PENANG’s worst floods in recent memory have highlighted two clear worrying trends.
The first is uncontrolled development, including the clearing of hillsides for high-rise property projects especially on the island.
Secondly, the floods, or rather the aftermath of the floods, also exposed the sharp class divide, where there are many poor people. They are the most vulnerable every time floods hit the state.
On the first point, Penang is in a very precarious stage because of over-development, according to academics.
The state does not have a gazetted Local Plan for development and the Penang Masterplan 1970 is outdated. When there is no Local Plan, the ruler rules.
A friend of mine who grew up in Bayan Lepas near the airport said he used to swim in the river near his house. The river is now badly silted and there is no more water flowing freely.
The same pattern is repeated across the island, where developers clear the hills and destroy the water retention, causing sediments to clog the nearest river and waterways.
The floods have also sparked considerable public debate with one former Penang Island City Council (MBPP) councillor basically saying that some top DAP Penang government leaders are contradicting themselves.
Dr Lim Mah Hui, in an online piece entitled “The danger of half-truths in Penang landslide issue”, questioned the contradictory statements between DAP assemblyman Jagdeep Singh Deo and Penang exco member Chow Kon Yeow.
Jagdeep was reported as saying that the Penang government had not approved any development projects on hillslopes above 76m since 2008.
He then compared the zero approvals for projects on land above 76m by the current administration with the 28 high-rise schemes allowed to be built on land above 76m by the previous administration.
Lim said this contradicted Chow’s statement in the state assembly that the Penang government had approved a total of 56 projects on slopes with gradients above 25 degrees or above 76m high.
“Chow’s answer in the state assembly completely destroys Jagdeep Singh’s claim that “the Penang state government has not approved any development projects on hillslopes above 76m since 2008,” said Eric See-To, deputy director at Barisan Nasional strategic communications.
“How can a son of Karpal act this way when lives were lost and more lives are at stake?” he asked.
Lim said Penang officials also liked to play with words. He said Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, Second Deputy Chief Minister P. Ramasamy and Jagdeep had all claimed that the landslide that occurred near Lembah Permai on Oct 21 was on land below 76m and ostensibly on slopes of less than 25 degrees, and was not on hill land but on “flat land”.
“What is their definition of ‘flat land’? Are they confusing ‘low land’ (land below 76m above sea level) with ‘flat land’? Is this Class 2 hillslope land regarded as flat land? It may not be hill land, if ‘hill land’ is defined as land above 76m, but it certainly is not flat land,” Lim said.
This leads to my second point, which is the incidence of poverty in Penang.
Volunteers coming from Kuala Lumpur and other states for the clean-up efforts concede that they encountered many flood victims who are poor, landless and living in terrible conditions.
Seberang Prai Utara and Seberang Prai are two areas where incidences of poverty are prevalent.
Despite many government achievements in poverty reduction programmes, there still remain pockets of poverty in many rural areas, particularly in Kedah (7.0 per cent), Kelantan (10.6 per cent) and Terengganu (15.4 per cent), Sabah (19.7 per cent), according to EPU data.
Penang, on the other hand, had the lowest incidence of poverty at 0.3 per cent in 2004, and hardcore poverty had been eliminated in 2009.
Interestingly, although the incidence of poverty in Penang is very low, this highly industrialised state could probably have a high number of urban poor.
This is because being a developed state with more than 85 per cent of its population living in urban areas, the poverty line might be insufficient to provide an accurate measure.
Poverty among the Malays in Penang is still present, especially in rural areas, even though some claim that the level is much lower than the national average.
According to one writer, the Balik Pulau area used to record Malay land possession of almost 35 per cent, but now it is less than five per cent.
The Malays, especially on the island, are left behind with some dragged back to the new form of poverty; urban poverty. Some who work in the ubiquitous electronics factories take home just RM1,000 a month.
One academic study conducted in Penang showed that only 29 out of 196 respondents have land.
However, the land owned is small. The average size is approximately 2.94 acres. As the demand for industrial and property land soars, the Malay holdings shrinks as many resort to selling their land.
Rapid urban expansion is a double-edged sword. It causes the built-up environment to spread into semi-urban areas, resulting in a sharp decrease of agriculture land.
Although urban expansion improves the infrastructure and generates economic opportunity both in formal and informal sectors, it also leads to reduction in the size of land owned by the communities.
It threatens the livelihood of poor farming communities.
There is a need for rigorous policies at the local level to control or direct urban development and boost aid programmes, scholars say.
The writer feels in a digital world, the winner does not always take all