Monday, February 29, 2016

Once tranquil, Pengerang now dusty, overrun with migrants and crime

Geh Hua Kim zipped through a small village road on his kapcai, its sputtering engine drowning out the chirping crickets and waves lapping against the beach. The sun has yet to rise and residents of Kg Pengerang were still asleep, but the stocky 52-year-old fisherman was already weary after his hour-long journey from home to his fishing spot. Two years ago, the trip would have taken him less than five minutes. But that was before the RM170 billion Pengerang Integrated Petroleum Complex (PIPC) project gobbled up his village. The 8,094ha project includes Petronas's RM60 billion Refinery and Petrochemicals Development (RAPID) project. It came with promises of development and job opportunities, as well as compensation for villagers like Geh, who were to be resettled from Kg Jawa to Taman Bayu Damai some 20km away, to make way for construction. Three years, several briefings, a rally and one general election later, dissatisfaction is brewing in the otherwise government-friendly constituency, as locals of the once-sleepy town of Pengerang feel the effects of "development". Pengerang's Kg Sungai Rengit is now dubbed "Pekan Bangla" (Bangladesh town) after countless migrants working on PIPC began setting up homes and even shops there. The village's sparse facilities were not enough to accommodate the rising number of residents, while the influx of migrants and their foreign culture has alienated some locals. Meanwhile, fishermen such as Geh and Umar Bujang, 55, found their income plunging ever since the PIPC project drove them away from their usual fishing spot in Kampung Jawa. Their current fishing area has shrunk with the boundary set by the ships from the PIPC project and structures developers built in the sea. "We are earning a lot less now. Before the project came, we could get RM200 a day. Now, it's half, or sometimes less," Geh said, his face impassive as he dragged his boat down the beach, avoiding the empty plastic bottles and other rubbish buried in the sand. Despite his stoic demeanour, it was clear the drop in income has hit Geh and his neighbours hard. With their new homes so far away from the sea, they have to spend about RM50 a day on fuel for the motorcycles and boats. On bad days, Umar (pic) said he earned just RM25 after three days of fishing – a far cry from the time when he netted fish worth up to RM1,000 a day. The day before, he managed to catch four yellow eels he knew no one would want to buy. "The only way we can get a good catch is to go far out to the international waters, where the sea is choppier and pirates lay in wait," said Umar, the weather-beaten face lined with worry as he took a drag from a cigarette. To his right, laid bundles of nets and other equipment. Many were pricey but have not been used in years – they were meant to catch fish which do not swim in these shallow areas. But even with the right nets, capturing fish was difficult. The project had polluted the seawater, muddying it and causing the marine life to escape to cleaner waters, according to the fishermen. The compensation they received was a pittance, said Umar's brother, Arshad, 56, who spent thousands of ringgit on fishing gear, all useless now. "What could I do with the RM4,000 compensation? If they gave me more money, I could stop fishing and set up a burger stall or something. "With the money I'm earning now, I can't even buy new trousers." The fishermen's list of woes was long. Besides being far away, they said their new houses were riddled with defects. PIPC destroyed their plantations, which provided them with a side income. The compensation money went missing and crime was high because of the outsiders. Hussain Abdul Latif (pic, right), the Kampung Penerang fishing community leader, said his patience with the state Barisan Nasional (BN) was wearing thin. "Don't let it come to a point that I stick PKR's flag in front of my house," said Hussain, the Umno deputy chief for Kampung Jawa and a fisherman himself. "Our representatives are covering up the problems with the federal government. They say everything is okay. But I cannot guarantee that in 2018, BN will win 100% in Pengerang. "We are sick of them disappearing and only turning up right before elections with their gifts. Sick. We may not vote for the opposition, but I wouldn't be surprised if fewer people go out to vote." Welcome to Kg Sungai Rengit The long, winding road that the fishermen take to get to Kg Pengerang before dawn each day is riddled with deep, dangerous potholes. Large lorries kick up choking dust and keep traffic on the two-way road moving at a snail's pace. Next to it is a bigger, private road, where gleaming white company trucks zoom down and disappear into construction sites. Just beside the road, construction on PIPC is ongoing, but hidden from public view by tall, blue zinc walls that run for kilometres. Take a right turn at the end of the road and you enter Kg Sungai Rengit, known colloquially as "Pekan Bangla", where migrants – brought in to work on the numerous development projects in Pengerang – live beside the locals. Just like the locals, the newest residents of Pengerang wear worn T-shirts and faded jeans or the kain pelikat (sarong). They relax at the kopitiam, visit the sundry stores, and return to their homes at night after a hard day's work. But it is evident that the locals and the migrants do not interact, even though they are neighbours and frequent the same shops. Yet, neither is there any apparent hostility between them, just a lack of engagement. That's because racism is not the issue here – only the problem of overcrowding, according to 30-year-old Rosita Abdullah. Her job as a freelance document controller allows her to work at home and witness from her porch the changes in her village each day. Lorries noisily navigate the tiny dirt road in front of her house, leaving it muddy and uneven. Less than a 100m away is a haphazard zinc structure – a shop which a group of migrants built to cater to their growing community. "There are too many people here and too few facilities. Like, our bank is small, so when pay day arrives, everyone crowds there and the ATM machines can't cope," said Rosita when met at her house. "The roads are clogged with vehicles coming in from the construction site. Every morning and afternoon, children risk their lives crossing the road to get to school. We've had so many accidents." Rosita said crime has risen and just a few nights ago, several houses were broken into. But she did not blame the migrants, saying that it could have been the doing of any "outsiders" –local or foreign – attracted by the numerous construction projects here. The PIPC's promise of development did open the floodgates, with new businesses, such as hotels and major stores, flocking to these tiny villages, said Rosita. But such projects were only providing job opportunities for migrants – the local youth were not attracted to the low pay, she added. "I would say 60% of the migrants are working on PIPC, another 40% are here to do business and cater for their community. "They open up sundry stores and car washes because this area has become a hub for them." Rosita said she and the villagers were not anti-development – they just wanted a win-win situation where their daily lives were not disrupted by the ongoing construction. The fishermen of Kg Pengerang echoed the same sentiment. They were happy that development was coming to their village, but they did not see why they had to suffer for it. "The people up there think they can forget about us because we have no power, no contacts, and little education," said Hussain. "But while they sit there in Parliament, we are here, feeling the pain every day, with no end in sight. So much for their promises." – March 1, 2016.]]>

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