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GEORGE TOWN, June 16 — It is a month since Chow Kon Yeow was sworn in as Penang chief minister and he has settled into his new position, taking on new portfolios seamlessly while remaining passionate about projects he worked on as an exco.
The 60-year-old, who spearheaded the RM27 billion Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) when he was the state exco previously, has kept the transportation portfolio close under his watch to ensure its full implementation.
He is especially firm about pushing through the state's plans for a Light Rail Transit (LRT) line between Komtar and Bayan Lepas.
The PTMP project delivery partner, SRS Consortium, submitted applications of the proposed railway scheme to the then Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) for approval back in 2016 but did not receive any positive response.
Chow expressed hope that with Pakatan Harapan helming Putrajaya now, approval for the LRT line will come soon.
He is also adamant that the LRT line starts with a station sited at a car park space in Sia Boey, just next to Komtar in George Town.
“I want the LRT station to be there, we can't site it at Gat Lebuh Macallum, or Lebuh Cecil, I fought very hard for it to be there and I finally managed to convince them that the LRT station is more important, the location is perfect for connectivity,” he told Malay Mail in an interview.
The controversy surrounding the location of the LRT station in Sia Boey included heritage concerns and at one point, former CM Lim Guan Eng proposed that an art district be built there while the LRT station be shifted to a plot in Gat Lebuh Macallum.
Chow said the state government still recognised the heritage concerns of having a LRT station so near the Unesco world heritage site.
“We will design the LRT station like a heritage shophouse, we can model it like a row of heritage shophouse, much like the Loke Thye Kee building, so the station will be one that blends in with its surroundings,” he said.
The station will be right across a row of heritage shophouses within the site, he added.
Sia Boey was initially earmarked for Phase V of the overall Komtar project that started back in the 1970s and despite evicting tenants from the site back in 2004, the rows of 24 shophouses in the site were left in slow decay since then.
Chow has led the push for something to be done about these shophouses instead of letting them fall into ruins ever since the Sia Boey Market and the last of the tenants were relocated by landowner, Penang Development Corporation (PDC).
“I have expressed my displeasure to PDC in that they had taken so long and nothing come out of it in all these years,” he said.
He said he had been an Opposition lawmaker when the enforcement evicted the tenants in Sia Boey and he was powerless to do anything.
“Then, when I was the Tanjong MP, I led a campaign against the repeal of the rent control act, together with activist, Ong Boon Keong, and we were instrumental in doing a public survey, we organised a forum and raised it in parliament but I was an Opposition MP then,” he said.
He said as the state exco in Penang over the last 10 years, he had also raised it numerous times and yet nothing was done.
“Now, I am the chief minister, I told them to please do something about the shophouses, the market and implement the whole rejuvenation of Phase V of Komtar, they have to do it this time,” he said.
As for dealing with Penang's numerous and vocal non-governmental organisations (NGO), Chow may appear quiet and unassuming but his strong stance on projects he believed in, particularly the PTMP, showed he is no pushover.
He said the state government has always tried its best to respond to all concerns raised by NGOs like Penang Forum about the PTMP.
“If we don't reply them, then the people will think that they are correct so we try our level best to answer each of their statement so that there will be a balanced view on the project,” he said.
He pointed out that the PTMP was one of the issues raised during the general election and used by the state’s Barisan Nasional Opposition.
“The people still voted for us so we can assume they did not want the projects to be cancelled,” he said.
Chow said the state, through SRS, likely held the largest public engagement exercise in reaching out to the public to gather feedback on PTMP.
He said there were over 100 public consultations through workshops, interviews, talks, town hall meetings and dialogue sessions on the project.
“I don't see any other project with so many public engagements,” he said.
Chow also did not mask his annoyance with Penang Forum, pointedly noting the group is known to take issue with professionals of all fields.
“They want to question lawyers, traffic consultants, now arborists also can't escape from them, or veterinarians, doctors and even journalists but they don't scrutinise themselves, there is nobody to scrutinise them,” he said.
The group has been vocal on many topics. Most recently, it was over the alleged felling of trees for a road widening project in Tanjung Bungah.
Chow said the city council had already explained that the trees along Jalan Loh Poh Heng were not being cut down as the group initially believed.
“I want Penang Forum to state their stand, are they proposing that no trees will be chopped ever even though the landowner or the government needs to carry out infrastructure projects,” he asked.
“If Penang Forum doesn't have a position on no trees can be cut so maybe they can tell us which tree can be cut and which tree cannot be cut,” he added.
He stressed that the state government has never said that trees will never be chopped to make way for development or infrastructure projects.
“It is just that we are mindful that with development, there needs to be sustainable solutions for the environment,” he said.
He said the state government will ensure that any development will improve the environment in a sustainable manner, to make the site safer and the environment safer.
“I've said many times that man-made development does not necessarily make it a flood prone area or disaster zone for hill slope area, in fact with engineering, environment can be improved, in terms of safety, slopes can be cut in a manner that is more gentle or slopes can be reinforced with concrete,” he said.
Another hot-button issue in Penang is concerns over its Unesco world heritage site that encompasses the inner city of George Town, which is also under Chow's parliamentary and state constituencies.
Prior to 2008, when he had been in the Opposition as Tanjong MP and Padang Kota assemblyman, Chow regularly raised concerns over the rising number of dilapidated prewar shophouses within the inner city of George Town.
He conducted surveys on the number of abandoned or vacant prewar shophouses within the inner city and held numerous press conferences calling for these houses to be saved but his calls were ignored then.
Now at the helm of the state government, Chow said his main concern was still for these buildings to be saved from ruins first and foremost before addressing other concerns such as the usage of these buildings.
He admitted that the population in the inner city has thinned over the years, but believed this was not mainly due to gentrification since the city's world heritage site listing in 2008.
“My hypothesis is that families are already moving out of the inner city of George Town, following jobs elsewhere, industrialisation and the opening up of Bayan Baru and Bandar Baru Air Itam,” he said.
He said people were already moving out of the inner city as they get jobs in factories even before the repeal of the rent control act back in 1997.
“The thinning out of population in George Town happened even before the Unesco listing 2008 and it was a natural phenomena that people slowly moved to the suburbs,” he said.
The thinning of population in the inner city is most obvious when looked at statistically as Chow said the number of constituents in the Tanjong constituency had dropped from over 60,000 to about 48,000 over the years.
Recently, there were efforts by the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) and George Town World Heritage Inc (GTWHI) to restore the original use of these shophouses by separating the upper floor from the ground floor to lower rental rates and at the same time, maintain commercial uses for the ground floor and residential uses for the upper floor.
“The mayor, Yew Tung Seang, talked about micro-housing, where each house can be partitioned to create smaller rooms but how many people would want to stay in this environment? Would families want to stay in such small spaces in the city?” he asked.
He said it may sound like a simple solution to create lower rental spaces for people to move back to the city but it was a matter of whether they are willing to move back there and live in shared spaces.
Chow said another way to bring people back to the city is in the affordable housing projects that are being built along the fringes of the George Town.
“Projects like the one in SP Chelliah, in Sandilands and another one in Gat Lebuh Cecil, these may bring people back to the city, though not within the heritage zone, but they are within George Town area,” he said.
These projects will bring it between 10,000 to 15,000 residents living in the fringes of the heritage zone and they will also be the ones to shop, trade and spend time in the inner city too, he added.