A Matter Of Development

(4-6-2018)

Ting Pek Khing is (or perhaps one should say was) a Sarawak businessman, who flourished under Taib Mahmud by becoming involved in projects linked to the present governor’s ‘family enterprises’. Suddenly, following Harapan’s surprise win, which has put the strongmen in Sarawak in a massive quandry, given that Taib thrived from his collaboration with the now defunct BN, this tycoon cum bankrupt cum elderly retiree has popped out of the woodwork to propose a massive RM30 billion project in Dr M’s constituency. In the eyes of most Malaysians it does look rather blatant. The new Prime Minister has been fairly cautious in his response, saying Mr Ting Pek Khing is ‘welcome to do business’ in Langkawi, which has none-the-less been sufficient to ring alarm bells amongst reformers, who supported his leadership of Harapan.

After all, it’s tempting for the premier. In one fell swoop he can hope to bring the magic rain on his local voters, who might expect to benefit from jobs as cleaners and servers for the massive influx planned of tourists into such a resort on their island. However, in a proper management of such issues of development, there ought to be full due process and consideration given, proper tendering, planning and all the rest. There should be full scrutiny of the models being proposed, the consequences of what is being proposed and who really will benefit in the end. In a democracy, it is the wider population who must expect to gain most. For example, do Langkawi residents really want to host a mega-resort on their island with tens of thousands of cheap travellers pouring in to soak up water, make filth, cause trouble, create prostitution issues and drug worries and all the rest of the social ills that inevitably accompany such resorts? Are they ready for the environmental effects on their waters, their reef, natural plants and sea life? Do they appreciate that soon their island with its tower block hotels will become a magnet for incoming workers from across Asia, who will undercut their own sons and daughters when it comes to competition to work in the hotels and restaurants etc?

A study ought to be made of the impact of mega-modern hotel complexes from Hawai, to Benidorm to Pataya beach in Thailand before the people of Langkawi are subjected to what would be the tranformation of their island, not necessarily for the better. Indeed, any such mega-project ought to be the subject of a proper 360 review by an independent special planning enquiry, involving a full local consultation process for local people to understand, evaluate and decide on such a life changing transformation that might benefit them far less economically than promised. After all, what did Ting Pek Khing’s Bakun project do for the refugee communities displaced by that mega-dam, which was meant to economically transform Sarawak? They had all been previously promised this project would enrich them, yet it has destroyed their beautiful homeland and left them impoverished. There is also the thorny issue of where Mr Ting Pek Khing’s financing will come from. Full transparency on that matter is required, not least because of his closeness to Taib Mahmud, whose management of Sarawak has made the kleptocracy of characters such as Najib Razak pale into insignificance.

Indeed, to place such a mega-project into the hands of a single financier, in itself can run several risks, especially given that this ‘grand plan constructor’ has plunged into bankruptcy before on just these sorts of ventures. An economic case needs to be made for this old boy’s mega-plans, so that Langkawians do not end up with something completely different from what was promised (a ‘classy resort’ could end up a sleezy sink if things go wrong). It is entirely probable, that a more restrained, sophisticated, lower key investment would in fact benefit Langkawi people better. Less, but richer tourists; less, but better jobs and less impact on the environment, so that they keep their island beautiful and safe – a place still nice to live in. These sorts of issues need thought and transparency and public debate. It is not for one rich and controversial entrepreneur with dubios connections just to make the offer nor for the new MP just to accept the offer, over a couple of deal making discussions where no one else gets a chance to make wider concerns heard.

Much damage has already been done by that sort of development, especially when the motives appear suspect from the start. Thankfully, Dr Mahathir has indicated that Ting’s bid would indeed need to go through the state parliament and be handled in the proper way.