Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Happy Year of the Rat!

Dear TBRA members and supporters,
Happy New Year to you all. Both for the year that started on 1 January and for the one that will start on 7 February: Gong Xi Fa Cai !

In some way this is a summary report of the second half of 2007 – we do hope that 2008 will be a better year. TBRA has made a difference, not enough… but with your help we will build up more steam and use the experience gained to do more this year and do it better.

First the good news, then one piece of bad news and finally a report on TBRA’s Forum.

1. PSC throws out fishy deal. The Penang Swimming Club, on 13 January, said NO to a Committee proposal that the Club exchange a piece of land on the hillside for a promised reclamation of 1.5 acres on the seafront. It was a resounding NO, with some 95% of the members present outvoting the Committee. The Excel Crescent company (the same people responsible for Tanjong Bunga’s “Sore Thumb” reclamation) had offered PSC to reclaim a large piece of land from the sea and transfer it with a freehold title in exchange for PSC’s Lot 417 across the street between Diamond Villa and the Pearl View condos. Excel Crescent wants to build a 28-storey towerblock on Lot 418 and needs 417 to gain access to the main road. TBRA is glad that PSC members had enough sense to refuse that dubious proposal.

2. Objections to development on Lot 418. This condo project on the steep hillside across from PSC was hotly debated on 6 December when residents (many TBRA members) handed over a memorandum to the Chief Ministers’ office. Even though the actual MPPP hearing was postponed, the press happily reported on the objections by Malaysia Second Home owners in the neighbouring condos. They protested against the haphazard way City Council has been approving highrises in Tanjong Bunga, making the beautiful coastline into a wall of ugly concrete blocks. Also, adding another access road from Lot 417 is considered a huge traffic hazard.

3. Council says NO to Jalan Oldham development by BSG. Another high rise development in an all low-rise residential neighbourhood (BSG’s planned First Avenue condo between Sungai Kelian and Jalan Tanjong Bunga) was refused permission to raise its tower block from 25 to 41 storeys. Approval for 25 storeys was given in 2002, but last year BSG proposed a massive increase in height. Residents objected in two separate hearings and are relieved that the council seems to have taken notice. Thank you MPPP !. Should there be an appeal, TBRA hopes you remain steadfast.

4. PGCC developer is asked to scale down. The outrageous mega project at the turf club has suffered its first setback thanks to massive public protest. Chief Minister Koh Tsu Koon, said his office received 2,500 postcards, letters and e-mails protesting the project and has now asked the developer to revise the plans (see attached article). Many believe this to be an election gimmick and the PGCC Campaign group will keep up the pressure, asking for a local plan to be adopted before approving anything. Ideally, the area should remain a green lung for recreational activities: a public park. (Many thanks to all who have sent in postcards and join those who are sporting car stickers “NO to PGCC”. The stickers are available @ RM1 from PHT, CAP and TBRA and other NGO’s.)

One piece of bad news: The Solok Tan Jit Sing project (on a steep hillside, directly below the Pearl Hill townhouses on stilts) has apparently been approved.

Transparency in Local Governance

The Tanjong Bunga Residents’ Association (TBRA) spearheaded a Public Forum on Transparency in Local Governance on 2 Dec 2007. Together with other NGOs in Penang , it invited other residents’ associations to campaign for greater accountability and more effective citizens’ participation.

Keynote speaker, lawyer Derek Fernandez said “Too much damage has been done in Penang , but we can still save it if there is a concerted effort to stop the rot”. Lim Hooi Siang, chairman of TBRA said in his welcome address that “If all residents’ associations speak with one voice, that voice will be louder and may be more effective than all the letters to the Chief Minister and the MPPP we have written. This Forum could be the beginning of a change to reinstate local democracy. If the rakyat can elect their local representatives freely and fairly, the local authorities will have to become more accountable and responsive.”

Derek Fernandez shared a video about the human impact of the 12/11 Highland Towers disaster. It was completely avoidable, he said. It should never have happened. We must learn from it and prevent another hillside collapse elsewhere. He illustrated his speech with slides on accountability. “There is a dire and immediate need for residents to organize themselves in an effective manner with Resident Associations of different areas finding common ground and co-operating so as to protect their common values in relation to their quality of life and the use of the environment because ultimately the failure to do so will cause everyone to suffer. Residents must be vigilant and vigorously protect their rights and demand a transparency and accountability in the development process. They are entitled to demand that those in public office who break the law, circumvent the law and abuse their power be removed from office and face the consequences as provided for by the law.”

He showed examples of economic and ecological damage done because local councils were not vigilant or were listening to developers rather than to their conscience. For example, privatisation of loss-making businesses makes sense but privatising essential services that are doing well is a scandal. Penang is lucky, he said, it has the best water in the country at the cheapest rates. But its waterfront is going to the dogs; it is fast becoming a concrete jungle.

Syed Jaafar of the Residents Association of Bayan Baru agreed: “When I go to Tanjong Bunga, I want to see the beach. Most countries have a beach-road-hotel sequence but no more in Penang , buildings are now hiding the beaches.” He began his association 25 years ago when there was severe flooding and no action. We threatened to sue the government, he said, and that seemed to work. “Don’t act in isolation, get together, galvanise the experience and advice from within the community, there is more expertise than you think”.

Edward Lee of the very active Petaling Jaya RA, gave some practical advice: go from house to house, get organised, know your facts, be professional, get the lawyers, the engineers, the accountants and the housewives from your town together and work for the common goal. It takes time and effort but it can be done. Lee Laine, vice-chair of TBRA, joined in and related how she joined the association because she was angry about the haphazard development in her area. Seeing the Cove’s “four sore fingers” going up at 41 storeys each, right by the beach, made me angry again, she said. “There is no local plan, developers are having a field day, residents deserve to know what is allowed and where the lines must be drawn.” Ahmad Chik of the Penang Hill association and moderator of the panel, joined in by reminding the public that the massive projects for Penang Hill had been defeated by joint action and that it could be done again.

Questions from the floor concerned the same lack of planning. How could one shopping mall after another be approved in an indiscriminate manner? Each one had its brief heyday and then collapsed because a new and bigger one competed. Edward Lee said that there is a Town Planning Act but it is not put in practice: the highest bidder gets the green light. Derek Fernandez responded by stating that market driven ad-hoc planning is the worst form of planning – flavour of the month approach. In PJ, a stop has been put to that, there are zones now; zoning looks at how developments will affect surrounding properties, at what impact buildings will have on traffic, on infrastructure and residents know what to expect.

Another complaint came from a condo owner whose view became blocked by another high rise building in front. When she purchased the condo, she was told that only six storeys were allowed on the land below and now there is a 39-storey monster! The fines for exceeding the height are too small. Derek replied that zoning and enforcement of the zoning plan would help but that the “buyer beware” principle also applies. Buyers should not believe all the beautiful plans and talks of the developer but do a serious check into the ownership of the surrounding lots. “Many developers and buyers are selfish, they don’t care about the people behind their development”.

“Local government is powerful - it can make decisions for the interest of the community. And if they don’t, they should be booted out. Tanjong Bunga is lucky, your Assembly man is elected. Get his votes counted and tell him what you think of his performance…” Persuade people not to buy offending condo’s; even foreigners can be scared into not investing. If the press is censored, use the Internet, use blogsites, ask for legal hearings, warn against hill slides, traffic jams, infrastructure problems.

The seven Residents’ Associations present agreed to adopt the “Penang Charter”* as a working document in a new endeavour to work together toward greater transparency and accountability.

No comments: