By LIM MUN FAH
Translated by SOONG PHUI JEE
Sin Chew Daily
Before it was widely concerned, Petronas' Refinery and Petrochemical Integrated Development (RAPID) project in Pengerang, Johor was a mystery. Villagers were full of expectations in early days, hoping that the project could drive development in that area and benefit the next generation.
However, after the construction was started, the area was covered in dust, the sea was polluted, fish yield dropped and the scenery changed. It was then followed by one after another bad news, including the relocation of village, schools, temples, and even century-old cemeteries. The villagers started to feel uneasy.
Later, politicians began to interfere, so did environmental protection and social movement activists. The situation has become increasingly complicated and the voices against the project have turned louder and louder. The force protesting against the project is growing stronger. The project is now a hot potato, as well as a blazing political issue.
Leaving politics aside, the project is rejected by local residents as they are worried that the project might cause petrochemical pollution to that piece of land that they are very much attached to.
There is also another factor, namely the issue of transparency. Before the project was revealed, perhaps it was based on the considerations of "trade secret", the government and the involved companies did not tell the villagers about the impacts of the project. As a result, the affected villager felt as if they have been deceived after learning the seriousness of the issue.
The government, the companies and the villagers should communicate and negotiate more to achieve mutual understanding and compromise. However, it is unfortunate that the project is still in full swing amidst the strong opposition of the villagers. Even worse, some villagers found that the graves of their great-grandparents have been turned into a big ditch while some have gone missing.
Chinese has always attached great importance to ancestral graves, some even regarded it as a feng shui element affecting the future of the younger generation. Incredibly, before a formal announcement for the relocation of five cemeteries was made, the personnel of a funeral service company engaged by the Johor government to count the number of graves in the five Chinese cemeteries were surrounded by angry residents after they made markings on the tombstones to be relocated using stickers and oil palm fronds tied with red cloth. The storm was calmed only after the company chairman and his staff knelt in front of one of the tombstones to apologise.
It must be mentioned that there is a tombstone dated 1876 at one of the five cemeteries, an evidence showing that the Chinese had started to reclaim the land over a hundred years ago. It is also why, the villagers are not only defending the cemeteries, but also historical heritage. In additional to environmental issue, the question of how to strike a balance between development and historic preservation is obviously another inevitable major issue that must be negotiated, compromised and resolved by the government and the villagers!