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MGG: Pulau Tioman: A special duty-free arrangement for one man
By M.G.G. Pillai

23/1/2002 4:25 am Wed


01-15 Feb 2002

Pulau Tioman: A special duty-free arrangement for one man

Pulau Tioman, 50 kms off Pahang in the South China Sea, is made duty free, as Pulau Langkawi off Kedah, so tourism could remain Malaysia's second largest foreign exchange earner. All stops are pulled to attract more tourists. What better than make Pulau Tioman a duty-free island? Pahang and Kuala Lumpur announced great plans to make it attractive to tourists. With, no doubt, similar plans for other islands off Malaysia's coast -- Pulau Pangkor, off the Perak coast, for one.

No one, not even the usually critical Straits Times in Singapore, looked beyond the official announcement. Who would benefit if Pulau Tioman is duty-free? In the 1970s, a casino was planned, but quickly dropped when opposition to it threatened votes. It was too far away from the coast, and reached only from Endau in Johore, and it would have upset the local villagers. In those days, that was enough to scuttle a project. The then prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, in whose parliamentary constituency Pulau Tioman was, would have none of it.

Malaysia was once known for its duty-free island in Penang. It was cut off in pique for reasons not hard to fathom. If tourism is the aim of Pulau Tioman made duty-free, the government should consider Penang instead. It is built to bring in tourists, it has hundreds of hotels to suit all pockets, and what tourists seek.

The present duty-free island of Pulau Langkawi was developed from scratch. And it shows. The villagers are short-changed, forced to sell their lands cheap for others to lease them at usurious prices to investors. Cronies made money hand-over-fist while the residents eked out a living. But the tourists did not come, and when exhibitions are held, hotels and exhibition halls charged an arm and a leg that it was once bitten twice shy.

So failed Pulau Langkawi is, the government looks to withdraw its duty-free status. Indeed, a government task force looks to how it could be without disrupting all that Langkawi stands for, and without admitting failure. Yet, Pulau Tioman is made duty-free. A duty-free emporium without custom must fail. So, why? So a crony would benefit!

In Pulau Tioman the only development of any note is a tourist resort owned by the Berjaya Group, whose owner is Tan Sri Dato' Seri Vincent Tan. To get there, you go by a three-hour often-choppy boat ride from Endau or fly Berjaya Air from Kuantan. The only beneficiary to making it duty free is Tan Sri Dato' Seri Vincent Tan. He has a head start. All others must start from scratch.

He has a tourist village in Pulau Redang, off Trengganu, which is reached easily but it would not get special favours since Trengganu is run by PAS and which Kuala Lumpur wants to see run down. So, he gets Pulau Tioman. Why? Are there plans to shift Club Med from Cherating to Tioman? Is a casino planned there? If the aim is to make Malaysia more welcome to tourists, why is Pulau Tioman the target, since not as many as to Langkawi would go there?

Langkawi was to have had a casino. The Genting Berhad chairman, Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong, surveyed the area and would have built it but for PAS's unexpectedly good showing in the 1999 General Election. Is that now transferred to Tioman? For that there must be ease of reach. As it stands, only one man stands to benefit. And that does not guarantee success. One man is behind Pulau Langkawi. His name is Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed. And he could not make it prosper. How could Tan Sri Dato' Seri Vincent in Pulau Tioman?

So, why is Tan Sri Dato' Seri Vincent Tan so favoured? Is it a payoff to close The Sun newspaper so the revamped New Straits Times could build up its circulation? Is it yet another handout to a crony who proved his failure not once but thrice? All all three privatisation projects given him -- Indah Water Konsortium, the monorail, the Linear City -- failed in his hands. Yet he is considered for more. Why? Is Pulau Tioman now a duty free island so a crony could survive? Questions for which no answers are forthcoming - MGG

M.G.G. Pillai