The plan by the state government of Penang to construct artificial islands off the southern coast of the Malaysian state has been met with heavy criticism based on environmental and food security concerns. The three islands covering 1,821 hectares are part of the government’s Penang South Reclamation project (PSR) to fund the state’s economic development, particularly to the execution of the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). The PTMP aims to counter increasing congestion in the area but has been accused of having a disproportionate focus on the construction of highways over more environmentally conscious infrastructure like railways. The reclamation plans have also been accused of jeopardizing the prime fishing grounds of the area and all those whose livelihoods rely on them and as having the potential to cause irreparable environmental harm. If the project is federally approved construction would take between 30 and 50 years and would commence in one to two years.
According to local assemblyman, Yusni Mat Piah, “the public is opposed to the PSR because of the high risks and the negative impact it involves compared to the benefits it might bring.” He also called the commitment to the plan “suspicious” in light of the lack of transparency that surrounds many aspects of the project in that it “failed to provide satisfactory explanations and clarifications on the project.” The plan had been rejected in 2018 on the basis of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Penang’s chief minister Chow Kon Yeow said the project had since been revised and “significant improvements” had been made but failed to provide details about these improvements. Piah said the most possible outcome of the plans would be the eviction of low-income inhabitants of the area, including local fishermen, as well as the disruption of nature. Chairman of the Fishermen’s Association of Penang Island, Nazri Ahmad, estimated the reclamation plans put about 1,800 fishermen at risk. It is also claimed that sand mining will damage marine breeding spots in northern Perak and reclamation would destroy Penang’s marine life including the endangered Green Turtles and Olive Ridley Turtles that nest in the area. The plan is estimated to generate an additional 3.2 million tons of annual carbon emissions according to the National Physical Planning Council.
The Penang government’s persistence in pushing this plan despite the notable consequences indicates prioritization of profits over its people and irreplaceable environmental resources. The environmental consequences will come at a time when impacts of climate change are being felt in the form of increasing floods and landslides in Penang and reflect significant recklessness on the part of the government.
Massive reclamation projects have been underway around Penang since 1975 and their consequences are clear. For example, in the north, the Seri Tanjung Pinang project has entered its second phase, “decimating the local fisheries and debilitating the nearby villages which depend on them” according to a Forbes report. The Tanjung Bungah Residents’ Association has linked recent reports about heavy metal pollution and rising toxicity levels in the sea of Penang as linked to the northern project.
The project evidently has both localized and global impacts and its progress should, therefore, be reconsidered and more sustainable management solutions that balance coastal development and the needs of the environment and locals. Prime minister Mahathir Mohamad should act immediately to stop the potentially catastrophic outcomes linked to the project and address the varied and valid concerns of the public and NGOs. The Malaysian government’s policy of indifference to the environment must be reconsidered before it is too late to retrieve the invaluable resources in the area.