Uncontrolled Development – Pulau Ubah

Allow me to bring the attention of the House to the problems of uncontrolled and poorly regulated development activities in Iskandar Malaysia which caused irreversible damages to our precious environment and severely hurt local livelihoods especially the poor who are largely dependent on natural resources for their sustenance.

This is the case that took place at Pendas and Tanjung Kupang, within the parliament constituency of Gelang Patah. It is located in the district of Johor Bahru and also part of the Iskandar Development Region.

Since January this year, a coastal reclamation project has rapidly taken shape in the waters of the Johore Straits close to Tanjung Kupang. This is close to the Second Link and the Malaysia – Singapore maritime border. There are no signboards, no public information, no approval from the authorities be it federal agencies like the Department of Environment, the Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA), or the State Government which is supposed to regulate and control all earthwork activities.

It is one humongous project as far as coastal reclamation is concerned. The size is 2500 acres to be exact (according to official documents that we have sighted). I visited the ongoing reclamation site by boat twice. First on 15th February 2014 and then on 24th February 2014. It was shocking. The damages were beyond words. In the middle of nowhere, an island was in the making so rapidly that just between my first and second visit, the size of the reclaimed island has grown in folds.

I searched through all the official maps and it was confirmed that the island in the making was not included in any. The closest island that I could find is Pulau Merambong, a unique small land outcrop on Johore Straits right at the Malaysia – Singapore border. But this newly reclaimed island was not to be found in any maps and I named it as Pulau Ubah.

This took place within the designated area of Iskandar Development Region. The Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) is a government agency co-chaired by the Prime Minister and the Johor Menteri Besar. IRDA was given the task to plan, facilitate and regulate development activities within Iskandar Malaysia. Millions of ringgit have been spent to hire top-class consultants from all over the world to produce development plans, to conduct studies and to compile blueprints one after another, ostensibly for making Iskandar Malaysia an economically vibrant and environmentally sustainable development region unmatched by any other in the world.

In the most important document guiding the development activities of Iskandar Malaysia, which is the Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP) prepared by IRDA and approved by the Malaysian government, the ‘Pulau Ubah’ project simply does not exist in it.

In fact, in one of the Blueprints published by IRDA in 2011, entitled “Shoreline Management Plan”, the waters off Tanjung Kupang was identified as an area very rich with marine biodiversity and the presence of an extensive seagrass bed is probably among the largest in the world. In this particular Shoreline Management Plan, the government agency IRDA (not some other environmental NGOs), recommended for the protection of this unique marine habitat as a “marine protected area’. This is important for the sustainability of fisheries resources as well as keeping the potential for low impact eco-tourism activities in the future. In addition, it is definitely a unique and highly valued heritage for our future generation in Tanjung Kupang.

The coastal fishing communities which are predominantly Malays, have been residing in the area for generations and it is where they find their living. In the straits there are dugong, seahorses, prawns, and an abundance of fish species – some of which are taken as the source of livelihood, some allowed to flourish in nature for environmental sustainability. The locals cherish the land and waters given by God. The livelihood for coastal fishing communities in the area should therefore be conserved. It can also serve as a tourist attraction by remaining as an authentic “Coastal Fishing Village”. The livelihood of the local communities should remain intact. However, it is the contrary that has happened.

There it camethe reclamation contractors and the so-called ‘developers’ who started the reclamation project. Approximately a marine area measuring 2,500 acres, about 3km times 3km, which is full of fisheries and marine resources are now being made into land.

Since last month, it was reported that fish in aquaculture farms as well as in the sea were found dead in great numbers in the Straits of Johore. The losses amount to several millions ringgit. The aquaculture entrepreneurs suffered. The coastal fishermen complained but to no avail. Government agencies, however, were indifferent to their problems and sweep the problem aside. Without any investigation report being completed, the authorities has come to the unsubstantiated conclusion that the incident of dying of fish was totally not related to the reclamation project.

I was puzzled and worried – once the reclamation is completed later, can these fishermen still look for fish on the reclaimed brown land which was blue sea before? How are they and their children to compete with foreign workers in order to land a job at the construction sites? Where is the kampung after all?

Coastal Fishermen and Fisheries

They are small coastal fishermen. The Department of Fisheries statistics tells us that there are 613 fishermen in western Johor Bahru, of which 415 are Malays, 147 Orang Aslis and 51 Chinese. Gelang Patah is the main fisheries centre of the western part of Johore Bahru. In the area of Pendas and Tanjung Kupang alone, there are some 250 coastal fishermen and 95% of them Malays.

Fishing might not be the dream job for everyone. The coastal fishermen go to the sea in small boats with outboard engines to fish by using small nets or traditional fishing tools. They are not the relatively well-off trawl boat fishermen with large boats, trawl nets and modern gears. But without these coastal fishermen braving the waves and baking under the hot sun, there will be no fish and prawns as sources of affordable food and nutritious protein for us.

Fisheries contributes to about 1% of GDP for Malaysia. But the contribution of coastal fishermen to our society, and their important role in shaping Malaysian culture and identity, cannot be assessed and valued based solely on the GDP numbers.

I call for the Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industries to explain in detail to the House – what is the government’s policies towards protecting the rights and livelihoods of our coastal fishermen? Are the Ministry’s policies as implemented through the Fisheries Development Board and the Department of Fisheries, in pushing for large aquaculture businesses and encouraging ocean fishing by large companies, give scant thoughts for the small and traditional coastal fishermen until they are marginalised in the waves of national development?

This only shows how large are the discrepancies between the everyday suffering of the people and those so-called development promises made and supposed to be delivered by the BN government. What an irony it was for those people-oriented development projects, as claimed by BN, which in the end cause huge damages to the environment and disintegration to the local community when implemented on the ground. It all happened without respecting the laws of this country, and in all likelihood, it also violates multiple international laws and conventions to which the Malaysian government have pledged to observe.

Not Rejecting Development Blindly

The question is: am I or the coastal fishermen I represent opposing coastal reclamation or even rejecting development per se? Certainly not. But there are socio-economic considerations and legal procedures that must be strictly adhered to by the developers, contractors and the government themselves, if they intend to reclaim or develop an area. Among others: there must be open and comprehensive consultation with the local communities, lawful procedures to minimize the impact of sea reclamation on fisheries resources, and the right approaches in planning the priorities of development – whether it is done for a small selected group of investors and the already-rich, or to adopt an inclusive approach to get the local communities participating in a meaningful way so that they too will benefit deeply from national development.

Violating Malaysian Laws

This Parliament has enacted in 1974 the Environmental Quality Act (EQA 1974). And under the EQA, there are regulations, orders and guidelines that were made for making Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) mandatory for a list of activities. I have referred to the list of ‘prescribed activities’ requiring an EIA and clearly, all coastal reclamation activities must get prior EIA approval and so does any land development activities exceeding 500 hectares (equivalent to 1100 acres).

Why did the 2,5000 hectare Pulau Ubah project was allowed to proceed without any EIA? Here I call the Environment Minister (Cameron Highlands MP) to give a full explanation – leave aside the well being of the Chinese Panda for a moment – focus instead on this burning local issues. Our environment was under threat by those who pay no regards to Malaysian laws enacted in this House. The haze is not getting better. The fishermen complained about polluted seas. But the Minister is attracted to the Panda.

I also asked the Prime Minister (Pekan), as the Co-Chairman of IRDA, to explain the issue.

The Prime Minister must give his explanation to the public too, because there has been some sayings lately, especially in Johore that gaming/gambling license for the establishment of a casino is now being considered by the Federal Government. A conglomerate was said to have lobbied for the starting of a new casino industry within the Iskandar Development Region. Coastal reclamation projects such as the recently exposed Pulau Ubah - stated on paper as mixed development comprising commercial and residential high rise building – could that be site preparation for the upcoming second casino in Malaysia?

True Goals of Development for a Better Life with Dignity

Finally, let me go back to the core issue raised today. What is really the true goals of development as pursued by Malaysia since our Independence? For me, it is to benefit all people, to allow all Malaysians regardless of race and religion, to live a better and fuller life with dignity. Yes, we could have dreamed to build the highest building and largest stadium in the word, or if necessary, reclaim sea for land development. However, if we are lost in our way as the BN government did by pursuing mega projects blindly without considering socio-economic and environmental factors, the people will remain oppressed and unfree.

Tanjung Kupang in Gelang Patah in an example. What meaning does development carries for the coastal fishermen communities – will they live a fuller and more meaningful life? We have only one Gelang Patah in Malaysia, but the patterns of development, or shall I say more precisely, destruction rather, is spreading like contagious disease to all corners of Malaysia under the BN administration.

Lim Kit Siang DAP Parliamentary Leader & MP for Gelang Patah