250 feet hill restriction needs to be reconsidered

The debate on the pros and cons of Penang hill development above 250 feet has been dragging on for a long time.

Both the BN and the Pakatan governments appear to be afraid or hesitant to allow development above 250 feet so that the issue has taken on a policy ban dimension.

Is this policy decision restricting hill development to below the 250 feet level the appropriate one to benefit the state and the people? In my view this policy needs to be reconsidered.

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Little logic in banning hill development above 250 feet

I cannot see the logic of banning development above the 250 feet level. Even the ordinary citizen, I am sure, cannot see the logic of this ruling. If the ruling is meant to show that the state government is engaged and proactive on the issue of hill development, then it is the wrong message to send out.

In my view, the hill above 250 feet is just as capable of supporting environmentally and socially sustainable development as the land below 250 feet. To argue otherwise makes little sense.

How to make use of the billions worth of Penang hill assets?

The correct strategy is to remind the people that they will be the beneficiaries of development of the Penang hills. To restrict the development to below 250 feet is simply to waste an asset which is worth tens if not hundreds of billions of ringgit.

This restriction may have been necessary in the past when the know-how and technology available was less advanced or reassuring. However, new knowledge and recent engineering and technological innovations (see the many examples of hill development in Hong Kong) show that hill development above 250 feet can be carried out responsibly and sustainably.

Instead of saying “no” or be seen to be procrastinating on the issue of hill development, the chief minister needs to show that he is made of sterner stuff and he must take the bull by the horns.

He must speak out and act decisively on the hill issue. This means that he must explain that his government has the best interests of the people and that the rational and planned development of Penang hills under an open, clean and efficient government will benefit the state and the ordinary Penangite.

Of course it is always easier not to make any controversial decision to pre-empt losing some votes on what is perceived to be a hot potato issue.

However, the government must not be afraid to make any decision that will benefit the majority of the people, provided the decision-making process is done openly and transparently and after a careful analysis of the pros and cons of the issue.

Recruit a world class consultant

For a start, I propose that the Penang government engages a reputable engineering consultant to find out how to develop the land above 250 feet.

The consultancy for the engineering consultant should be set out in a rigorous and transparent manner to ensure that it attracts bids from the best firms available.

The government must also assure the public that the government intends to share with key stakeholders and other interested parties the outcome of the study as well as to engage with them in any further actions relating to hill development that may arise.

How to generate more revenue?

Any sensible government, BN or Pakatan, must change their “cannot do or won’t do” policy if they are confident and backed by rigorous data that the change will benefit the people and due diligence is done.

Land is different from other natural depleting commodities like gold, tin or other minerals. Land can be used for real estate development which in time can produce continuous taxes and other direct and indirect ancillary revenue to benefit the people.

Just look at all the tall buildings in any city. They are built by entrepreneurs who pay taxes and other dues to help the government to help the people. Any good government must always be on the lookout for ways to benefit the people.

Benefits to existing land owners and state

Since the Pakatan government took control of Penang about four years ago, their track record shows that they have performed very well and the people know that. Just explain to the people how the decision to develop the Penang hills will benefit them and I am sure that the people of Penang will support the development.

Existing land owners must appreciate the fact that if the hill development takes place and when the government changes its policy from “cannot build” to “can build”, their property value will gain tremendously.

They must be prepared to share their windfall profits with the government because the state will have to pay for the construction of additional infrastructures such as roads, drains, slope protection, soil stabilisation, supply of water, electricity and other environmental protection measures to ensure the safety of developing the hill.

It would be unfair to the ordinary taxpayers if the government does not share in some of the windfall profits accruing to existing land owners.

Properly negotiated, this can be a win-win situation for the existing land owners and the state, the latter representing the interests of ordinary citizens.

The biggest beneficiary will be the government since most of the land still belongs to the government.

Once the hills are open for development, the government can sell the land in small parcels by open tender to the highest bidders, just like how it is being done in Hong Kong and Singapore.

In the tender process, the government can specify the usage of the land and add other conditions to ensure that the development goes according to plan and meets world class standards.

I am confident that if my proposals are accepted the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ will acquire as much lustre from its hills as it is getting from its beaches.

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