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TAED, a threat to Sabah’s iconic beach: Landscape architect

9th December, 2019

KOTA KINABALU: The recent article by Datuk John Lo, entitled “TAED is a tourism game-changer,” dated December 1, 2019 in the Opinions column of the Daily Express is one journalistic opinion that does not convey the sentiment of all Sabahans.

To summarize, in that article Lo mentioned TAED as a game-changer for much needed economic development especially in the tourism industry and cited examples of reclamation in Singapore and tourist complexes in Asia, US and other parts of the world, and how these complexes have brought in billions to each country’s coffers.

He even thinks a 50:50 percent ratio is more attractive than the 30 per cent (private) and 70 per cent (government) that was announced by the government. He also asked if the oppositionists can offer a better alternative and to accept the decisions of the state and federal environmental agencies just as we have accepted them for all other projects, and oppositionists have no mandate to speak on behalf of the people. He continued to discuss about social and economic issues in Sabah and how project like TAED and SICC can be an impactful game-changer. For more information, see Lo’s article in the Daily Express, December 1, 2019.

I want to point out a few statements in Lo’s article that, as a die-hard Sabahan, I find disingenuous and appalling, to say the least.

He adds that the paramount consideration of this project is for the benefit of many Sabahans not a select few. I beg to differ, if you saw the Master Plan with golf courses, private yachts, and marinas and so forth you will understand that this project is for the benefit of a select few not for many Sabahans, as Lo claimed, in fact it is totally the opposite. So I am not sure which side of Sabah is he on or what lenses is he using.

Lo mentions that TAED is not a moral/ideological issue. Tanjung Aru beach has always been the common ground for public gathering during weekend and holidays. Even today, one could find hundreds of beach goers and families barbequing and co-mingling along the sandy beach from Beach 1 to Beach 3, Prince Philip Park, under the Aru trees and any grass areas listening to Sudirman’s Balik Kampung, Teresa Teng’s The Moon Represents My Heart, Justin Lusah’s Jambatan Tamparuli and, once is a while, a western tourist will play Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. The beachgoers are there regardless of religion, race, wealth or differences. That is truly Sabah in its purest essence and public milieu. If this is not moral/ideological, then we have bigger societal problems than TAED.

Any Sabahan can share their fond memories of their interaction with Tanjung Aru beach. The first thing that comes to mind is when they tell a tourist where to walk the beach and to see the sunset – not Likas Bay, not Shangrila Tanjung Aru Resort, and certainly not Sutera Harbour. This is the same Tanjung Aru sandy beach where our forefathers and those who came before us walked, the seas where we swam and fished and the open space that embraced many family reunions of all races.

Tanjung Aru beach has become much more than just part of our culture; it is our heritage and arguably the best area to enjoy the sunset in Malaysia and possibly the East. The TAED plan includes reclaiming almost 1 km into the sea, which would forever alter the shoreline and the current natural beach characteristics, thereby limiting public activities now freely accessible. Confucius said, “Study the Past if you Would Define the Future.” Our heritage is not for sale.

Lo mentions the extensive reclamation over the last 30 years in Singapore. I totally agree with him, but if one understands the physical limitations of Singapore (I lived and worked there in 1997-1998) there is no other way to have land except through reclamation. Well, Sabah is not Singapore. We have lots of inland at our disposal. And, by the way, during weekends and holidays, Singaporeans travelled to West Malaysian beaches to soak in the “heritage” and “culture” of the West Malaysian beaches since there is no equivalent place in Singapore. Tanjung Aru beach is a must-visit place for the Singaporean tourist. The last thing we need to do is limit this tourist attraction.

He states that the leaders are being irresponsible if they do not unlock Sabah’s valuable asset like the iconic Tanjung Aru. Tourists are already flocking to Tanjung Aru, even with its current low budget amenities, basking in the mystic of the place that is highly touted in Sabah’s Tourism print material. What this place need is an updated revitalization management plan that looks at the region holistically rather than the single lens that Datuk Lo seem to be hanging on to.

Putting private high end residential along with golf courses, yachts, marinas and so forth will destroy the uniqueness, mystic and iconic nature of Tanjung Aru. Imagine for a moment Stonehenge Monument in Scotland being developed with golf courses, marinas, homes and so forth, the Pyramids in Egypt with man-made lakes, waterfronts, private homes, or Central Park in New York with golf courses, yachts, marinas, and so forth in the park. What would these iconic sites be? Without looking at financial details, I can assure the readers that these three iconic/landmark sites bring in more “high value tourists” (Lo’s words not mine!) than if these sites were developed like TAED. Leaders in these three examples understand the long-term value iconic/landmarks bring to the country’s coffers.

In terms of Environment Impact Study that Datuk Lo mentions, I agree we should evaluate. However, Malaysia Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) noted a need to address the environment, social and cultural perspectives and not just the economic and technical factors of a proposed project (see page 225, Clive Briffett, et. al.). And, public participation (page 227 of Briffett, et. al.) is a huge component of Malaysia EIA (Handbook of Environmental Impact Assessment Guidelines, DOE, 1995b). So, the litmus test is, has TAED addressed these five seemingly fundamental elements of the EIA? I let readers decide. In case you want a break from your WhatsApp’s or aramaiti session, read up on: Clive Briffett, Jeff Obbard & Jamie Mackee (2004) Environmental assessment in Malaysia: a means to an end or a new beginning, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 22:3, 221-233, DOI: 10.3152/147154604781765923

Lo’s comment that “we should accept the decisions of the state and federal environmental agencies on TAED just as we have accepted them for all other projects” is nothing more than a slap in the face and undermines the intelligence of all Sabahans. This old paradigm mentality is no longer applicable in a new progressive society where due process matters and heritage counts. We send our children to be educated for critical and analytical reasoning of due process and the ability to provide systemic solutions to challenges, not to blindly accept plans. Confucius once said “Education breeds Confidence, Confidence breeds Hope, Hope breeds Peace”. I would add that Education enables the Dream. Unfortunately, the TAED is turning into our nightmare.

As a landscape architect and urban designer, I am happy to learn that the TAED landscape plan received a GOLD award from Singapore Landscape Architecture Awards (2019). But my congrats stop there in landscape design. Taken as a whole, the project missed the big picture of what Tanjung Aru and the region is about. The “essence” and “heritage” of the place were totally disregarded. Understandably so, as the consultant was probably given a set of design program elements that needed to be included in the master plan. However, as a professional, one’s design lexicon approach and methodology is to look at the context (history, social, culture, environment, transportation, etc.) of a place and encourage robust public engagement, especially when it involves public lands. As such, TAED plan works in Singapore but not in Tanjung Aru, where the people value the heritage, culture and history.

The reclamation cost of just the beach area of TAED is estimated at RM1.83 billion (in 2013 est.) or about USD440 million. This is just to reclaim the sea, without any infrastructure, and about RM 7.1 billion (USD1.7 billion) for the whole project. Those who are familiar with mega-projects know the price tag can go way above that. Is the cost justifiable?

To Lo’s question of “Can oppositionists offer a better alternative?”

The readers and our leaders must understand that I (and speaking for the other “oppositionists”) am not against economic development. In fact, I am the last person to be against such a move. The backbone of every successful country is sound economic development policy and implementation. To do otherwise will provide short-term returns and create havoc on long-term sustainability. The Urban Renewal Policy in the USA comes to mind with issues related to transportation, environment, societal inequities and more. We do not need this.

To encourage economic development, the planning approach and methodology should be one of a holistic planning process considering of the essence of the place, to study the past to define the future. Only then, place will have meaning to all people (previous beachgoers, tourists, etc.), develop recreational connectivity to Tanjung Aru, Sembulan, Kota Kinabalu, Kepayan, Putatan River and surrounding areas, provide opportunities for economic development (biotech startup, incubators, research and development, etc.), revitalize the “Beach” and the immediate areas, mixed-use development – residential, commercial and institutional. In short, the master plan must be based in organic, holistic design thinking to ensure long term sustainability.

What are our other opportunities? For one, we should start calibrating our economic mindset to a “look-inland” policy. This narrative is not just for our leaders but for all Sabahans and those who have graduate degrees.

Sabah is blessed with so many natural resources that other countries could only dream of. From 12 hours of sun, to diverse flora and fauna, to lack of natural disasters with an occasional tropical monsoon rain. Our leaders should be looking at these inland opportunities to drive our economic development and ecotourism. The flora and fauna provide incredible opportunities in biotechnology, bio-pharmaceutical and bio-marine fields to mention a few.

Have we looked at expanding technology in solar energy, creating plant-based medicines, or developing cutting edge techniques to handle storm water management? These would provide opportunities for all our local graduates (according to the Ministry of Education, 57,000 of 173,000 of last year’s graduates remain jobless, DE November 4, 2019), create high paying white colour jobs (not the stagnant wages of service industry, tourism, that Lo said is a game-changer), and above all, allow Sabahans to be leaders in the industry of the future – biotechnology. We have not yet tackled the issue of waste recycling, but you see my point.

We can agree to disagree what leadership traits should one abide by, but one thing is for sure, Leaders Lead and Followers Follow. I think using TAED to follow what Singapore has done is certainly missing the point – and a follower, no less. As the saying goes, don’t design by putting lipstick on a pig, and in the TAED case, putting lipstick on an orangutan. We are better than that as a LEADER.

(Augustine Wong Chee Ming is landscape architect and urban designer from Penampang, Sabah and practices landscape architecture and urban design consulting in the USA).

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