“Reviving the Glory Days of Malacca”, a Commentary by Serina Rahman

2016/84 14 December 2016

The recently launched Kuala Linggi International Port (KLIP) will complete the Malacca Port Development Masterplan. Already on the cards are the Melaka Gateway Port (tourism), the Sungai Udang Port (military), the Tangga Batu Port (oil and gas), the Sungai Rambai Port (mining and minerals), the Tangga Batu Port (oil and gas) and the Umbai Port (fishing).  These plans were proposed to “spur the state’s economic activities and relive the glory of Malacca Port of the 15th Century”.

The KLIP caps off the string of development along the state’s 73km coastline. While Malacca’s ambition to develop specialised sector hubs has been public news since 2015, the announcement of the KLIP was a surprise to those who knew that the project was rejected at the Detailed Environmental Impact Assessment (DEIA) stage.  The reclamation of a 620 acre island, 3.8km in length and 2.55km in width, at the mouth of Sungai Linggi will have an upstream effect as a result of changes in water hydrodynamics. Sungai Linggi is an ecologically sensitive area due to resident estuarine crocodile, painted river terrapin, and hawksbill turtle nesting sites. There have also been unverified reports of a small population of false gharial in this river, and it is the feeding grounds of smooth otters, as well as the breeding grounds of 2 species of fireflies.

Reclamation and dredging to maintain 30m deepwater harbours and increased shipping traffic will have a direct impact on the local fishing community. In response to complaints however, Malacca’s Chief Minister Datuk Seri Idrus Haron declared that they “cannot forever remain as fishermen or traditional farmers because life requires you to go through different experiences. Now is the age to build ports.”  The fishermen bemoan not just a loss of livelihoods, but the loss of their traditional ways, their life by the sea and a “loss of what is part of us”. Forty years of coastal reclamation has already depleted marine resources and the viability of fishing. But beyond the loss of cultural and natural heritage is the real and present danger of coastal erosion damaging beachfront homes, properties and businesses, as well as flooding along Sungai Linggi. Studies have not yet taken into account the impact of possible environmental disasters or pollution as a result of increased shipping activities in the area.

The KLIP also raised eyebrows due to the involvement of China Railway Group Ltd (CREC) as the main investor of the RM12.5 billion (US$2.82 billion) project. Critics question China’s potential political influence as a result of yet another strategic investment and the need for another port on the peninsula’s west coast. KLIP representatives maintain that the port will complement Singapore’s over-booked shipyards, reduce the danger of accidents along the Malacca Straits and facilitate ship-to-ship transfers of liquid cargo (currently disallowed in Singapore). The project, to be completed by 2026, promises 6000 new jobs and 3 times the current volume in vessel calls.

While Malacca’s past glory as the maritime hub of the region might be rejuvenated, the state needs to reconsider how far it can push its economic ambitions without completely jeopardising its traditional tourism assets and cultural and natural heritage.

Dr Serina Rahman is Visiting Research Fellow under the Malaysia Program at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.