RECENTLY, news of plans to eventually shift Penang International Airport from Bayan Lepas to a reclaimed island off Batu Maung has become the talk of the town among Penangites. Before the news had a chance to abate, another report came along saying plans were afoot to develop the Kulim International Airport. In this article, I want to draw your attention to the benefits that Penang stands to derive from shifting the Penang International Airport to Batu Maung and for supporting the development of the Kulim International Airport.
I believe more Penangites support shifting the international airport to Batu Maung, and fewer are enthusiastic over the idea of having an international airport in Kulim. In this article, I want to share with you why it is good to have the international airport in both Batu Maung and Kulim.
How Penang benefits from relocating the Penang International Airport to Batu Maung
First of all, I applaud the far-sightedness of the Penang government in putting in place plans to eventually shift the Penang International Airport. The airport in Bayan Lepas is the oldest in the country. Although it has been expanded a number of times, continuous urbanisation of Penang island has engulfed the airport in its present site, allowing little room for further expansion. Even as it is, the present airport terminal is operating above its intended capacity. If plans are not in place to allow for future expansion, this will eventually hamper Penang’s economic growth and development.
When the flat expanse in Bayan Lepas was initially developed into an airfield, the area was surrounded by countryside. There were few landings and take-offs. Nowadays, the Penang International Airport is hemmed in by high-rise residential blocks. I estimate that approximately one-third of Penang island’s population live within a 10km radius of the airport. There is a greater concern over noise pollution and safety of the population. It is timely, therefore, to shift the international airport.
An offshore man-made island off the coast of Batu Maung is an ideal location for the Penang International Airport. Being surrounded by the sea but remaining relatively close of Penang island, the new airport will enable the people of Penang to enjoy an improved quality of life free from the noise of aircraft taking off. At the same time, by having the flight path of landings and take-offs over the sea, concerns over safety issues are significantly reduced. The airport may even be able to operate 24 hours a day.
Penang is a land-scarce state. This is particularly true of Penang island. Once the airport is relocated, the site of the present international airport can be redeveloped for residential, commercial and industrial purposes. As far as housing is concerned, it is important for the state government to have adequate landbank to ensure that real estate prices can be controllled and maintained within an affordable level for locals. This can be more easily achieved when the government has land that can be redeveloped in stages.
Successive land reclamation in the Bayan Lepas coastal areas has enabled the development of the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone, now into its fourth phase. However, there is not much room left to further expand the industrial park. The relocation of the international airport will, therefore, free up land for industrial development, a necessity for Penang to provide a wide variety of high-paying jobs to check future brain drain.
The relocating of the international airport into an area that is otherwise the ocean will also have positive environmental impact. Usually, shallow areas of artificial islands become new artificial reefs and breeding grounds for fish. This has been done in other airport sites, notably Chap Lap Kok Airport. Therefore, the creation of man-made islands, when done properly, will actually lead to increasing reef space and marine life.
How Penang benefits from the development of the Kulim International Airport
While the relocation of the Penang International Airport is generally welcomed by many Penangites, the same cannot be said for the development of the Kulim International Airport. I believe this lack of enthusiasm for an international airport in Kulim stems more from the pride for Penang and concern for Penang’s future.
Questions remain over the rationale to have two international airports so close to one another. As I have stated above, I am greatly supportive of having an international airport in Penang, and to keep the airport in Penang island, albeit offshore. We need the airport here to support this densely populated conurbation that is Penang. Having said that, we should now understand why having an international airport in Kulim will benefit Penang.
Once upon a time, when concerns over noise pollution were distant, it was a source of pride to have an international airport within arm’s reach. With the development of expressways and rapid transit lines, the preference nowadays is to have the airport – especially one receiving international flights – at arm’s length, that means, away from densely populated areas.
All airports need a lot of land. This is especially true of international airports. Penang state is land scarce. Even Penang mainland, or Seberang Prai, is developing at such a rapid pace that we can ill afford to give away that much land for the development of an adequately sized international airport. Yes, we need all the land in Seberang Prai for purposes other than as vacant airport fields.
Of all the main towns of Kedah, Kulim is the one closest to Penang. It is right across the border from Bukit Mertajam. Kulim is to Penang what Johor Baru is to Singapore. By supporting the development of an international airport in Kulim, we allow it to be built in a place that does not suffer from land scarcity. Aircraft flight paths will also be over forested Kedah, rather than over the populated neighbourhoods of Bukit Mertajam or Prai.
Today, Bukit Mertajam is one of the fastest developing places in Penang. As of now, it still has a lot of land, but that will not be so a few decades into the future. In the coming decades, Penang mainland will become just as urbanised as Penang island. The population of Seberang Prai does not need to cross over just to reach the nearest airport. Eventually, every piece of land in Penang mainland will be too precious to use for an airport, yet, the people in Seberang Prai need to enjoy the same level of connectivity that their island cousins enjoy. The Kulim International Airport is well positioned to play that role for Seberang Prai and the southern part of Kedah.
Over the next 100 years, the entire state of Penang will become one big metropolis. By then, it will be necessary to have more than one international airport. Having more than one does not make Penang unique. London is served by Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and even the London City Airport. New York City is served by the John F. Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark airports.
To plan for the future, we need to prioritise the optimal use of our real estate. Using it to build a big international airport is a waste of our precious land – such an airport will quickly be engulfed by residential neighbourhoods, and the people living around the airport will suffer from noise pollution every single day. In land-scarce Penang, it is prudent that we start planning the relocation of our existing airport (and for this, the Penang government is on the right track) and, at the same time, support the construction of one in the town nearest to us.
When planning to improve the quality of life for our future generation, we need the foresight not to be chauvinistic. We need to plan for Penang to be a place with good infrastructure, where the people enjoy a high standard of living, where job opportunities are abundant, high paying and of a wide variety; all these, despite being one of the most densely populated states in the country. But even as Penang develops, we should allow spillover development to benefit Kedah, so that overall, we have a better Malaysia. We should not for one moment consider that allowing Kulim to develop will threaten Penang. Penang is geographically positioned to benefit from Kulim’s development. For that reason, I am supportive of relocating the Penang International Airport to a man-made island off Batu Maung, and I am also supportive of constructing the Kulim International Airport. – February 15, 2019.
* Timothy Tye reads The Malaysian Insight.