Penang must learn from destruction of Bukit Relau

Ask any Penangite about one slogan they could remember and you'll probably hear "Cleaner Greener Penang".

Large billboards and posters proudly display this slogan, almost ubiquitous in the streets of Penang, an effort to get the message out to the "rakyat".

Indeed in the last few years, Penang has become much cleaner than the "Darul Sampah" it once was, with efficient revamping of infrastructure and a very successful "No Free Plastic Bag" campaign.

But has it really become greener?

Take a short ride through the foothills of Penang's majestic hills and you'll have a reason to think otherwise.

As the property boom in Penang whirls out of control, flat land is becoming scarce and the hills of Penang are becoming the targets of ever encroaching development.

The idea of living in a modern condominium with green leafy surroundings, fresh air and beautiful sea views is also catching up with consumers, fuelling the demand for more hill clearing to satisfy this thirst for "green living".

Foothill townships of Sungai Ara, Tanjung Bungah, Batu Ferringhi are paying the price for this new trend.

Recently, Bukit Relau in the Bukit Gambir area has also joined this bandwagon of destruction.

A mere one year ago one could never imagine seeing development on this leafy, 400m hill.

Its sheer steepness itself would render any development or clearing activity on its slopes dangerous.

However, today it stands with its top bald, and with almost half of its eastern slope cleared.

While swift action and prosecution followed this case, many still feel little has been done, too late.

The charge, which was under Section 70A (1) of the Street, Drainage and Buildings Act 1974 carried a fine of RM30,000, a mere slap on the wrist for the developer involved.

While the forests of Bukit Relau would probably need a lifetime to grow back to its former lushness, the unscrupulous developer involved in clearing it would probably settle the fine within a short time.

This calls into question the very mechanism in place to protect our environment.

If things could go so disastrously wrong on Bukit Relau, why wouldn't it elsewhere in Penang?

With light punishments and sentences, little can be done to deter hill clearing and subsequent development.

Bukit Relau stands today as an ugly reminder of what unabated development can do.

As a growing undercurrent of discontent arises among concerned citizens and environmentalists, it's worth remembering that the defeats of the late Chief Minister Lim Chong Eu in 1990 and Dr Koh Tsu Koon's in 2008 were strongly attributed to environmental issues.

If the state government doesn't heed this wakeup call, it would be a matter of time before a hard lesson is learnt in GE14.

So, would the destruction of Bukit Relau be a wake-up call for tougher action and a revision of present environmental legislations or would it just be an epitome of what is yet to come? Only time will tell.