development of Penang Hill by the Berjaya group.

We tried to stop the Bakun project, even by taking the matter right up to the Court of Appeal, but we did not succeed because of the timidity of our courts and the power of those behind the project. The project has destroyed virgin rainforest the size of Singapore, causing irreplaceable ecological losses and heavy financial loss to the government and government-linked companies which are continuing. To create demand for the excess energy generated, the Sarawak state government is trying to lure energy-guzzling and polluting industries like aluminium and steel.

You are wrong in alleging that we did not object to the land reclamation carried out by the previous administration. The decision on the reclamation and the decision to award the contract to a particular company without tendering were taken in secret by the State Exco. It was only much later, after the contract had been signed and work had started, that the public came to know about it. We criticised it and organised the coastal fishermen affected by the project to oppose and resist the reclamation. It is to prevent such bad practice, which would inevitably produce financial loss to the people and damage to the environment, that, when you announced the mega-project in 2011, CAP, SAM and other civil society groups opposed it and called for a study on its viability and need.

In the light of this record, it is highly irresponsible and unethical for you to accuse us of being selective in our criticism and of being aligned to the Barisan Nasional. We can understand that you are under pressure and mounting tension with the elections coming closer but you must be careful with your comments and not make wild allegations. That is what marks a statesman from a quarrelsome politician.

Interestingly, just recently, a politician from the Barisan Nasional accused us of being aligned to the Pakatan Rakyat to bring down the BN government. By perceiving constructive criticism from civil society through party lens, some politicians display their intolerance and ignorance of democracy. They believe in the Bush doctrine “You are either with us or against us” – and look at what that has brought the United States.

Your difficulties with the Federal government cannot justify embarking on a RM6.3 billion mega-project without understanding its long-term implications and without convincing evidence that it will solve the traffic congestion problem on the island. Your ‘consultations’ with the public have been after the announcement of the project and they were to explain your decision rather than to seek public views on the project before taking a decision.

The fundamental question is: Is there a need for such a project and have any feasibility and cost-benefit studies been carried out before the decision was made to go on with a project of this magnitude?  You announced the signing of the MOU for four major roads with Chinese companies even before the consultants began work on the Transport Master Plan (TMP). On what basis was this decision taken?

A strategic environmental assessment (SEA) of the proposal with genuine public participation should have been undertaken before the decision was made to go ahead with the project and invite tenders for the works. A SEA would involve looking at the sustainability of the project from the economic, social, environmental and cultural perspectives. To cite an example from Scandinavia, the SEA done for the Norwegian Road and Road Transport Plan 1997 even considered reduction in the number of kilometres of trunk roads in significant conflict with landscape qualities and the natural and cultural environment.

The TMP recommends a balanced approach to solving transport problems with short- and long-term measures. Major road construction is for the long term. You have chosen to proceed with the mega-project regardless of public opposition and ignoring the recommendations of the TMP. Therefore, what is there left to ‘consult’? Public consultation has become meaningless and reduced to a public relations exercise.

We fear that the proposed tunnel and the second bridge are going to worsen the traffic congestion in Penang. You have stated that over 80, 000 vehicles use the Penang Bridge on a normal day. With the introduction of two more links the vehicles usage will increase to 240,000 over a period. The number of vehicles is growing at 10% a year and at this rate Penang will have one million more vehicles in ten years. Similar trends can be seen in the neighbouring states Kedah, Perlis and North Perak whose population frequently visit the island. Such a development would create a motorised traffic congestion nightmare on the island.

If this trend continues, more roads, parking lots, petrol stations, and workshops would be needed. This is only the increased land demand associated with motor vehicle growth; no account has been taken of the population growth and the land required for it. Has the government worked out the vehicle-carrying capacity of the limited land available on the island?

Mr Chief Minister, we also share your vision that “we must not turn the next generation into a traffic-jam generation to suffer what we have suffered due to lack of foresight and long term-planning.” It is good public transport coupled with sustainable and rational town planning where people are encouraged to live near their place of work, and curbing the rural-urban migration and urban sprawl, that would enable us to realise that vision. But building more roads, bridges and tunnels as planned is a sure way to “turn the next generation into a traffic-jam generation”.

We, once again, sincerely appeal to you to reconsider your decision. Further, we urge you to take the following short-term measures to reduce traffic congestion while working on long-term solutions which would need radical changes in our economic model, town planning, and consumption pattern:

• Create dedicated lanes for buses, bicycles and pedestrians. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Study the experience of Curitiba, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam. In Copenhagen, 37% of commuters ride to work (the target is to reach 50% by 2015); 58% use a bicycle daily; only 29% of households own a car
• Provide an efficient shuttle service to main bus stops from housing estates
• Provide incentives to public servants to cycle or walk to work and appeal to the private sector to do the same
• Drastically reduce roadside parking and make it very expensive
• Increase parking charges
• Impose congestion charges on private vehicles coming into the city
• Restrict building height to not more than six floors

A good, efficient and affordable public transport system coupled with biting disincentives for motorists bringing their vehicles into the city would ameliorate the traffic congestion problem.

Yours truly,

S.M. Mohamed Idris
President, CAP