Sunday, May 9, 2010

Is relocation of Penang Port the right call?

There has been more than one instance in the past decade, when the issue of relocating the Penang International Airport on Penang island to less "strategic" locations was raised.

And each time the matter was brought up by either politicians or businessmen, very strong reactions to the subject have followed, since it appears that not very strong cases have been put forward when arguments were made for the proposed relocation.

In the usual policy statement issues to test the waters, followed by a chain of statements from affected stakeholders arguing why the move should not take place, to letting the argument simply die a natural death, Penang residents can safely say "been there, seen it and done that".

Each time the matter of relocating or closing the international airport came up, it appeared that the economic sense to such a plan had not been fully evaluated, particularly the impact it would have on the manufacturing and tourism sectors, Penang's major revenue earners.

Fast forward to 2010 and all eyes are now trained on Malaysia's oldest port, Penang Port.

The announcement by Transport Minister Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat last week that the 224-year-old port, which was set up by Captain Francis Light, may be moved to a more "suitable" location to cater to future expansion plans has raised some eyebrows.

Ong was quoted as saying that suggestions for this move came from port users. This statement was backed up by a representative of the freight forwarding industry in Penang by saying that "anywhere in the northern part of Malaysia should be acceptable".

No mention was made on whether all those involved in the running and using of the port have been consulted and whether all parties think this is a good move.

Also silent was the role which is supposed to be played by the port as the logistics centre of the Northern Corridor Economic Region.

It also did not appear as if the tourism sector has been consulted on the possible move to relocate the port, which in the past year, has seen increased activity in the form of multiple economic spinoffs to the state.

The question being asked now is: Is the move to relocate the port simply a knee-jerk reaction to some dissatisfaction by certain quarters over less than satisfactory services experienced at the port, or have some serious discussions, feasibility studies and alternative sites identified before this, before the statement was issued?

When Penang island lost its free-trade port status in the 60s, many residents of the island state, whose livelihoods depended solely on the port status had to "shift gears" and make rapid adjustments.

It was a very painful time for those who waited with bated breath and hoped that the policy would be reviewed.

This was prior to the revocation of the duty-free status, Penang had thrived on its barter trade with Medan and Singapore, while attracting a fair share of tourists and bargain shoppers.

The economic fortunes of the state took a turn for the better when Penang began enjoying the boon from domestic and foreign investments, earning itself the title "Silicon of the East".

Many of Penang's investors - which comprise some of the world's top multinational corporations - are still here today, because of the many facilities offered to them such as skilled labour and infrastructure like the airport and port.

Also to be considered is the fact that Penang's position as a preferred port of call for luxury cruise liners has only been restored this year with the opening of the RM62.9 million Swettenham Pier.

The busload of tourists being shuttled to eateries, hotels and other attractions on the island cannot be missed on days that the big ships drop anchor or berth at the port.

The issue of repeated dredging, which is needed at the port to accommodate all types of vessels, is one which should have been addressed and made provisions for a long time ago.

All hopes are now being placed on the federal government to follow through with Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyddin Yassin's pledge in April for a financial allocation for a proposed dredging scheme of the Penang channel in the upcoming 10th Malaysia Plan.

The RM322 million project was shelved under the Ninth Malaysia Plan mid-term review.

Terminal operator Penang Port Sdn Bhd has been targeting to develop Penang Port into a premier port by 2012 if the deepening of the north channel proceeded.

It is hoped that the fortunes of the state can then come full circle in anchoring itself back on its waterways, which once helped boost its fortunes and fame.

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