This article first appeared in our September 2011 issue.
In celebration of our 10th anniversary, we put together for you in this issue some of our most memorable articles.
Penang may never have had the best beaches in the region, but what had been there is being lost, and not only because of overpopulation, overdevelopment, the global economic crisis or climate change. The peace and tranquillity that visitors seek seem a thing of the past now. Although the story is a complicated one, Malaysia’s general vagueness in jurisdiction and weakness in law enforcement seem to be the major culprits.
“You cannot sit here, I just realised that,” Juergen Bosch says, looking at our surroundings as if for the first time, though we’ve been talking for most of an hour. The otherwise white sand is filthy, covered with dirt, detritus and the occasional plastic bottle and cigarette butt.
We’re standing on a beach in the afternoon, in front of Golden Sands Resort in Batu Ferringhi, Penang. It’s the haze season, the sky is an ugly, unhealthy looking shade of grey, and the winds are especially strong. None of which seems to have discouraged the small crowd a short distance away from braving the waters: half a dozen jet skis dart up and down choppy waters, and high in the sky, tourists attached to nothing but straps, rope and a parachute attempt to land on the beach. For the eight or so water sports operators of Batu Ferringhi, it’s a busy, presumably profitable day.
Except for Bosch. Even though he runs East Wind Water Sports at Golden Sands, the tall, bald German is not sending any boats or jet skis out this afternoon. “There’s an offshore wind,” he says. “They shouldn’t be providing these activities. It’s unsafe.”
So why are the other operators still working?
He shrugs. “It’s purely because of the money. There’s no interest for them other than money. And there are no restrictions for them because there is no law.
“There have been many accidents these days.”
Whenever tourism pamphlets about Penang are circulated, they generally tend to tout the serene Batu Ferringhi beach and its clear turquoise waters and impossibly golden sand. But Penangites secretly know that the island is no longer a tropical paradise, and hasn’t been for decades.
Batu Ferringhi is more of a Wild West. The beach has been a thorn in the side of the state government, the island municipal council and hotels for the last three decades. Complaints have been many about unlicensed water sports operators cornering every tourist walking by and nagging them to take a ride on a jet ski or a banana boat or parasail. And accidents are not uncommon.
Any peace or tranquillity one might expect to get from a day at the beach would be punctured by any number of things, from pestering beach boys to the roar of jet ski engines, to tourists attempting to land a parasail while beach boys and other tourists scramble out of the way.
The beach came into the spotlight in the past year after high profile accidents made it to the mainstream press. Earlier this year, a Chinese tourist was walking on the beach when a jet ski came inland and rammed into her, fracturing her legs. More recently, a beach boy on horseback allegedly ran into a five-year-old girl, leaving her with a fractured collarbone and pelvis. The former incident resulted in a short-lived ban on jet skis, the latter led to a ban on horse riding on the beach that, the occasional errant rider aside, is still holding, as is an earlier ban on quad bikes.
Bosch points at a swooping parasail.“ That parachute is, for sure, way over its allowance time to be in use. The ropes have to be changed after a certain period. It doesn’t matter what the rope still looks like, you throw it away or use it for something else.”
Juergen Bosch first came to Penang in 2006 to work at Golden Sands. Back in Germany, he says, he never experienced any accidents in his line of business, as the result would be a nightmare no operator would want to go through. “Insurances are very tough in Europe. One claim on public liability insurance is okay. You have a second claim, they cancel your insurance. You don’t have insurance, you don’t get a license to operate.” East Wind is one of the few, if not only, registered water sports operations in Batu Ferringhi.
Other than Bosch, few if any of the operators have insurance coverage.
It is understandable then that how things worked in Penang came as a shock to him. Not just the fact that the operators here seem to be running their businesses with impunity, but how he feels the government has been dealing with this issue. “They don’t actually see a problem.”
Bosch says that there have been many more accidents and incidents in Batu Ferringhi that have gone unreported. “Tourists are unhappy. They have been harassed and injured, and their holidays have been spoiled. They complain to the hotels, and many won’t come back anymore.”
Jet skis and boats continue to dart up and down the water. Jet skis that aren’t in use are parked in the water close to the beach. There is precious little room for would be swimmers.
Authorities had attempted to put a demarcation zone in place, via big steel floats and safety netting off the coast, aimed at stopping jet skis and boats from encroaching too close to the beach. A few months later, the netting mysteriously disappeared, and the operators blamed large waves. Bosch believes otherwise. “We know that fishermen came at night and cut off the steel and sold it for scrap metal. Enforcement was nowhere to be seen.
“Why do people come to Batu Ferringhi? Because of the beach, not the hotels. They come to see the water. And there’s not much to see anymore.”
One voice constantly raising this issue is Suleiman Tunku Abdul Rahman, director of communications at Rasa Sayang Resort. On the morning we met, Suleiman had sent an email to the state government, city council and the press, noting that two accidents had happened in the span of four days, and he pleaded for the authorities to take action. “Within the space of a few days,” he wrote, “the casualty list has been mounting.”
He tells PEM the email was simply one of the many he has sent over the past three to four years. “The situation on the beach was raised many, many years ago, even during the Gerakan era, but there is a lack of political will. They don’t have the guts to go down and look at all the issues we’re facing. They have taken some action, but it’s not good enough.”
Suleiman has been employed by Rasa Sayang since 1979. He worked his way up from the kitchens to housekeeping, joining the hotel’s communications department 12 years ago. It was here that he had to deal with complaints from guests about the beach. “They say, ‘Eh, Suleiman, we’ve been coming back here over the years, and things have not improved.’”
Complaints range from the rudeness to constant harassment by beach boys pestering guests to try out their jet skis. They get a commission for every “sale”, and competition is stiff.
The operators are camped either near or directly in front of the hotels, squeezed into a small area. Even then, they are very territorial. “They even have fights occasionally,” he says.
Suleiman says he’s not against having the beach boys and the operators around.“We don’t want to chase them away. They have their own families to look after. But we need them to be regulated.”
The last time Suleiman and representatives from other hotels met with Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng was several days after the horse riding accident.
Soon after that meeting, Lim announced a complete ban on horse riding on the Batu Ferringhi beach. But the hotels want regular meetings with the state government.
“It would be nice to have a meeting with the Chief Minister every month,” Suleiman says, “so all seven beach hotels can give feedback about what’s been happening. But now it’s like, wait until something happens, then call for a meeting.”
As far as Suleiman is concerned, the situation on the beach is getting worse. “It’s escalating. What you saw 10 years ago is different from what you see now. There is no control, no enforcement.”
Chow Kon Yeow, Penang state exco for Local Government and Traffic, acknowledges that water sports are not regulated. “Although there was an enactment passed in the 1990s (the Personal Watercra (Penang) Enactment 1999), it has not been enforced till today because of the failure to demarcate a zone for these activities.”
He points out the aforementioned attempt at establishing a demarcation zone, and is blunt in his assessment of who was responsible for its failure. “I think the municipal council has itself to blame, because despite my calling for them to engage these operators, they went ahead without consulting them.
“We are dealing with people who are concerned about their livelihood, but may not give similar concern to wider interests. I have always emphasised that Batu Ferringhi is an asset for the state, so any activities should enhance its value, not devalue it. Maybe it’s expecting too much from the operators to have that sense of pride.” He adds that licenses have not been revoked yet, even though some operators have not submitted applications for public liability insurance.
Chow flatly denies that there hasn’t been any enforcement in Batu Ferringhi, pointing out that 20 enforcement officers are stationed there. “But not all 20 will be on duty at the same time. No amount of enforcement will work unless operators themselves also take responsibility.”
He also believes the state government has done its fair share for the beach. “In the past, it was a no man’s land. At least after two years, we have banned horse riding and quad bikes, which has made the beach more peaceful. We have also arranged for emergency lifeguards on Sunday afternoons. It is not ideal, but better than in the past.”
There is clearly tension between the beach hotels and the state government. The hotels are frustrated over the state government’s perceived inaction; the state government believes it has done all it can, a fact that it feels has not been acknowledged. “If they think we are not serious,” Chow says, “I don’t think I want to meet (Suleiman) again. We have been meeting him dozens of times over the past two years. I’ve visited more than 10 times. Which exco member would go to that level of hands-on involvement while trying to restore the image of Batu Ferringhi?”
Chow’s observation echoes a similar conversation Suleiman said he had with the Chief Minister. “Every time I see him, he says, ‘Suleiman, I don’t have your luxury where you can sit in your office and write letters complaining to the press.’ I said, ‘Look, I’m not writing for myself, I’m doing it for my guests. It is not a luxury. This is what they are telling me.’”
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.”
“We don’t want to chase them away. They have their own families to look after. But we need them to be regulated.”
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.”
Near Lone Pine Hotel is a little hut, manned by three or four council enforcers at a time. Their many duties include confisticating quad bikes and horses, demolishing illegal structures and issuing summonses. Council enforcer Lan (not his real name) shoots down the operators’ claims that they’re insured. “Never listen to their stories.” He adds that a lot of the beach boys are illegal immigrants.
The only thing the enforcers can do, though, is advise the operators and beach boys to stop harassing tourists. “Then they scold us,” he says. “They want to beat us. If we fight them, then the public will blame us because we are government staff.
“Everyone says we’re not doing our job. No one knows what the real problem is. Everyone needs to play a role and take part, not just enforcement, but the police, immigration. Everyone.”
Given this complicated situation, what can anyone do? “If the operators can set up an association,” says Suleiman, “all the tourism agencies will work with them. But the independent operators can’t even talk to each other.”
Suleiman suggests that the hotels “adopt” the beach. “The beach will still be open to the public, but we will keep the place clean and beautify it. It was suggested in one of the meetings with the Chief Minister, but the state government is keeping quiet about it.”
Chow isn’t against the idea. “In principle, it’s okay for them to adopt, but I think so far there has been no follow-through on this proposal.”
Suleiman says his name has been mentioned by the beach boys. These days, he avoids walking along the beach, choosing to take the longer route through the car park from Rasa Sayang to Golden Sands.
He admits that there are times when he feels like giving up. “ The problem is there is nobody else who is fighting for this. I’m trying to save Penang as a tourist destination. We have to do something now, because it’s not getting better.”
And if it doesn’t get any better?
Bosch says, “Right now, I’m still waiting for the government to do something. I’m pretty much waiting for the election. It’s like the Wild, Wild West and there’s not much I can do. If there’s no improvement coming, then that’s it. Then I will leave Batu Ferringhi to its chaos.”