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LETTER | With the ongoing trade war and protectionism, external challenges abound. But the biggest hurdle that Penang faces is its own people. While most want to see Penang continue its onward progress in the face of globalisation, there exists a tiny group of Luddites that sees all development as evil.

Luddites are defined as people who are opposed to new technology or ways of working, according to Oxford Dictionaries. In 19th century Britain, Luddites, driven by a fear of job losses due to the Industrial Revolution, disabled and destroyed machines in wool and cotton factories.

In modern-day Penang, Luddites oppose all forms of development. Even beneficial ones too - their opposition to the upgrading of the Penang Hill’s funicular system and the Second Penang Bridge are just a few instances. In recent weeks, the Luddites persisted with their crusade against the Penang South Reclamation (PSR), on the perception that land reclamation threatens the livelihoods of fishermen. Indeed, the Luddites have demonstrated their innate inability to look at the bigger picture.

The PSR project envisions three reclaimed islands adjacent to both the Penang International Airport and the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone (FIZ). The latter, a major manufacturing hub that is home to several multinational companies such as Motorola, Intel, Dell and Bosch, is known as the "Silicon Valley of the East". PSR was mooted to fund the Penang Transportation Master Plan (PTMP), as well as to provide additional land for development, particularly within the vicinity of the existing FIZ.

Let's look at the statistics. As of 2017, the manufacturing sector was the second largest economic sector in Penang. This sector contributed 44.8% (about RM34,783 million) of Penang’s GDP, as well as 12.9% (RM269.8 billion) to Malaysia’s manufacturing revenue that year. Over 69% of Penang’s exports consist of machinery, telecommunications and electronic devices and apparatus, as well as transport equipment, many of which are manufactured in the Bayan Lepas FIZ. The manufacturing sector employed nearly two-fifths of Penang’s workforce as of 2016.

The companies at the Bayan Lepas FIZ have benefited from the relative proximity to a major international airport. However, newer investors seeking land to set up their offices and factories are forced to look elsewhere as the FIZ is now fully developed. This is an age where mergers, acquisitions and retrenchments happen constantly. For the Silicon Valley of the East to remain attractive to investors, additional land banks are required. This is where the PSR comes into play.

By comparison, agriculture, which includes fisheries, contributed a paltry 2% (about RM1,553 million) of Penang’s GDP. It should be noted that agriculture is a generalised term that includes land-based farms producing commodity crops and fruits, on top of fisheries. Thus, the fisheries’ actual contribution to Penang’s GDP is marginal, at best. As of 2016, the fisheries sector in the entire Penang generated merely RM109,504 in revenue, based on data from Penang’s Department of Fisheries. A tiny 0.6% of Penang’s workforce comprised of fishermen in 2016.

Inherent for a state of its size, Penang’s fisheries are more of a cottage-type industry. Data from the Department of Fisheries showed that close to 95% of Penang’s inboard-powered fishing fleet as of 2016 could only venture to a maximum distance of 12 nautical miles from the shore. This is a far cry from more productive states like Pahang and Kelantan, which collectively produced 22% of Malaysia’s fish haul in 2016. Some 35% of Pahang’s inboard-powered fleet could sail up to 30 nautical miles, whereas for Kelantan, 20% of its inboard-powered vessels could travel all the way to international waters. Then again, both states lie next to the vast South China Sea; Penang simply does not enjoy the luxury of a large body of sea.

From an economic standpoint, one can’t help but wonder whether the Luddites opposing the PSR can even see the bigger picture. Would Penangites earn respectable salaries from fishing alone, or by tapping into the globally competitive electronics industry? Would Penang even be labelled as the Silicon Valley of the East if the Bayan Lepas FIZ had not been created? While our government has been urging the rakyat to embrace Industrial Revolution 4.0, why should investors come to a city filled with Luddites who refuse to even grant additional land for industrial and infrastructural developments? Why should Penangites forego economic and infrastructural development for the sake of the fishes?

I would propose that while the PSR should proceed for the benefit of the majority of Penangites, the fishermen should be retooled and re-skilled in line with the times. Fish farming was introduced along Singapore’s northern coast facing the Johor Straits in the 1970s in place of traditional sea-faring boats. As of 2016, fish farms contributed about 10% of the republic’s fish consumption. While there are also fish farms in Penang, perhaps this newer aquaculture method can be promoted to the fishermen affected by the PSR. Aquaculture is also a remedy to the perennial problem of overfishing, especially in Penang where the licensing of fishing boats was restricted due to this issue. But would the Luddites ever consider this novel approach instead of merely protesting against the PSR? Based on their actions thus far, I highly doubt that.

Last but not least, if land reclamation indeed kills off the livelihood of fishermen as alleged by the Luddites, then can they explain the relative lack of protest over other reclamation projects in this country? Have we heard of them protesting against Forest City or the Melaka Gateway? Why are the Luddites singling out Penang, whilst land reclamations in Johor and Melaka continue uninterrupted? This smacks of hypocrisy on the part of the Luddites. Land reclamation has been done in land-starved cities, including Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. As much as 17% of the Netherlands was reclaimed from the sea.

In short, the Luddites, blinded by their inherent disdain against all forms of development, have failed to provide any workable solution to the problems facing Penang. So why should Penangites take them any seriously? Penang as a state in Malaysia deserves progress as well.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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