Monday, October 8, 2007

What is the PGCC? It is the Penang Global City Centre project. This is a huge multi-billion ringgit project to develop the present Penang racecourse into a major new city, housing something like 32,000 residents and creating massive social and environmental implications. But the project has been given very little explanation to the Penang public; it was launched by the Prime Minister before any approvals had been granted by Penang's MPPP, and there are apparently no plans for any public consultation beyond that stage-managed by the developers.

The project will have a major impact on the future of Penang, but Penangites are apparently not allowed to hear about it or ask questions about it.

This means the PGCC is just the latest in a very long line of projects that have been approved by municipal, state or federal agencies with very little public input, no commitment to transparency or accountability, and with very little real explanation. Principles of good governance are continually broken, and the future of Penang sold off to either the highest bidder or the best connected, or both.

The PGCC's developer is Abad Naluri Sdn Bhd, through Equine, under Patrick Lim (aka Patrick Badawi). The relationship to the PM is well known. The PR company is Fox Communications. The glossy brochure used to promote the project is full of misleading statements and pictures that many would argue are tantamount to lies. At the same time, it does tell us that the project is to be exclusive, high-end, and not for ordinary Penangites.

At the launch, the PM told the world that Penangites are envious of KLCC. This is already debatable. Then there is constant reference to "two icons", presumably Penang's twin towers. What pictures have failed to tell Penangites is that these two icons will be pretty much hidden by at least 37 other tower blocks - amazingly, these have also been left out of the glossy booklet. Are the developers so shy of the truth? Why are they misleading investors and the public?

Further, the massive traffic implications are being glossed over in a way that may be tantamount to negligence. Good traffic management is crucial for Penang's future - especially on the island. Good traffic management has been something that has been glaringly missing over the last twenty years. Now another major project is being proposed that can do nothing but generate huge traffic flows to a part of the island that is particularly vulnerable. It is highly reminiscent of PORR (the Penang Outer Ring Road, a highly controversial project also pushed through with little transparency, but one on which PGCC is sadly dependent). The very least Penangites are owed is public display of traffic plans, road building plans and public discussion of how all this is to be managed. Present 'answers' would seem to be to turn Scotland Road and perhaps Green Lane into major highways, complete with overpasses and tunnels - but how this is to be built, who is to pay for it (Penangites?), how many trees will be cut, how the roads will be widened (Penang Free School, watch out for your land), what traffic dispersal plans are in place for the years while all this is built, what changes concreting even more of Penang will have on local climate and pollution, are not being told to us. Perhaps the information doesn't exist. Yet the future of the island (as always) hangs in the balance.

Of course the realisation that the building of this project will take years and years (10 - 15 years minimum), generating huge amounts of lorry emissions and human carbon emissions (migrant worker carbon emissions!) makes an absolute nonsense of the claim by project developers that this will be a zero-carbon project. "Zero credibility" is probably the more apt term.

Further deceptions are to be found in the developer's claims that there will be a 146 metre gap between the project and neighbouring Jesselton houses. This is promised to be a 'forest of trees'. In reality, the measurements are taken from the actual house of a Jesselton resident to the nearest PGCC tower block, missing out (for example) PGCC carparks, and including (again, unbelievable cheek) the Jesselton residents' private garden! The actual gap turns out to be 8m, which will need to be reserved for emergency access. This sort of basic deception merely demonstrates how this project, like so many others, is being planned with little integrity or honesty, and for that reason we have to doubt any claims about its benefit for anyone other than the developer and their friends' bank accounts. Let's hope our state government and our MPPP will be courageous enough to stand firm in the face of political pressure, and protect the interests of Penang and Penangites. Otherwise our island will continue to be sold off to short-termists and profiteers.

(Imagine the traffic chaos; or the half-completed project abandoned because of economic downturn; or the empty office buildings elsewhere on the island as tenants are 'persuaded' to take up the politically-connected space in PGCC; or the decrepit state of the project thirty years later (see Komtar)).

We stress again: this is a project that will be a disaster for Penang, but the fact that it is being planned at all is a product of the extremely sorry state of our local democracy. The abolition of municipal council elections in the 1960s, by a federal government paranoid about being accountable (and therefore actually facing the prospect of losing control of town and city councils to opposition parties) has meant town planning proceeds with very little accountability and very little public participation. The State government, and the component political parties, are not brave enough to stand up against this, meaning projects like PGCC continue to be dumped on Penang with little concern for its actual impact on the island: its future, its people and its environment.

It is up to Penangites to reverse this trend. Call on those responsible in MPPP to publish all relevant documents, and account for their reasons for allowing projects like PORR, PGCC, the Cove, rampant hillcutting, etc etc. For PGCC, demand that the developer's traffic management plan is made public so that we can see what the arguments are. Plus all other relevant documents need to be made public, and all MPPP and state government discussions on the project be made open to the public. What, after all, has anyone got to hide? If it really is a good project, fine: let us see the reasons and see the plans (and not just some airbrushed nonsense drawing that bears no relation to the reality of the thing).