This piece was written by Rexy Prakash Chacko, an avid hiker and nature-lover.
Like many other Penangites, I was flabbergasted when reports started surfacing in mid October about development plans for Pulau Jerejak.
An island which seemingly withstood the tests of time had finally fallen victim to development. It was not just the fact that Pulau Jerejak would be developed which bewildered many Penangites, but also the massive scale in which it was to be done.
To add salt to the wound, when plans were announced, they were already approved, without a public consultation or even a mention of an EIA. Wouldn’t a detailed EIA which includes public consultation be a necessity before development of this scale be approved?
And as it was very much expected, politicians traded barbs as to who is responsible but without a clear line in sight as to what could be done to protect the island. It also surprises me as to how long the gazetting of the 295 hectare Pulau Jerejak Forest Reserve is taking, but development plans seemingly take only a fraction of the time to be approved.
Is it that difficult to gazette a forest? Leaving the proposed forest reserve in a state of limbo is dangerous. It raises suspicion, as the land is not under a state of protection and thus can be subject to illegal activities.
Pulau Jerejak is our treasure, and though many of us in Penang have not been there or known it close enough, we would definitely not want to know it as yet another developed isle with towering condominiums and hotels.
Indeed, calls have been made to emulate Singapore in making Jerejak a Sentosa Island in order to benefit the state economy. If indeed it were to be developed for tourism, why does there need to be 1200 residential units on the island?
It also baffles me as to why not many seem to take the example of Pulau Ubin, another outlying island of Singapore which has been made a popular ecotourism destination. Unlike Sentosa, Pulau Ubin has been preserved in its beautiful and idyllic state, and has become a popular tourist destination among both Singaporeans and tourists alike.
Many go to Pulau Ubin to escape the hustle and bustle of downtown Singapore. Wouldn’t it be better if Pulau Jerejak is developed according to such a narrative?
A green state park where locals and tourists can soak in the beauty of nature, just minutes away from the reality of Penang’s metropolis. And to add to that, Jerejak’s illustrious history as the Alcatraz of Malaysia and a quarantine centre is something unique which not many know and thus can be monetised in the form of heritage tourism.
In fact, the underlying problem is, Pulau Jerejak has never been marketed aggressively for ecotourism or for its heritage and thus most don’t even realize its true value.
While many other cities spend huge amounts of money creating green lungs, Penang is blessed in that we have both green hills and a green island so close to the pandemonium of the city.
We can’t afford to trade this beautiful island for wanton development. A serious reconsideration has to be made about plans for the island and consultation with both the public and environmental groups has to be done the soonest.
Gazette the forest reserve immediately and focus on the rich heritage that this island already has to offer, instead of making it into something which it’s not meant to be.
Penangites direly need more green spaces for recreation and ecotourism and Jerejak is a perfect embodiment of that. Destroying what little that remains, and then spending time recreating nature is not the answer.
We need to save that which remains first. I fear the day will come when the pristine Jerejak of my childhood will be converted into yet another island of condominiums.
Save Jerejak for a truly cleaner and greener Penang.