The rape of Penang – voices begin stirring
14 April 2012
Seeing red over diminishing green
By Sharanjit Singh
NST Penang bureau chief
Blatant destruction of a hillslope for a housing project in Penang. NST pic: Asman Ibrahim
Reports of exasperated residents protesting against the blatant destruction of hillslopes and remaining patches of greenery in their neighbourhood have become increasingly common in Penang these days
From Tanjung Bungah on the northern tip to Sungai Ara further south and on to Balik Pulau on the other side of the island, long-time residents are at their wits’ end as every available plot of greenery is destroyed and turned into a concrete jungle.
It seems there is just no end to the number of bungalows and million-ringgit condominiums that are being built by developers as the state government rushes to turn Penang into a "world-class city".
Little wonder that allegations have since surfaced about "mafia developers" taking over Penang and the state authorities being accused of bending over backwards to accommodate them.
The dilemma now faced by Penangites is just what can they do to reclaim their island and prevent it from being completely ravaged?
Just what can residents do to stop majestic looking old trees from being chopped down and replaced with ugly high-rise condos and so-called exotic villas for a select group of multi-millionaires?
There are many who would argue that people cannot stop development from taking place or prevent landowners from selling their property to developers.
Those in this group may have their own points and arguments on why more houses, apartments and condominiums need to be built on the island.
As it is, villagers who own plots of land — especially in the Balik Pulau and Teluk Bahang areas — are being aggressively courted by developers who just cannot wait to lay their hands on any available piece.
This was recently revealed by Pulau Betong assemblyman Muhammad Farid Saad who said land owners in such prime areas had received letters from a real estate agency seeking information on anyone interested in selling or even renting out their land.
The agency was apparently acting on behalf of developers and Farid is now seeking answers on how it had obtained information like the addresses of landowners.
While some landowners are only just being courted by developers, residents in other areas are being confronted with indiscriminate approval of projects in their neighbourhoods.
Last week, a group of Taman Desa Ria residents and those living in the Kelicap and Kenari areas gathered to voice their frustration over how the state authorities had approved a hillslope development after granting it "special project" status.
The protest attracted more than 100 residents and also representatives from other residential associations and non-governmental organisations, Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) and the Citizens Awareness Chant Group (Chant).
Even Penang Island municipal councillor (MPPP) Dr Lim Mah Hui was there to express his concern about what was going on.
He made a shocking revelation that although he was part of the council’s planning committee, he had no knowledge that the projects were approved by the One-Stop-Centre (OSC) which comprised four other councillors and MPPP department directors.
The most startling concern raised by Dr Lim was over the blurring of authority between the state government and local government, which had put the municipal councils in a position where they had to grant approvals according to the state government’s dictates.
Batu Maung assemblyman Abdul Malik Kassim later tried to justify the approval given to the developers by stating that the OSC only approved the project after receiving the green light from the Department of Environment (DoE) and Public Works department (PWD).
He also went on to say that the project was approved since it met the council’s planning and development guidelines.
However, he failed to reveal why the OSC did not take into consideration all the residents’ objection to the project.
"What is the point of having a show of getting residents to voice their objections but then getting the OSC to grant an approval anyway.
"Just where is the transparency in all this," an irate resident fumed when asked to comment on Malik’s statement.
Malik is now urging residents not to lose hope and has advised them to take their objections to the state Appeals Board.
The residents can only hope and pray that the board — which is made up of three individuals appointed by the state government — would listen to their side of the story in an impartial manner instead of taking a condescending stance against them.
That was exactly what happened to another group of Taman Desa Ria residents who appeared before the board last year.
The residents were given an earful by the board members for taking their plight to the media while the developer concerned had slapped them with a civil suit for disrupting the project.
The Appeals Board members may have their own reasons for having a go at residents who complain about projects to the media.
However, surely they have absolutely no right to stop or question residents affected by indiscriminate approval of projects from making public their grouses.
This goes against everything that the state government has promised, that is, to be transparent and accountable to the people.
Instead of chastising residents who have no other place to turn to, it would be good if the board gives a full explanation on why projects have been approved despite all the objections.
Meanwhile, there have also been calls for meetings held by the OSC, which approves applications to undertake land development projects, to be opened to the public instead of being held behind closed doors.
As a member of the Chant Group said: "If the MPPP has nothing to hide, then it should have no reason not to open up all the OSC meetings to the public as it will then enable the people to know exactly what is being approved in their neighbourhoods."