Finding the right balance

PULAU Jerejak is an elongated and hilly island of about 362ha located between Penang Island and Seberang Prai. At present, the island is isolated, quiet and peaceful with a rich and interesting history.

People who have been to Queensbay Mall for shopping or visit their friends or relatives living in the many high-rise apartments cannot miss and be attracted by the hilly island. Although visible to visitors arriving in Penang, few have stepped onto it.

It is believed that Francis Light set foot on this island before proceeding to claim Penang Island as a colony of England in 1786.

Pulau Jerejak was not totally neglected. It was home to lepers and tuberculosis patients, hardcore drug addicts and prisoners. It was also a quarantine centre for immigrants who wanted to settle on Penang Island in the late 1800s.

It was a leper asylum from 1870 until the 1960s. It was also a penal colony when the island was used as a rehabilitation centre for hard-core criminals from 1969 to 1993. Hence, it was once known as the Alcatraz of Malaysia, for housing the "untouchables".

An attempt to turn Pulau Jerejak into an eco-tourism destination started in 2000. The Jerejak Rainforest Resort and Spa opened for business in 2004. The resort had a "team-building" park, banquet hall and special function rooms for company meetings, a suspension bridge, camp sites and a spa for facial and body massages. There were sports activities, such as wall climbing, mountain biking and guided tours to the heritage sites. Unfortunately, it did not attract many clients.

The island has been in the news again lately. There are people who want the island to be left isolated. For example, Ben van Wijnen, an honorary secretary of Penang Heritage Trust, was adamant that the island should not be used as a residential area.

As such, Penang Forum, led by well-known retired academicians, has called for the island to be gazetted as a state park with its historical structures conserved and restored. There has been a suggestion that the whole island be made a state heritage site and hopefully a World Heritage Listing in the near future.

But Pulau Jerejak had attracted the eyes of developers before the Penang Forum's push for no housing development projects on the island. As of November 2016, there was news that UDA Bhd had a joint venture with a private developer to develop about 32ha of land on the island.

Besides residential units, there are also plans for a marina, a theme park, 4 or 5-star hotels, a cycling track around the island and other related infrastructure to promote tourism on condition that they comply with EIA requirements.

There is nothing wrong in allowing developers to build on land facing Penang Island provided that they follow planning regulations strictly to enhance the view and natural beauty of the island. The Majlis Bandaraya Pulau Pinang should not allow developers to build gated communities with high walls, hiding the houses.

If there is need to have walls surrounding the houses, they should be low so that people walking on pedestrian pavements are able to see the designs of the houses. At the same time residents can also see the walkers.

The state government should gazette sizeable pieces of land for state parks. Besides, historical places of interest like the Russian Memorial Cemetery, old British reservoir, pre-war underground bunkers and the British detention camp should be conserved as tourist sites.

The Jerejak beach facing Penang Island should be free from development to allow pedestrians and joggers to walk or jog freely along the beach. It should be accessible to everyone, not just the rich.

Pulau Jerejak is not as high as Penang Hill. But the availability of scenic walking pavements around the island, with its unique plants and animals, will attract many walkers. The bridge linking Penang Island and Pulau Jerejak should include safe walking paths for pedestrians and separate cycling paths.

Nature has made Pulau Jerejak a beautiful island. The state government and the local authority should work with nature loving non-governmental organisations to ensure careful, sustainable and equitable development. There must be a balance of nature, history and the built environment. Hopefully, Pulau Jerejak will become an attractive island to visit.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee can be contacted at letters@thesundaily.com