Return of the Megaprojects
By ANTHONY SPAETH Bukit Enes
Denied: Decades of official discrimination have turned Malaysia's
ethnic Indians into a disgruntled underclass
Not much happens in bukit enes, a shady village of 70 families in the
northwestern Malaysian state of Kedah. The men fish, tend coconut trees,
do odd jobs. Their wives raise the kids, of which there are many, sometimes
12 or 13 in a family. But this lifestyle is about to change. In June,
local newspapers reported that the Kedah state government in partnership
with a Qatar-based company, Major Entrepreneurs, had plans to build a
theme park and golf course for tourists, complete with a cable car. A
week later, surveyors were tramping through Bukit Enes. The locals expect
to lose their land. "It'll make a few people rich," says Ghazali Haji
Abdullah, a village elder, "and drive the other people mad."
Malaysia is back in building mode. The government of Prime Minister Mahathir
Mohamad once had a lengthy list of construction projects, including a
plan for the world's longest building in Kuala Lumpurto complement
the Petronas Towers, which are the tallest. Then the 1997 Asian financial
crisis hit, evidently curing Mahathir of his edifice complex.
But quietly, the "megaprojects" have crept back onto the drawing board.
One of the largest and most controversial is a multi-billion dollar dam
to be built in Bakun, on the island of Borneo, designed to produce electric
power that would be transmitted to peninsular Malaysia via an undersea
cable. Environmentalists opposed the project, and it seemed all but dead
in 1997. In fact, work began on a scaled-down version last November. The
undersea cable has been scrapped, and Malaysia says it will try to sell
the electricity to Indonesia and Brunei, though both countries have plenty
of energy. Construction on another dam in Selangor state, which will cost
$500 million, began early this year. Newspapers reported last month that
Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin believes buoyant economic growth is "conducive"
to multi-billion ringgit projects. Not everyone is cheered. "I don't think
we've learned anything from the crisis," says Azmi Abdul Hamid, who runs
a foundation for the advancement of rural communities in Kedah.
The farmers and fishermen of Bukit Enes wonder where it will all lead.
Another project proposed for Kedah is the creation, at a cost of nearly
$8 billion, of nine artificial islands off the western coastline. They
will be home to an international airport, an oil refinery, an industrial
zone and a tourist resort. In Bukit Enes, the villagers say they will
protest the plan for the theme park and golf course. When they rallied
against a similar proposal in 1994, they got it killed. Ishak Bakar, a
55-year-old laborer, says he's not against development but doesn't see
how the proposal will benefit his family. "I'll have to move my house,"
he says. "And I don't play golf."
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