Reconciling traditional livelihoods in Malaysia

By Julia Lawson

Orang Seletar children in Gelang Patah.  Picture: Choo Chee Kuang

Orang Seletar children in Gelang Patah. Picture: Choo Chee Kuang

It’s mid-July and I’m sitting in the back seat of a sedan, the air-conditioning roaring to help quell the 45-degree Celsius heat that beats down from the hot Malaysian sun. Outside my widow a shiny new city springs from freshly cleared ground, full of luxury condominiums plastered with ‘For Sale’ signs and ready for occupancy. This is Iskandar, an entirely new region being built from the ground up by the Malaysian government.

The Iskandar region consists of five development zones around the southernmost city in peninsular Malaysia, Johor Baru. Johor Baru is peninsular Malaysia’s ‘southern gateway,’ only a 30-minute drive from the island city-state of Singapore. While the low prices of goods and services make Johor Baru a favourite shopping destination for Singaporeans looking to score a good deal, the Malaysian government hopes to turn this into a two-way street by providing the solution for Singapore’s economic expansion and physical need for land. Malaysia is a country with great aspirations, and rocketing economic growth. By the year 2020 it aims to be classified as a high-income economy (as defined by the World Bank), meaning a per capita gross national income greater than $12,616. This is often considered to be synonymous with joining the ranks of developed, first world countries.

The Malaysian government and the project’s ambitious planners bill the Iskandar development as a green city with a compact core that will promote walking and public transit. Its goal is to generate a physical and mental shift in Iskandar Malaysia’s population.

As I gaze out of the window of the sedan, the landscape around me is barren, dry and desert-like. We pull into a gas station and I drag myself across the scorching parking lot to buy a bottle of water. While I can’t help but question the walkability of a city where temperatures fester in the mid thirties throughout the year, I do appreciate that Iskandar Malaysia is trying to do things right. Yet, no matter how green a city, with a projected population of three million people by 2025, the process of creating Iskandar is not without consequences.

I plunge back into the car and we continue to head south to Gelang Patah, a traditional fishing community that has a large population of Malay indigenous people (Orang Seletar) and is situated on the Pulai River Estuary. The multi-national Ramsar Convention on Wetlands recognized this estuary for its biodiversity by naming it a Wetland of International Importance in 2003. At the base of the estuary lies Malaysia’s largest intertidal seagrass meadow, home to estuarine crocodiles, dugongs, and seahorses. I am here to help survey the yellow seahorses (Hippocampus kuda) living in this seagrass meadow. Over the past decade, nearly 800 seahorses have been tagged and monitored in this seagrass meadow, making it one of the most intensively studied seahorse populations in the world.

The best time to survey for seahorses is at dawn, so we leave to survey the seagrass meadow as the scorching Malaysian sun begins to rise. As we speed along the Sungai Pulai towards the Johor Strait, the view is astonishing. I see how tightly sandwiched the seagrass meadow is between two rapidly developing nations, Malaysia to the north and Singapore to the south. The seemingly remote fishing community of Gelang Patah sits only a stone’s throw from Singapore. As we get closer to Singapore, we begin to approach a daunting fleet of tankers that sit in the Johor Strait. Stepping onto to the largest seagrass meadow in peninsular Malaysia from our tiny boat seems surreal. The seagrass meadow is only exposed once a month when the tides are low enough for researchers to search for seahorses on foot.

In 2009 the local community began to express their concerns about the significant effect that the Iskandar development plan would have on their community and livelihood. The two primary concerns for the local people of Gelang Patah were the Tanjung Pelepas shipping port and Tanjung Bin Power plant. In order to go ahead, both developments would directly or indirectly remove mangrove forest and seagrass habitats, reducing the amount of space available to the fish and other creatures that the community relies on for food and income. Despite petitions and peaceful protests directed towards the Malaysian government, both projects have gone ahead, and are fully operational.

However, the biggest threat to the livelihoods of the fishers in Gelang Patah may be yet to come. A massive sea filling project is underway in the Johor Strait, the narrow strip of water running between Malaysia and Singapore. The new island will be christened “Forest City,” and is the largest sea filling project in Malaysia to date. When complete it will be a luxury home island. The seagrass habitat at the base of the Pulai River Estuary, a critical habitat to the fish that call it home and the fishers of Gelang Patah, will be buried.

So where is the fine balance between the increasingly urbanized population of Malaysia and traditional livelihoods? The green aspirations of Iskandar Malaysia show cautious planning and consideration, but sea filling projects seem to counter the developer’s objective to “preserve the biodiversity” of Iskandar Malaysia. The solution requires planners to meet the high standards they have set for themselves. They envision an Iskandar Malaysia that sets a global standard for green cities. With persistence, the success of a sustainable Iskandar Malaysia could indeed serve as a global example for other rapidly developing countries. I propose that Iskandar Malaysia both includes community-based knowledge systems in the development plan for Iskandar Malaysia, and considers the impacts the current development on traditional livelihoods. Supporting its own people through the rapid growth and development of the region should be a priority for the Malaysian government and Iskandar developers. 

As our small motorboat pulls back into the jetty at Gelang Patah after a long morning of seahorse surveys, the impacts of the Iskandar development are not immediately apparent. The local children take a small boat across the Pulai River to reach their school, and long-tailed macaques scamper through the trees surrounding the community dock. However, our boatman tells us how catches that sustain the livelihood of the community members are receding. I think about my friends in Gelang Patah today and hope that Iskandar Malaysia will not leave them behind.