On a small stretch of the beach, between Golden Sands and Lone Pine Hotel, the water sports operators have set up their tents, deck chairs, umbrellas and stalls. The population here is relatively dense and as boats and jet skis zip past nearby on the water, beach boys yell a warning as tourists on a parasail prepare to land. Two operators are screaming at each other in full view of everyone. It is almost like visiting a tiny, multicultural refugee camp. For all intents and purposes, this stretch of land belongs to them.
On the edge of the tents, near Lone Pine, is Lim Brothers Watersports, run by Ah Leng, who has been in this line of work for over 30 years. “From young to old,” he says with a laugh. Ah Leng runs his water sports operation during the day, and a stall in the evening at the night market.
“In this business, you don’t make a lot of profit in a year. Sometimes, I make a profit in one month, then lose money for three to four months. When Lone Pine and Rasa Sayang closed for renovations, I was losing money for six months.”
Business used to be much better for Ah Leng, but has been getting worse every year. There used to be a lot of “orang putih” (white people), then they slowly stopped coming. Then the operators turned to the Taiwanese, and later the Japanese. But eventually they too disappeared. Now they are depending on Arab and local tourists. “If the Arabs stop coming, we’re dead.” It is currently the peak season for Arab tourists, before the fasting month of Ramadan begins in August.
The low to nonexistent profit margins are the reason why he says the operators need to remain close to the beach hotels. “We have to be based here, otherwise we’ll have no business. Arabs don’t want to walk far.”
Ah Leng confirms that accidents have happened here, but says they generally weren’t very serious. “Once in a while, you’ll get accidents. We take them to the clinic, no complaints. For severe cases, we take them to the hospital, and our insurance covers it.”
Before he lets his customers use his services, Ah Leng tells them what his guidelines are. He gets them to sign a consent form, which is printed in English and Arabic.
Ah Leng denies that his equipment is out of date. “We check them. It’s dangerous if we don’t. Do you want to play with people’s lives?” Parasailing tow ropes are changed about every five months. “If the wind is not right or the waves are too strong,” he adds, “we won’t do parasailing.”
The beach boys themselves deny that they harass tourists. “We cannot harass guests,” says Adam, 19. “They can easily complain to the hotels, who will complain to the police.” Warnings have apparently been given.
The actual harassment, Adam says, is not done by the beach boys, but by the “beach bums”, who work on the beach purely on a commission basis, and can sometimes earn up to hundreds of Ringgit a day. “We only ask the guests, nicely, if they would like to do water sports, and if they say no, we don’t push any further.”
At some point in our conversations, we talk about the former demarcation zone. The beach boys say that the nets caused more accidents than prevented them. “Ever since the government placed them there,” Jeffrey, 36, says, “70% of the time we will encounter problems.” Boat engines got caught in the nets, and bad parasailing landings were blamed on them as well.
While the hotels are reporting many complaints from their guests, the tourists we speak to don’t seem to mind. “I don’t feel so much harassed,” says Guneet Bhatti, “but only a little irritated when I’m asked again and again by the same beach boy when I pass him a second time. At least he was friendly. It’s still better for them to talk to me than for them to ignore me.” Guneet came to Penang from London with her husband, Ravinder, and their three children after strong recommendations from their friends.
The Bhattis are well aware of the high profile water sports-related accidents, and were initially cautious about taking part. But they relented after their children insisted, “Everyone else is doing it! We’ve come all this way for a holiday!”
“It’s all down to peer pressure,” Guneet says, laughing.
Jason Frehner, from Australia, knows the feeling. “If my kids really want it and push for it, I’ll probably give in.” He and his wife, Elizabeth, and their two children are in Penang for six days. Like the Bhatti family, the Frehners say they have enjoyed their stay so far, but suggest that there be a proper place for jet skis so that they’re “not floating around everywhere. It’s not safe to swim close by if they’re all parked like that.” Jason also suggests that warning signs about parasailing be put up, and a proper place be designated for landings so that people didn’t have to scatter every time someone is coming down.
As we speak to the Bhattis, they are keeping one eye on their children as they play near the shore. If anything does happen to their children, Guneet swears she would never return to Penang.
The operators say they have licenses for their jet skis and are insured, though Adam claims the council doesn’t check the licenses. Only jet skis are required to have licenses in Penang, and even then these are notoriously easy to obtain. Parasailing does not require a license. But even with the jet skis, only some of them are licensed. “Instead of paying for 10 licenses for 10 jet skis,” explains Suleiman, “they just settle for four, and the other six are not licensed.”
Why is it so difficult to enforce anything in Batu Ferringhi? If the beach operators are working without licenses, why are they getting away with it?
“They are not getting away with it,” insists Ramlah Bee Asiahoo, alternate chairperson of the Penang Island Municipal Council’s Infrastructure and Transport committee, “because we are issuing notices and monitoring the situation. They know the rules but don’t follow them. This is the culture in Penang for the past 50 years.”
Is that the end of it? “No, it won’t be the end of it. We are going to stop the illegal operators. We are not going to give any negotiations anymore.”
Yet Ramlah could not provide us with a timeline on when action would be taken, or what that action could be. “In the end we are still waiting for instructions from the excos.”
Enforcement in Batu Ferringhi is turning out to be a murky issue. According to Ramlah, jet skis and boats fall outside the council’s jurisdiction. “It’s actually under the marine police. Harassment falls under the tourism police. I’m sure reports have been sent to the tourism department, but they have not taken any action. Our team can only advise the operators.
“Local authorities can apply for a reserve police force. The Seberang Perai Municipal Council has one. We applied for one in 2005, but until now no approval has been given. So we can’t arrest anyone. We can only issue compounds.”
“If they don’t have enough people and they want assistance,” says Penang state police chief Datuk Wira Ayub Yaakob, “we will assist. We have discussed this. We have been saying this all this while.”
Has the police been approached? “So far, not yet.”