Do urban megaprojects bring a sustainable, green future for Malaysia?

IN 2014, then chief minister of Malacca Idris Haron, introduced the Malacca Gateway Project as “an environmentally friendly project that will have many green buildings and set to boost tourism as it will be in harmony with nature.”

The Malacca Gateway is a 1,500-acre project consisting of 12 precincts. It was to feature a deep seaport facility, tourist eco-parks, heritage walks and luxury residences.

The project was to be built according to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) environmental sustainability guidelines. Developers marketed it as “the most sustainable development to attract investment in Asia.”

It was only one of the Malaysian urban megaprojects regularly branded as eco-friendly, green and sustainable. Despite the propaganda, the process of developing the area has often inflicted a high cost on the environment and surrounding communities.

Megaprojects and infrastructure particularly centered on transport have been a key feature in the administrations of Malaysia’s strongmen.

It is part of a global trend of “technologically and environmentally sound” urban development around the world pursued by foreign developers.

These large-scale projects are being carried out all over the world such as Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, New Clark City in the Philippines and the New Administrative Capital in Egypt.

While the Malacca Gateway was eventually scrapped by the government in November 2020, the project had already inflicted environmental costs.

Coastal reclamation had disrupted ecosystems and jeopardised fishing communities’ access to marine resources. It also led to rapid coastal erosion triggered by the loss of natural coastal protection of mangroves.

The reclamation also threatened the endangered hawksbill turtle as the reclaimed land hindered them from laying their eggs. Malacca has the biggest nesting population on the peninsula.

Despite the impacts, there are no signs of stopping megaprojects as Budget 2021 will ensure their continuity, including the Klang Valley first phase double tracking project, the Pan-Borneo Highway and Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR).

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department for Economic Affairs Mustapa Mohamed said it was impossible to stop these projects because “it would affect the others”.

“There will be no jobs for people such as contractors, those selling building materials, engineers, and even lawyers like Jelutong will have no jobs if the projects are halted,” he said.

Malaysia has pledged under the Paris Agreement in 2016 to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030. However, Malaysia’s political economy remains driven by encouraging private sector investment in infrastructure and megaprojects priced in billions.

“Urban megaprojects [tend to] emphasise smart and green features, [but are] silent about the process,” Green urbanism expert from the Luluea Univesity of Technology, Agatino Rizzo, wrote in his paper, Megaprojects and the limits of ‘green resilience’ in the global South: Two cases from Malaysia and Qatar.

“It brings in low-paid, racialised workers who will never benefit from or use these projects. Those who benefit are, instead, local and foreign elite, either as business developers or inhabitants or knowledge workers.”

The Forest City project in Johor – which is still under construction as well – best illustrates this. It features a metropolis on four islands of reclaimed land and as an exemplar of a “prime model of a future city” combining eco-friendly technology and sustainable development.

The project has also won the 2020 Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements Award (SCAHSA) and Global Green Smart City award supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

However, the project has cleared coastal mangroves in the Pulai River Mangrove Forest Reserve. Indigenous Orang Seletar and fishing communities who live in the area have also lost their livelihoods as a result of the clearance.

It had also been a subject of controversy because it was aimed primarily at investors from China. While the units were unaffordable to locals, its close location to Singapore offered a cheaper alternative to Chinese buyers.

The promised economic perks have always been the justification for pursuing such megaprojects. The benefits of tourism, international trade and employment might be enjoyed at the national or regional level.

However, they are hardly felt at local level where the socioeconomic and environmental impacts are mostly felt.

Nancy Alexander, the director of economic governance at the Heinrich Boell Foundation, said investors would privatise gains and socialise losses, while locking in carbon-intensive approaches due to lack of democratic control.

With residents’ lack of control over such approaches that affect them, there is a need to re-evaluate who directly benefits from these kinds of megaprojects.

Two weeks after the contract with the main developer was terminated this year, Chief Minister Sulaiman Md Ali announced that the project would proceed.

As green megaprojects show no signs of stopping in Malaysia and the world in general, the future might still be going on this trajectory. – December 16, 2020.

* Yvonne Tan reads The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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