KUALA LUMPUR – Hundreds of fishermen from Penang and Perak gathered on Thursday (July 11) near Malaysia’s Parliament to protest against plans for three man-made islands totalling 1,821 hectares at the border of the two northern states which they say will curtail the livelihoods of about 10,000 colleagues.
The reclamation was approved by the Department of Environment (DoE) last week with 72 conditions, having been in limbo since 2015.
The Penang South Reclamation (PSR) – larger than Forest City close to the Johor-Singapore border – was mooted as a way to fund the RM46 billion (S$15.1 billion) Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) by selling artificial islands in Teluk Kumbar.
“Our catch will reduce because the reclamation will ruin the seabed. Prices of seafood will soar,” Consumers Association of Penang president Mohideen Abdul Kader told the rally gathered at the National Monument, half a kilometre from Parliament.
The group later marched to Parliament to hand over a memorandum containing a list of demands. These include cancellation of the reclamation, a review of the PTMP and a moratorium on sand mining off Perak’s coast.
“Why would we agree if our rice bowl is filled with sand?” Penang Fishermen’s Association chairman Nazri Ahmad told the rally.
More than 200 fishermen travelled south to the capital Kuala Lumpur by bus overnight and were joined by environmental activists, swelling the crowd to more than 400.
Civil society leaders have said the reclamation will cause damage to the marine ecology in the surrounding waters of the Malacca Strait, while the transport master plan will do the same to the island state’s environment without properly solving its traffic woes.
The PTMP is Malaysia’s most expensive infrastructure plan to date, involving highways, an undersea tunnel and various rail links which the Penang state government says are necessary to prepare for future development and an increase in population.
Despite the DoE approval, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told reporters that the government “will look at all their views, and if it is as they said, we will take immediate action”.
Agriculture and Agro-Based Industries Minister Salahuddin Ayub also assured fishermen that the federal government will take all stakeholders’ interests into account before approving the Penang state administration’s plans.
“This issue involves many other ministries such as environment and transport. There is no decision yet on this project as we are awaiting reports from various parties,” he said after meeting protest leaders in Parliament.
However, Mr Mohideen told the minister, referring to the two portions of Penang state: “This is not just an economic issue, but also culture and traditions. If you relocate the fishermen, you will lose these intangibles. I don’t see any benefit to Penang because it doesn’t need more land. There is a lot of land across the bridge. Thousands of acres. We should balance development between the island and the mainland.”
Perak Fishermen’s Association chief Mansor Yusof added that it is in the government’s interest to cancel the reclamation as “it will disturb the fishes’ habitat for the next 15 years. We will have to sell our catch at higher prices and it will cause public anger”.
Deputy Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Muhammad Bakhtiar Wan Chik, a Penang-based MP, was among several lawmakers across the political divide to meet protesters outside Parliament.
“We are against any effort to degrade the environment. The DoE has to ascertain whether there will be damage,” he said.
Prior to the landmark May 9 election last year, the PTMP mooted by the Democratic Action Party-led state failed to move forward, allegedly due to obstruction by the Barisan Nasional federal government which held power over financial, transport planning and environmental approvals.
But all these ministries are now helmed by DAP ministers, and the Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance it leads in Penang holds all but three of the 40 wards in the state legislature.