Huge Malaysian transit project hits rough patch

By Julia Zappei, AFP

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysian Judy Lam never saw herself as an activist — until officials turned up at her family’s small hotel in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown and announced plans to take it over.

Now Lam, 50, is among dozens of landowners in the capital who have emerged as a surprising stumbling block for a project central to government economic stimulus plans — a multi-billion dollar mass rapid transit line.

The 51-kilometre line is Malaysia’s biggest-ever infrastructure project, set for completion in 2016 and projected to transport 400,000 commuters daily to ease the city’s excruciating traffic.

But its route through central Kuala Lumpur has hit loud landowner opposition in a country where mega-projects have traditionally been rammed through.

Opponents accuse authorities of attempting to grab valuable properties and fear the project will alter unique neighbourhoods like Chinatown that highlight the country’s multi-ethnic flavour.

“We didn’t even know about the planned land acquisition until one day (in August) someone came to measure the land!” Lam said of her family’s 70-year-old Lok Ann Hotel.

Few dispute that mass transit is needed to ease the dreaded daily traffic jams in the city, whose greater metropolitan area has a growing population now estimated at more than six million.

It is “crucial” to upgrade public transport to project an image of modernity, attract investment and boost the economy, said Yeah Kim Leng, chief economist with financial research firm RAM Holdings.

The line linking central Kuala Lumpur with sprawling suburbs is a cornerstone of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s plans to spur a slowing economy amid trouble in Malaysia’s overseas export markets.

Construction is expected to create 130,000 jobs. Promotional materials show modern high-rises and skybridges sprouting along the line.

But the system would wind through bustling neighbourhoods marked by British colonial-era buildings, reminders of Malaysia’s vibrant mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and other cultures — and stubborn longtime residents.

The Lok Ann Hotel’s modest orange facade is set amid other old Chinese-style shophouses. Around the corner, pavement vendors sell fish, cheap watches, used shoes and trinkets.

The hotel’s coffee shop, a social hub as far back as 1957 when Malaysia declared independence from Britain in nearby Merdeka Stadium, still packs them in.

Opponents fear project-related development would lead to more of the charmless shopping malls proliferating in the city at the expense of heritage properties.

“If the government takes it, it’s daylight robbery,” Lam said.

“(Our neighbourhood) is about history, heritage, culture. We hope the government will listen to us.”

Malaysian law allows the government to take over land — with compensation — for public purposes.

But with Najib expected to call elections within months — and recently promising a break with the country’s authoritarian past — the government has to tread lightly.

State-owned MRT Co. said last month it would drop plans to appropriate land in hotly disputed downtown areas like Chinatown and instead pursue deals with landowners to allow construction for underground stations and tunneling.

It also guaranteed no historic Chinatown buildings would be destroyed. That means Lam’s hotel would be spared demolition but she still worries that underground construction work may damage her property and irrevocably change the area

Opposition lawmaker Tony Pua said the “U-turn” rubbished earlier claims that land takeovers were needed and proved citizens “need to mobilise and speak up for their rights”.

But opposition politicians and activists also complain of a lack of transparency in the project, warning it could lead to the sort of poor planning and corruption frequently exposed in large Malaysian projects.

They have called for public release of a master plan justifying costs that the government has warned could run past an initially announced $11.5 billion and passenger projections seen by some as too high.

Officials insist the project must move forward.

“If we do not have the MRT, I can tell you by the year 2020 this city will be choked,” Idris Jala, who heads an office spearheading Najib’s economic growth plans, was quoted as saying by the official Bernama news agency.

But Rajiv Rishyakaran of public transport advocacy group Transit said questions surround the project, adding that the affair highlights an emerging spirit of civic action in Malaysia.

“(Before), people just accepted what the government was doing. Now the demands for greater transparency and accountability are much higher,” he said.

“We are still on square one when it comes to transparency. There is a lot of mess because it’s a very rushed project. It wasn’t planned properly,” he added.

Officials have ruled out a route realignment and insist the project is still on track.

That leaves other properties, particularly in the colourful Bukit Bintang shopping and entertainment district, in the firing line and some landowners there are readying court challenges.

Meanwhile, Lam and others are determined to keep up pressure for a full realignment.

“We are going to fight until the end,” she said.