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Malaysia: Johor petrochem hub runs into flak

Thousands of Malaysians turned up in a small village in Johor yesterday to protest against a massive petrochemical project which villagers say would cause them to lose their homes and livelihoods.

Opposition Johor politicians joined the peaceful protest in a state that will be keenly fought in the next general election, which must be called by next April.

The opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) hopes to make inroads into Johor which has always been a Barisan Nasional bastion.

This Himpunan Hijau (Green Gathering) protest is among a growing number of environmental rallies held around the country in the last two years.

After the green movement stopped a coal plant from being built in Sabah two years ago, environmental groups mobilised a campaign against a rare earths plant by Australian miner Lynas and a gold mine, both in Pahang.

Political analyst P. Sivamurugan, from University Sains Malaysia, said the green movement can be powerful but its appeal is largely restricted to urban middle-class voters. “The government has been trying to address the issues, for instance, by setting up a committee to look into concerns over Lynas,” he said.

The Johor protest comes after months of complaints from the villagers, many of them fishermen, that the RM60 billion (S$24 billion) petrochemical project in south-east Johor would cause them severe losses. The protesters gathered for two hours in Kampung Sungai Rengit, Pengerang, to demand a better deal for the 2,000 villagers asked to relocate.

State opposition leaders such as the Democratic Action Party’s Johor chief Boo Cheng Hau were present.

Opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia vice-president Salahuddin Ayub, who is leading the PR campaign in Johor, said at the rally they are not opposing the project but wanted the government to consider the people’s welfare.

“There are nine fishing villages that would be affected due to the project. The government should have moved the project farther down to Desaru where the spillover effect will benefit the people without affecting their lives,” he was quoted as saying by The Star Online.

The Pengerang Integrated Petroleum Complex aims to turn south-east Johor into a mega petrochemical hub so as to add value to Malaysia’s oil and gas industry.

Some 9,100ha have been allocated for the project, of which 2,400ha have been taken up by the national oil firm Petronas for its refinery project that is causing unhappiness among the villagers.

Other projects there include a liquefied natural gas terminal and a petroleum storage terminal.

A news website quoted a leader of the protesters, Ms Anis Afida Mohd Azli, as saying they will go to the Johor Menteri Besar’s office this month to voice their protest.

“Today, I think, was enough to send a message to the government that Pengerang folk want to be able to enjoy their God-given blessings,” she said.

The Johor government had earlier met the villagers to resolve their complaints but to no avail. The Pengerang location is seen as vital to the project, given its proximity to Singapore, its deep waters and other advantages.

Pengerang’s Umno MP Azalina Othman Said blamed the opposition for stirring up hatred towards the government.

The BN will be concerned by this protest as Johor is set to be a key battleground in the next general election. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has made his rally rounds in the state several times.

“If the opposition can even make slight inroads, it would be a major morale booster for it,” said Professor Sivamurugan, but added it would not be easy to do so.

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