Questions over coastal corridor

IT’S a mega project touted to lure in RM100bil of investments over the next 15 years and has been flaunted as a “game changer”, but locals are more wary than thrilled about the Melaka Waterfront Economic Zone (M-WEZ).

Chief Minister Datuk Seri Sulaiman Md Ali, who launched the plan recently, said the zone stretching from Sungai Udang to Umbai, covering 33km of the state’s coastline, would involve the reclamation of 10,117.14ha from the sea, an area the size of about 15,000 football fields.

M-WEZ, a key part of the state’s Melakaku Jaya 2035 Strategic Plan, would encompass a harbourfront commercial area, a smart logistic hub, a digital satellite township, a central eco-business park and a trade nucleus township, and is expected to contribute 5% to the state’s GDP.

It would have tourist attractions, duty-free shops, shopping malls, offices, hotels, residences and Industrial Revolution 4.0 (IR4.0) industries, for which the state would sign agreements with investors and joint venture partners.

Ironically, the M-WEZ project was announced on the same day the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal for leave by KAJ Development Sdn Bhd, developer of the RM43bil Melaka Gateway project, to initiate a judicial review to challenge the state government’s decision to terminate its agreement to reclaim land from the sea within a concession area at the Malacca Strait.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the High Court’s decision on Feb 17 that the termination did not involve public law elements, as it was based on a contract that was commercial in nature.

KAJ had filed the judicial review application on Dec 4 last year after its agreement with the state was terminated. The company had entered into an agreement with the state government on Oct 4,2017, to reclaim 246ha of sea land off the coast of Melaka.

Immediately after the M-WEZ disclosure, the state government signed an agreement with a property developer to reclaim and develop land spanning 485.6ha in Tanjung Bruas for port and LNG facilities, logistics and warehouses, port-

related businesses and mixed development. Under the agreement, the state would get RM94.86mil in cash and 20% of the reclaimed land.

But the grandiose plans have done little to impress local residents or those in the tourism industry, a mainstay of the state’s economy, which has been hamstrung by the global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic for two years.

More than 30,000 people have signed an online petition, initiated by the Melaka Coastline Protection Committee, to seek the Federal Government’s intervention to review the massive scheme, citing reasons why it was “bad” for the state.Committee spokesman RJ Chen questioned the need for it, as the state already has an over-supply of empty reclaimed land as well as abundant areas inland.

Questions are also being asked about whether the deal is fair. The RM94.86mil works out about RM80,000 per acre, which is much lower than existing current commercial land prices.

Reclamation has been blamed for flash floods that have been happening regularly, especially in Kota Laksamana, Jalan Ong Kim Wee and areas around Jonker Walk, and also for the erosion of beaches along the coast.

As highlighted in the petition, locals who have already lost the beaches along Tengkera, Limbongan and Klebang now stand to also lose the last remaining one – the popular Pantai Puteri in Tanjung Kling.

Coastal fishermen along the 33km area earmarked for the project, who are already suffering with smaller catches despite having to go out further and risk their lives in small boats, stand to lose their livelihoods.

Based on past experiences, the developers and government promised compensation to affected fishermen, but the amount given was pittance compared with the losses incurred.

Six years ago, a Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) survey found that thousands of coastal fishermen were hard hit by marine pollution and rising sedimentation of mud and sand.

Reclamation work caused estuaries to silt up while the suctioning of sand from the seabed caused pollution and also destroyed corals that are vital for marine lifeforms, as well as mangroves where fish and prawns breed.

The enormous project also carries huge political risks. Pantai Kundor assemblyman Datuk Nor Azman Hassan has been quoted as saying that he was against the project but could not do much to stop it.

“We definitely don’t agree with this project. Reclamation work will disturb the coast and cause sand erosion and bays to form. To help the fishermen, we have a proposal to construct tourist kelong (platforms built on stilts), which they can operate. There can be chalets and restaurants, and they can catch shrimps and rear fish there, ” he told a local news portal last week.

Despite the promise of up to 20,000 jobs, the committee argues that there are few benefits for locals as foreign engineering contractors or those from outside the state usually end up getting the jobs.

The Chief Minister has given his assurance that M-WEZ would not affect the locals negatively but strengthen their socio-economic well-being instead, adding that several studies involving the new economic corridor project had been done, including an environmental impact assessment (EIA), which the committee says it has not been able to trace.As Kota Melaka MP Khoo Poay Tiong remarked, it would be quite impossible for such a major development not to affect the local community.

Calling for the EIA report to be made public, he said: “We are not anti-development, but progress must be sustainable and in line with the interests of local communities.”

Media consultant M. Veera Pandiyan likes this line from Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre: “Fishes live in the sea, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones.” The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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