HIDDEN in an oil palm estate at the Penang-Kedah border, off Jalan Sungai Lembu and about a kilometre from a Chinese village, is a carbon-filter processing factory at the centre of a Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) probe involving its manager and director, and a Penang exco.
Away from the media headlines on exco Phee Boon Poh’s recent arrest and the DAP state government’s cries of political harassment are hints of local politics at the village level, with state- and national-level repercussions.
Until it was raided by the authorities last week, the illegal factory in the rural Penanti state constituency of Permatang Pauh had been operating since 2002.
Several 2m-deep pits were burning 2,000 tonnes of sawdust a month to produce activated carbon for water filters.
There is nothing to contain or filter the smoke from the fires. The pits are sheltered under a roof awning with no walls. To one side is a shabby shed that served as living quarters for foreign workers. Further back are more sheds to store sawdust.
“There is no doubt the carbon-processing operations here are causing pollution. They don’t have any equipment in place to address the pollution,” said a Department of Environment (DoE) officer who inspected the pits yesterday afternoon.
The department has been checking the pits daily since the factory was raided by federal authorities last Thursday.
DoE was waiting to serve the factory owner a notice to cease using the pits to produce carbon as soon as the pits stopped burning, said the officer, who declined to be identified.
It might take a few days more for the embers to completely die out.
When the complaints started
There have long been complaints about air pollution and fears of cancer from the Chinese village, said Sungai Lembu village development and security committee (JKKK) chairman Tan Sing Lee.
“They were affected, depending on the wind’s direction. The problem usually arose at night,” he said, recalling the anger of residents.
“One man turned up at my doorstep on his bike, shirtless, demanding to know if something was wrong with my nose, that I could not smell the smoke.
“Because I am the headman, I had to forward all the complaints to the Penanti assemblyman, who was Mansor Othman at the time.”
This was in 2008, the year complaints about the factory smog started coming in. It was also the year the ruling Barisan Nasional government lost Penang to the opposition in the general election in March.
This timeline is most puzzling for Tan, who confirmed that the factory had been running for 15 years, but did not know why there had been no complaints when BN was at the helm of the state government.
“The complaints only started coming in after the change of government ,” said the 58-year-old, who became JKKK chairman after the 2008 polls.
Prior to 2002, the factory had operated in Alma, Bukit Mertajam, for about 30 years until complaints forced the owner to relocate.
Tan said after villagers in Sungai Lembu started complaining in 2008, the factory owner met him to discuss the pollution problem and verbally promised not to expand the pits a few years ago, but the situation did not improve.
In 2015, the incumbent Penanti rep, Dr Norlela Ariffin of PKR, took the issue to the state legislature, where she raised questions about the illegal factory during assembly sittings.
Almost two years later, in May, the state replied that the factory had been taken to court and fined RM1,000.
In the same month, Dr Norlela received an 18-page petition signed by 180 villagers, pushing for action against the factory.
The case has since escalated into an MACC probe into Phee for allegedly using his position to seek gratification after writing two letters in 2015 and last year to postpone enforcement action against the factory.
When Phee was arrested on Friday at the Penang MACC office, Pakatan Harapan cried foul, claiming a conspiracy to destabilise the DAP-led Penang government.
Phee, along with the factory’s manager, Gan Buck Hee, 70, and director, Edmund Gan, 37 – a father and son pair – were placed under MACC custody until their five-day remand order was set aside by the Penang High Court on Monday, following a legal challenge by the trio’s lawyers.
Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng reiterated that the state exco trusted Phee, who has denied all wrongdoing concerning the illegal factory.
“Phee was only doing his job. He has no ties with the factory owner,” Lim, who is also DAP secretary-general, said in a press conference yesterday.
Meanwhile, Dr Norlela has been blamed, especially by DAP supporters, for highlighting villagers’ complaints and acting on their behalf. She has been labelled the “culprit” for causing Phee’s arrest.
Humane policy for some, problematic for others
Penang, under DAP, has a state policy that prefers the amicable approach to resolving issues concerning illegal structures built before the opposition party came into power in March 2008.
Under the policy, illegal structures that do not block traffic or affect people will be left alone as the state recognises them as sources of livelihood for their operators.
Lim said the policy would be maintained, and regretted that it had been politicised by BN and Islamist opposition party PAS.
He also questioned why BN did not act against the factory when the coalition held the state government.
“If MACC thinks that this humane policy is wrong and unlawful, the state government will immediately tear down the tens of thousands of illegal structures in Penang. We await MACC’s clarification on the matter .”
The issue has become fodder for Malay party Umno to use against Lim and DAP in Penang.
After last Thursday’s raid, Permatang Pauh Umno chief Mohd Zaidi Mohd Said and Parti Cinta Malaysia deputy president Huan Cheng Guan held a press conference and protested against the state government in the village.
They were not joined by villagers, however.
With the furore over Phee’s arrest, and MACC’s plans to question Lim, Dr Norlela and others over the factory in its continuing probe, villagers are reluctant to talk.
The Malaysian Insight’s attempts to speak to several were met with sealed lips. Two women approached at coffee shops in the village even said they did not think the issue was serious.
“You smell anything (in the air)? I didn’t sign any petition to the state,” said one of the women, who gave her surname as Oh.
Tan said no villager, even those who had complained about the factory, would say anything now to avoid trouble.
He said he had been criticised, too, for “starting the trouble”.
“Whether you do your job or not, you are wrong and get no thanks . I think my situation is worse than Dr Norlela’s,” said the village chief, adding that the factory owner was also angry at him for hurting his livelihood.
But, Tan also defended the Penanti assemblyman, whom he said had served her constituency well in her first term.
She has said, however, that she will not stand for re-election.
“If this issue had been properly discussed by all parties, I am sure things wouldn’t have come to this,” sighed Tan.