Penang fishermen caught in changing times

Economy March 14, 2016 01:00


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PENANG offers many opportunities to observe society’s reactions to the changing times, given it is a state that has seen more social, cultural, economic and political changes than most other parts of Malaysia.

In the heart of George Town’s heritage enclave, Chew Seng San, 60, sells durian puffs on Chew Jetty, the largest of the Chinese clan jetties along Weld

 Quay. Chew was once a stevedore. “When I was young, I would go out with my fibreglass boat and ferry ship cargo ashore or carry supplies to them,” he said.

After the 1980s, Penang Port created a deepwater wharf and about 15 years later completed the North Butterworth Container Terminal. Chew’s job had been rendered obsolete. Chew Jetty is now a tourist attraction, and little do the visitors know that the large fibreglass boat – still shipshape and sparkling clean – moored beside Chew’s durian puff shop is his.

More recently, inhabitants of another coastal area in Penang are facing the kind of changes that Chew and his clansmen survived. Using 3.6 metre to 4.2m skiffs and 40 horsepower outboard motors, a few hundred inshore fishermen search for prawns and fish along the southern coast of Penang Island. They are spread over several fishing villages.

To fund the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP), there are plans to reclaim two islands – 930 hectares and 566 hectares – off the south of the island, affecting part of the fishing grounds of the inshore fishermen.

The state government came up with the PTMP, estimated to cost over 27 billion ringgit (Bt233 billion), to solve one of the state’s biggest problems – traffic congestion – with plans to introduce new highways, a bus rapid transit system, trams, a light rail transit system, monorails, catamarans and even water taxis.

“We object to the reclamation plan. How can we not? It will be right on top of our fishing grounds,” said fisherman Soza Syahrimy Zainol, 41.

Assoc Prof Dr Chin Yee Whah, an economic sociologist from Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, understands Soza Syahrimy’s sentiments.

In 1996, Chin was part of a team commissioned to study the social impact of Singapore-Johor Baru’s Second Link on the area’s fishermen and said their fears were all the same.

“Change is necessary. But it is the government’s duty to ease that change for groups like fishermen in sea reclamation projects,” Chin said.

Chin said the state government must take pains to identify the fishermen that were wholly dependent on the sea.

When asked what the government had in mind for the fishermen, state Welfare, Caring Society and Environment Committee chairman Phee Boon Poh said: “The geopolitics of the island has been lopsided since Captain Francis Light founded it in 1786. “All economic growth was centred in George Town from the sea to the hill, tourism was kept to the north in Batu Ferringhi and so on, industrial growth was in the southeast and everywhere else on the island was ignored.”

The absence of balanced statewide planning, Phee said, had left rural areas like Teluk Kumbar behind.

But he stressed that the urbanisation potential with the reclamation of the two islands did not mean wiping out what Teluk Kumbar was popular for today.

“If George Town’s heritage value is a state asset, then so is the village setting of the south. We not only plan to preserve the setting, we want to restore it and capitalise on its value as rustic holiday attractions,” he said.

He said just as there were five-star hotels in George Town on the same streets as rows of pre-war houses made into boutique hotels, Teluk Kumbar could look forward to such a synergy.

The planned reclamation will take about seven years to complete and embedded into it are about 1,100 jobs. The work ranges from marine jobs to construction duties such as divers, sea safety marshals, boat skippers, junior surveyors, welders and fitters.

Priority for the job vacancies will be given to the local fishermen and their families, and Phee said that was just the beginning.

When told of this vision, Soza Syahrimy admits to being torn between the love for his carefree lifestyle at sea and the chance to see unprecedented growth take place at his home.

“I think they are going to reclaim this sea no matter how we object. I heard the PTMP will include a chance for us to become water taxi skippers. That sounds exciting. But I still can’t see how the future will be for us. I am willing to look for new opportunities, but if possible I want to keep my life at sea,” he said.