Addressing Penang's land scarcity woes

  • Environment
  • Friday, 08 Jan 2016

An aerial view of a manmade beach and oil refineries in Singapore's Pulau Bukom, an island built on reclaimed land. When Singapore celebrated its 50th birthday as an independent country in August 2015, the city state bore little resemblance to the tiny island nation which broke away from Malaysia in 1965. Its physical stature has swollen by 20% thanks to one of the world's most aggressive land reclamation drives to cater to its industries and 5.5 million population. Photo: Reuters

Life tends to be great on an island. The remoteness created by the sea boundary gives visitors and inhabitants a sense of detachment from the mainland crowd.

Arriving on an island is almost a ceremony. Whether by ferry, boat or across a bridge, setting foot on an island is an event filled with such romance and adventure. Such sentiments have inspired literary and artistic works, from Robinson Crusoe to Tempest to the Lord Of The Flies.

Islands are also often the starting points for nations.

“Islands make great ports and they are easy to defend. Seafaring merchants of the past made islands their trading ports, especially if they are close to populous areas on continental land,” observed economist Dr Yeah Kim Leng, Malaysia University of Science and Technology’s school of business dean.

They settled on islands close to populous mainland economies because it enabled them to trade without getting involved or intruding into local politics and cultures.

When Captain Francis Light founded Penang in 1786, he too set up port on the island to serve British’s trading needs with Peninsular Malaya.

“Almost every successful body of land at sea in the world began as a port to serve the hinterlands. Hong Kong was China’s port. Singapore served the south of Peninsular Malaya and Penang the northern parts. Once an island port became established, it grew very quickly. People from all over the world visited them and some took up residence. This created a unique cultural mix and exchange of ideas that allow island economies to develop far quicker than continental lands’.

“From being a port, the next natural transition, if such an island is big enough, would be manufacturing. Penang, Japan and Hong Kong are classic examples,” said Dr Yeah.

Penangite Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee, an urban planner who wrote Urban Planning in Malaysia and Pilot Studies for a New Penang, said tourism dollar also contributed to the island’s development.

“Every school holiday, Penang practically sinks under the influx of tourists. Even though our beaches are not what they used be in the 1970s, people still love to come for the food and the simple isolation of being on an island. This tourism revenue plays a big part in our growth,” Dr Goh said.

Singapore is seen in a combination of NASA satellite images taken in 1973 (left) and 2014 (right). The city state now bears little resemblance to the tiny island nation it was then. Its physical stature has swollen by 20 thanks to one of the worlds most aggressive land reclamation drives. Photo: Reuters

Inadequate space

There is a cap, however, to the growth. Eventually, land becomes scarce on an island.

Pushing Penang’s shores outward is not a new strategy, said Dr Goh. Land reclamation is the default future of all successful island economies.

Since Singapore’s independence in 1965, it has physically grown by 22%, from 58,000ha to 71,000 ha. By 2030, another 5,600ha of land will be reclaimed in the island republic.

Japan has reclaimed 25,000ha in Tokyo Bay alone. By 1996, Hong Kong has reclaimed 6,200ha of its land. Its earliest reclamation was during the Western Han Dynasty sometime around 200BC, when beaches were converted into fields for salt production.

In the Journal of Farm Economics, researcher Rudolph Ulrich wrote in 1953 that land reclamation in the United States was principally an agricultural necessity. Early records of land reclamation projects worldwide before the 1900s showed that they were done to increase agricultural land.

Industrialisation has brought more needs for reclaimed land.

Hong Kong is made up of more than 200 small islands and there was no tract of land large enough to hold the footprint for a substantial international airport.

The solution was to reclaim 1,248ha off the coast of Lantau, Hong Kong’s largest island. Three-quarters of the new airport’s platform are on reclaimed land dredged from the sea, and the remaining quarter was the result of excavating two other islands.

‘It is not a matter of whether Penang should reclaim land, but where,’ says Dr Yeah Kim Leng, dean of the business school in Malaysia University of Science and Technology.
‘It is not a matter of whether Penang should reclaim land, but where,’ says Dr Yeah Kim Leng, dean of the business school in Malaysia University of Science and Technology.

Easing traffic woes

In Penang, the plan is to reclaim land to solve the island’s biggest problem, traffic congestion.

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng recently labelled the RM27bil Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) as a “five-in-one public transport solution involving light rail transit (LRT) or monorail, catamaran or water taxis, buses, taxis and cable cars.”

The water taxis will be a new fun feature for Penang. The general idea is that pedestrians would be able to board a boat at public jetties to travel around the island by sea, bypassing traffic jams on the roads. Among the glowing features of the transport master plan are LRT and monorail lines connecting Komtar in the heart of George Town to the outskirts, such as to Bayan Lepas, Paya Terubong and Tanjung Tokong.

One LRT line will run parallel to the Penang Bridge to connect the island to the mainland, Sebarang Perai. On Seberang Perai, there are plans for another monorail line to link Permatang Tinggi in the south to Raja Uda up north.

The PTMP is projected to increase Penang’s gross domestic product value by 15% in the 15 years (2016-2030) of its implementation, and contribute 64% to Penang’s future growth by 2050.

It is also projected to create a whopping 460,000 new jobs.

Raising revenues

There is just one problem. The state government does not have RM27bil in the bank.

Last November, the government announced a novel idea. They plan to auction off two islands that will be reclaimed off Permatang Damar Laut, spanning 930ha and 566ha respectively, located south of Penang. The creation of a third island of 323ha next to the first two has also been identified if there is a future demand for land activities.

The Danish Hydraulic Institute, an internationally reputed water environment expert, recently carried out extensive studies on the southern coast of the island and reported it was the most suitable for reclamation due to its natural bay area with weak tidal currents, shallow water and natural shelter from the effects of tsunami. There are no seagrass or coral reefs, so it was deemed most technically viable with limited environmental sensitivity.

There is nothing new to pushing Penang’s shores outward, because land reclamation is the default future of all successful island economies, says urban planner Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee.
There is nothing new to pushing Penang’s shores outward, because land reclamation is the default future of all successful island economies, says urban planner Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee.

“It is not a matter of whether Penang should reclaim land, but where. Given the limited options, the state government can monetise the reclamation of the islands. As long as it has minimal environmental impact, this can be a viable funding option,” says Dr Yeah.

While the project kills two birds with one stone – addressing land scarcity and public transportation needs – fishermen are anxious about their livelihood.

“We are afraid that the fishing villages on Penang’s southern coast will disappear. Our only wish is that we will be able to maintain our way of life,” said fisherman Nazri Ahmad, 50, who recently joined about 1,000 of his friends to protest the land reclamation plan near their fishing village.

The state government quickly assured them that their livelihood will be protected and enhanced.

Without reclamation, Dr Yeah said, the only other option for Penang is to build downwards.

“In Japan, there are several underground cities with thousands of shops and roads. But the construction cost is astronomical. Only advanced cities can choose this option,” he said. The top five largest underground cities in Japan measures at least 31ha.

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