PR lessons for Forest City

LOOKS like our authorities never learn from mistakes. This perhaps explains the déjà vu scenes of a "people's revolt" against the "Forest City" project in Kampung Pok, Tanjung Kupang in Johor last week.

It was reminiscent of the huge protests that greeted the RM60 billion Refinery and Petrochemical Integrated Development (RAPID) project by Petronas in Pengerang in Southeast Johor about two years ago.

Not that the predominantly Chinese and Malay villagers in Pengerang did not want their birth places to be transformed into a world-class oil and gas hub.
Rather, it was the way the authorities suddenly landed on their backyard and started throwing their weight around.

Hardly weeks after the prime minister had announced the RAPID project, Petronas officers were on the ground threatening the people with evictions and land acquisitions. This naturally brought out the worst in the otherwise humble and friendly village folk.

Nobody wants to be forced out of his or her comfort zone. They have lived here for ages. This is not only their home but also their heritage. Their livelihood is dependent here. Hence, they refused to budge.

Before long, politicians got involved and the whole issue became messy and controversial, resulting in a series of law suits and ugly protests, with even international NGOs joining in the fray in a massive show of unity and solidarity against the rights and interests of the simple people of Pengerang.

This soapbox and haranguing went on for a good two years, delaying the roll-out plans of RAPID considerably. Even today, the issues have not been fully resolved … all because Petronas and the Johor State Government did not engage with the stakeholders effectively.

Fast forward to "Forest City" … the same scenario is playing itself out here, with the only difference being instead of forced land acquisition (as in Pengerang), this involves coastal land reclamation.

But the fears, disbelief, anxiety and uncertainly are the same. There is a palpable feeling of doom and gloom among the dozen odd villagers in Tanjung Kupang as a foreign developer has set up camp in their backyards and threatening to uproot their lives.

Despite claims to the contrary by the project proponents, most of the villagers seem to be in the dark about "Forest City" – a massive RM600 billion land reclamation project spread over 30 years to create four exclusive man-made islands.

The project is coming up along the Strait of Johor close to the Second Link to Singapore and the Port of Tanjung Pelepas.

It is being spearheaded by Country Garden Pacificview Sdn Bhd – a 60:40 joint venture between China's Country Garden Holdings Ltd and Esplanade Danga 88 Sdn Bhd – a company in which state-owned KPRJ apparently owns 20% equity.

KPRJ's shareholding in the project is interesting because it means the state government has direct interest in the massive development. Yet, there was no attempt at strategic communication with the stakeholders (Tanjung Kupang villagers) by either the Johor Economic Planning Unit or the Mentri Besar's Office (development unit).

This apparent faux pas only came to light on Sept 21, when ordinary kampung people let go of their frustrations during the public hearing of Forest City's Detailed Environmental Impact Assessment report.

It was unprecedented in that almost everyone who spoke said they had no clue about Forest City and saw no rhyme or reason why their hitherto peaceful albeit sedentary lives should be uprooted by this development.

The also took offence at the "talk down" stance of the project promoters and their consultants (all professors) who attempted to rough-shod the "illiterate villagers" with their high-sounding technical terms and statistical data.

Even the static exhibition staged outside the community hall in Kampung Pok, where the public hearing was held, was filled with charts and diagrams which made no sense to these ordinary folk.

They came in the droves to get answers to three simple questions – What is Forest City? How will it impact our lives? What is in it for us? The answers never came.

Instead, one KPRJ officer chided the villagers for being anti-development. He was soundly heckled with a barrage of boos. "We want sustainable and in-situ development ... not development that destroys the environment and dislocates the people," retorted a young teacher, saying she was speaking on behalf of all the affected local people of Tanjung Kupang.

Such courage and conviction in openly voicing their opinions is rare. They spoke without fear or favour. And all these from a community of staunch government supporters. Amazing.

Forest City is not without its merits. If successfully implemented, it will result in the creation of four new purpose-built tourist destinations with manifold economic spill-over benefits to Johor and its people.

But there must be proper engagement with the locals. You cannot simply move in and expect the people to buy in.

Here is where Forest City has failed miserably. By all accounts, it has been a public relations disaster thus far.

Roy, a long-time resident of JB, is a keen watcher of economic, political and social trends on both sides of the Johor Straits. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com