By Lim Yi Hui

GEORGETOWN, Malaysia:As the state election is approaching, Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow called on the leaders of the Pakatan Harapan coalition to beware of the "green wave" earlier this year. On the eve of Hari Raya, he announced an increase in funding for Islamic development in Penang to RM75.08 million this year. The DAP-led state government seems to think that building more mosques and religious schools will reduce their Chinese-centric impression and curry favour with the Malay community. Meanwhile, the Penang state government ignores the Malay-majority fishermen community and insists on promoting the Penang South Islands (PSI) project, depriving them of their livelihood.

The Penang government prioritises the developers who can bring them benefits. They also believe that since the main supporters of DAP are Chinese, especially those who love development and economic growth, the fishermen on the fringes have nothing to do with the overall situation. However, the DAP may have forgotten that its allies are also running in elections in other states, and their political opponents can make use of Penang’s stubborn policies to vigorously propagate the idea that Chinese (political parties) are oppressing Malays (fishermen). Sure enough, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, having met with fishermen’s representatives, announced last week that the Federal government would fund the construction of the LRT in Penang in exchange for reducing the scale of the PSI reclamation project.

The state government, which had said categorically that there was no room for debate on the plan, was instantly enlightened and readily accepted Anwar's proposal. Chow Kon Yeow hinted that Island B and Island C in the original plan would probably be affected, but he also said that Island A is actually incapable of financing the public transportation project in Penang, which means that the original purpose of island reclamation is no longer valid. So why does the state government still insist on man-made islands? It is nothing more than their "Silicon Island'' dream: making Penang into a smart city.

In fact, what the Penang government and many Chinese want is to emulate Singapore, their ideal model of an advanced city, or so they think. However, the two islands differ - the model of economic development cannot be replicated across time and space. Due to Singapore’s size, basic constructions such as airport, seaports, and lands for the oil industry need to be reclaimed from the sea. Unlike Penang, fishing grounds and seaside tourism are not Singapore's main sources of income.

Singapore does not rely on reclamation to develop. Its economic success is partly due its special geographical location and historical evolution. Moreover, its manufacturing and service industries are supported by the country's emphasis on scientific research and education.

Singapore may have enviable economic success, but only 1% of its land can produce food, and more than 90% of its food is imported from abroad. In contrast, the surrounding area of Penang Island is an extremely important fishing ground and its coastline a tourist attraction. Aside from Penang’s delicacies that the islanders are proud of, fishery accounts for nearly half of the country's supply. If the Penang government decides that reclamation and industrialization are the only directions, they will risk losing the island’s original advantages. Penang is rich in ecology and natural resources and if they’re lost they will remain gone forever. They cannot be created by technology and industry. Penangites must think long and hard about what their future generations will inherit.

The fishing areas affected by the PSI alone have an annual catch of more than 50,000 metric tons (30 times more than Singapore), with wholesale value exceeding RM40 million, and that’s 12.4% of the entire Penang Island. And this does not include the affected aquaculture in nearby waters. The state government claims that there are no fish and shrimps in those sea areas and hence not many fishing activities. But this is not the case. Fishermen do come from as far as Kedah and Perak to fish.

In an attempt to calm the debate between the Penang government and opponents of the reclamation plan, Anwar proposed a compromise that seemed to appease both sides. But is this really a 50-50 happy-go-lucky solution? In fact, Anwar's solution will also seriously damage the local marine ecology, leaving fishermen with nothing. Moreover, this move will not only ruin the future of the fishermen but also affect the people of Penang and the whole country.

Fool’s Paradise

According to the design, man-made island A comes with a green technology park, mangroves, planned bicycle lanes, sidewalks and public transportation (to reduce air pollution), energy recycling, etc. It is, in short, full of sustainable development features. However, this is akin to erecting a “protect our nature” monument on the beautiful landscape after the ocean is looted, killed, and burned.

The Penang Infrastructure Corporation Sdn Bhd (PIC) is confident that the reclamation plan will not destroy the livelihood of fishermen because their passage to the sea will be facilitated by a new navigation channel. PIC does not seem to understand that reclamation will bring serious pollution, destroy the physical and chemical environment of the ocean, and accelerate the death of many marine organisms. What's the use of a new channel when fishermen go to sea in vain?

Moreover, inshore and offshore fish species are different; the coastal zones usually have relatively higher fish density. Offshore fishing increases the cost of fishermen as it requires additional equipment and consumes more diesel. These fishermen may in turn lose their inshore fishing knowledge, experience, and skills. Even with new boats and training, offshore fishing still faces higher risks comparatively.

At first glance, it may seem only fishermen are affected by the reclamation plan. But not so, the entire population needs food security. Who will pay for the shortage of food supply and high prices caused by the land reclamation plan? Who is most at risk? The Penang government sees fishery as a pre-modern, backward and low-end rural industry, incompatible with their modern industrialisation ideas. But over the past few years, the raging COVID-19 pandemic, frequent droughts and floods, and Russian invasion of Ukraine have made many countries realise that a global food crisis is imminent and they need to take food security seriously.

The Penang government keeps saying there’s not enough land and land reclamation is inevitable. Even Agriculture and Food Security Minister Mohamad Sabu endorses the Penang government’s rhetoric. In fact, there are quite a few economic and industrial areas in Penang that have not been fully utilised. To waste time, energy, and money on man-made islands, with no end in sight, will only drag Penang down.

Reclamation will take at least fifteen years (only an ideal pace, actual progress may be hindered by unpredictable factors such as capital turnover, disasters, and accidents), and to build infrastructure, buildings, and factories, many more years after. People have to worry about basic necessities before this drawn-out sci-fi vision comes true. What's more, the time it takes for the Penang state government to realise its dream is unlikely to catch up with the speed of rising sea level.

The ocean is the Earth’s largest "carbon pool" - marine lives absorb and regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Reclamation not only causes a large amount of carbon emissions but also damages the role of the ocean as a carbon sink and weakens its ability to regulate climate. It runs counter to Malaysia's international commitments and domestic climate change mitigation policies.

Professor Hans-Dieter Evers, a German development researcher, pointed out that the results of reclamation project in the southern part of Penang Island are likely to be destroyed by floods within 20 to 40 years after completion, and the floodwaters on the man-made islands are also likely to flow to Penang island. Scientists have projected an alarming rate of rising sea level and abnormal weather is becoming more and more "normal". The current precautionary measures may not cope with uncertain climate change to come; the dire situations as described may happen sooner than we think.

By then the DAP may no longer hold power in Penang and the people will have to suffer the consequences. While Chow Kon Yeow is worried about the “green wave” during the state election, the people should seriously worry about the wave of nature's sucker-punch.

*Lim Yi Hui is the Chairperson of Agora Society.*