On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Howls against hill projects

The late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu had to fend off accusations of plans to develop Penang Hill and even the late Datuk Ooi Ean Kwong, the State Assembly Speaker, was not spared. Following allegations of bribes being given for a project that would have blocked the view of the Kek Lok Si temple, he had to allow a motion to proceed in the State Assembly.

The allegation was unproven but the fact is that an ugly apartment block now stands on the foothills of the world-famous pagoda.

No sane local authority would have allowed such a structure to be put up but it did, and the state government came under shelling.

There was also a battle during the 1980s between non-governmental organisations and the state government over the loss of a heritage building belonging to the Christian mission to a prominent developer.

All these issues were prominently carried by the media and one only has to look up the archives to understand the passion of Penangites, who feel they should have a say in how the state is developed.

Penangites prefer a healthy balance between development and their leisurely pace of life. They do not want Penang to be like Kuala Lumpur but neither do they want George Town to be like Kota Baru or Shah Alam, where there is little night life.

As the Chief Minister, Lim Guan Eng must expect to come under scrutiny over how development in the state, especially on the island, is shaped.

There’s no need for him to be defensive and claim that he is facing a “media lynching”, assuming there is always an agenda behind every criticism.

He only located himself to Penang after the 2008 general election and it is understandable if he is unaware of the many issues that have been fought in the past between the Penang-based non-governmental organisations and the previous state government leaders.

Some of the current senior state assemblymen and Members of Parliament were not even born in Penang and neither have they stayed long enough there to have a sense of belonging and history of the state.

There are two issues here – apart from what they see as insensitive development, many Penangites are feeling the pinch from the increasing cost of property in the state, especially on the island.

Lim has said that this is also a problem in the Klang Valley and Johor Baru but he must understand that there are differences.

In the Klang Valley, for example, the return of investment from the purchase of properties is better because there is a large pool of out-of-state workers and expatriates who make up the rental market. Penang, however, does not have that – you are likely to buy an apartment to live in rather than to let out.

Yes, Penang does attract its share of Malay­sia My Second Home residents and also wealthy investors but the increasing number of high-end development projects does not match the real demand. But such projects do result in corresponding hikes in entry-level or mid-level properties that the majority of Penangites need.

Many Penangites living in the Klang Valley have found that prices of apartments, especially the middle and upper range, have shot up so much that their dreams of retiring in the state have become near unachievable.

Their only option is the mainland and this writer has many ex-schoolmates who have been forced to move out of the island so they can balance their household budget better. Some have children studying in Kulim – where Friday is a holiday – while they continue to work in Penang, and juggling this difference over family life has itself become a challenge.

Penangites understand perfectly that land is limited in Penang and reclaiming land is highly expensive. With the cost of raw materials like cement and steel on the rise, developers will try to squeeze as much into a good location to maximise profits.

In terms of location, places like Batu Ferringhi, Tanjung Bungah and Gurney Drive are highly attractive and putting up high-rise apartments seems to be a cost-efficient way for developers. And when these projects are not on reclaimed land but are hugging the surrounding hills, whether at a slope below or higher than 250ft, the impact on the hills will still be there.

You only need to compare the Google Earth pictures of the hills in Penang to see how much damage has been done.

The previous Barisan Nasional state government cannot escape criticism but the present government can revise or stop more of such projects. There is no need to be defensive and argumentative over these issues.

Penangites have always been independent-minded and have a reputation of knocking off every single Chief Minister. They are also among the most outspoken activists around, so do listen well and hard.