Monday, July 02, 2012

Uphill battle for residents

Penang politicians say that the hills are alive with the sound of music but angry residents in Tanjung Bungah think the hills are dying and their once serene suburb has become unlivable.

By Joceline Tan  Sunday July 1, 2012
(Also see a quick, same-day, reply from the Penang Chief Minister

THE rugged-looking Teh Yee Cheu, assemblyman for Tanjung Bungah, used to be dubbed the “bicycle YB” because he had once cycled to a Penang Legislative Assembly sitting. His DAP bosses did not quite approve of it but he received a lot of publicity from the media and went from an unknown to being noticed.
But these days, Teh’s name is more synonymous with the “dying hills” in his constituency. The hills of Tanjung Bungah have become a prickly issue in Penang politics and Teh is feeling the heat.

The DAP politician has been under immense pressure from his constituents to act on their complaints about the string of development projects coming up in Tanjung Bungah’s hilly terrain. Hillslope development and its environmental costs have become the No. 1 issue in this upmarket coastal strip.
Stolen charm: The once scenic coastline of Tanjung Bungah now resembles a concrete fortress and the fear is that things will get worse because there are more projects in the pipeline.
Tanjung Bungah, for those who are not from Penang, is an affluent residential belt on the island’s northeast. It occupies a narrow stretch of land with the hills on one side and the sea on the other. It is a much sought-after location and as land grew more scarce, the trend has been towards building high-rise and high-end apartments on hill slopes.

That made the residents see red and brought them together under the Tanjung Bungah Residents Association (TBRA) in 2006. It was their way of protesting against what they called “development without planning”.
“No need for a helicopter, just drive along the coastal road to Batu Ferringhi and you’ll see what we’re talking about,” said TBRA chairman Dr Leong Yueh Kwong.

George Aeria, who had chaired the association until recently, was more explicit: “We have a useless government, they’re quite stupid. We don’t care whether it’s DAP, Gerakan or Umno. You’ve got to run the State with the people’s interest in mind.”

Aeria sounds totally fed-up and who can blame him. Two years ago, his family home in the foothills of Tanjung Bungah was flooded for the first time ever because of an adjacent hillslope project.

The TBRA is quite a fierce group. They comprise the middleclass and professionals who are articulate, and know their rights and how to use the media. They have held several protests against the state of affairs. They are an angry lot going by some of their protest placards which have included stuff like: “Don’t repeat Highland Towers tragedy,” “We voted for change, not for the same,” and “Listen to the rakyat or regret in 13th GE.”
Outbreak of protests.
People in the Penang Govern­ment were unhappy with the “The Dying Hills” headline in The Star, and accused the paper of “media lynching”. But the people of Tanjung Bungah say it is spot on because their once serene suburb is becoming unlivable. Their problems are not just the threat of landslides, floods and erosion. The new schemes have generated a crazy traffic situation on roads that were not meant for such a dense population.

“In a few years’ time, we may not be able to go in or out of Tanjung Bungah,” said Dr Leong, who is a former university professor.

A few weeks after the report by The Star, the State bulletin Mutiara, which made news for carrying 51 pictures of the Chief Minister in a single issue, countered with its own headline claiming that, “The hills are alive with the sound of music.”

It is strange the State Govern­ment can hear music coming from the hills but cannot hear the woes of Tanjung Bungah folk.

But the Tanjung Bungah assemblyman appears to have broken ranks with his party’s neither-here-nor-there position on the issue. Teh has asked the public to say it “loud and clear” if they are against hillslope development.

Teh, whose Facebook photo shows him thigh-deep in mud planting mangrove saplings, also dropped a bombshell; he said he had learnt that there are some 15 new applications to build on the hill slopes and seafront of Tanjung Bungah.
Teh: Taken a big gamble by breaking ranks with his party.
He is under pressure from his party, which does not want to offend the powerful developer lobby in Penang. Many see him as a chess piece in the tussle of wills between the people and the powers-that-be.

His boss Lim Guan Eng is said to be very annoyed with him. The DAP elected representatives have a pow-wow every Friday with the Chief Minister. At a meeting earlier last month, Teh was slapped with a gag order and told to do damage control on his “loud and clear” remarks. Teh kept mum throughout the meeting and skipped the following week’s meeting.

It is apparent he has decided to put his constituents’ interest above that of his party bosses. He attends TBRA meetings, joins them at protests and despite coming across as rather clueless on a lot of issues, he has won praise from the residents.

Teh’s attitude has been a stark contrast to Bukit Bendera MP Liew Chin Tong whom residents say has not come out for them on the issue. Tanjung Bungah and three other state seats fall under the Bukit Bendera parliamentary constituency and the cerebral and Canberra-educated Liew would have been well-suited to bring the TBRA’s complaints to the higher authorities and help find a solution.

Deaf and dumb stand

But, according to those in the TBRA, the DAP politician has adopted a “deaf and dumb” stand on their problems. Yet, he has loads of opinions on everything else – from the Lynas plant in Pahang to Myanmar politics and the Arab Spring.
“He should also look after his own backyard,” said a journalist from a Chinese newspaper in Penang.

He cannot claim the hill issue is outside his purview as an MP. DAP MP for Jelutong Jeff Ooi had defied his bosses and stuck his neck out for his constituents on low-cost housing in his area.
Aeria: No action from authorities on hillslope development.
At the height of the issue, Liew was seen up on Penang Hill with his Chief Minister at the launch of some hilltop cafe. Liew is clearly trying to stay in the good books of his DAP boss and he probably figures he can hold on to Bukit Bendera without the support of the Tanjung Bungah people.

Teh, on his part, is struggling to cope and had to engage a Chinese newspaper journalist to help him handle the media. Teh, who hails from Kedah, has been in Penang DAP for more than 20 years and probably feels a greater commitment to the State and the people’s problems.

“We are not political and we are not against development. But we are against bad development taking place without the necessary infrastructure,” said Dr Leong.
The residents are disappointed that the State planning authorities have been unable to come up with a suitable policy for Tanjung Bungah. A big part of the problem has to do with the ambiguity over the development zoning of Tanjung Bungah.

According to Aeria, Tanjung Bungah had actually been listed as a secondary zone in the Penang Structure Plan, as the policy plan for the State is known. But a map in the same report identified it as a primary zone. A primary zone is subjected to a higher development density than a secondary zone. The TBRA wants Tanjung Bungah to be classified as a secondary zone so that the development pressure will be reduced.

The TBRA took the matter to court but the judge dismissed the case on grounds that the deadline for the application had expired.

The demands made by NGOs like Sahabat Alam Malaysia and the Malaysian Nature Society have been more drastic. They want all hill projects halted and a freeze on approved projects until the guidelines for hill development are revised.

“The issue of overdevelopment is not only in Tanjung Bungah. It is quite widespread, from seaside to hillside, from the kampung to the city. But the pressure has been greatest on the island where there is limited land but everyone wants a house here. The current State Government is pro-developer, no doubt about that. DAP can blame the last Government for many problems but they cannot deny they are good friends with the developers. People have eyes, you know,” said a Penang lawyer.
Liew: Bukit Bendera MP seen as “deaf and dumb” on issue.
The standard tune from the State Government is that it has not approved any projects above 76m since 2008 and the problematic projects were approved by the previous administration.

But as Tanjung Bungah advocates have pointed out, many of the projects causing grief to people are hillslope projects below 76m. They say it is time to revamp the building regulations if even projects on slopes below 76m are causing problems. They want a moratorium on development in Tanjung Bungah until a clear-cut zoning policy is drawn up.

They are also stunned to hear that there are 15 new applications for projects on Tanjung Bungah’s hill slopes and seafront as revealed by their assemblyman. They want the State to be transparent about the new schemes.

As Penang Island municipal councillor Dr Lim Mah Hui said earlier this week, public officials and politicians must realise that the middle class in Penang are voicing their concern and anger in public protests because they feel that something is not right with the development taking place.

The outspoken Mah Hui was placed under a gag order after the “dying hills” issue erupted. The moment the gag was lifted on Monday, he made an enlightening speech before a full council which has been making the rounds among concerned citizens.

Mah Hui has been very concerned about the State Government’s fascination for mega-projects such as the undersea tunnel and the sPICE convention centre. He said that the larger community must be consulted on mega schemes.

His speech was a subtle warning of how ambitious projects like the Penang Global City Centre in 2008 came up against massive opposition from the people. The ill-conceived project was said to have contributed to the Barisan’s defeat in Penang. And 18 years before that, a scheme to put a theme park on Penang Hill ended the political career of the late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu.
Tanjung Bungah’s vocal middle class played their part in ushering the Pakatan Rakyat Government in 2008. They had high expectations of the new Government and are disappointed that it is not much different from the one they voted out.

“We had expected them to champion our cause but they are not as responsive as we would have liked. We were in a tunnel with the last Government and there is still no light at the end of the tunnel under the present Government,” said Aeria.

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