KEMAMAN, Oct 24 — By all accounts, Kerteh that supplies oil to the east coast region and gas to the entire peninsular Malaysia should be a booming hive of development; instead, it remains a quaint little fishing town in Terengganu.
It is not for a lack of opportunity, some locals say as they point ― lamentably ― to the many businesses that have sprouted up from the enterprise of those from other states and even other countries.
Through it all, most Kerteh residents remain as they ever have been: Fisherfolk.
The site of Petronas’s first oil refinery built in 1983, Kerteh later also became host to other downstream gas and petrochemical facilities, which sparked the creation of support and service industries, attracting workers from various other parts of Malaysia, and driving up property prices and rentals.
Despite the oil boom, however, the locals and fishermen lack the drive to start new business ventures or to haul in a bigger catch as hefty government aid has lulled them into complacency, some businessmen have said.
“The fishermen just want to chat a lot; they don’t want to develop themselves,” entrepreneur Md Amin Ali told The Malay Mail Online in a recent interview at his office in Kerteh.
“They go out to fish at 7am and come back at 12pm. Now, they have fuel subsidies. The government gives them boats, nets, RM10,000 to repair their homes, and a RM200 monthly allowance,” added the 58-year-old, who transports goods for Petronas employees, besides providing them cleaning and maintenance services.
A far cry from the 80s when they used to stay out at sea from 7am till 7pm, he said.
Despite tens of billions of investment pouring in since Petronas began operations, Kerteh continues a sleepy town located along the beach with just a small shopping centre near the Petronas offices, dotted with little “warung” (stalls) serving “ikan bakar” (grilled fish), sundry shops, boutiques selling Islamic attire, and single-storey houses.
According to the Department of Statistics’ 2010 census, there are some one million residents in Terengganu, out of which 95 per cent are Malays. About 24,000 people live in Kerteh.
On a Thursday ― the eve of the weekend, as Terengganu’s workweek is from Sunday to Thursday ― few people can be seen milling around town after working hours.
This seeming lethargy was because aid such as Putrajaya’s 1 Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M) cash handouts and more, said another businessman.
“They’re pampered… complacent,” Mohamad Sabri Mohd Darus told The Malay Mail Online in a recent interview at a glassware shop that he and his wife opened in Kerteh here.
“They got BR1M… there’s (also) incentives for fishermen. In other economic areas, I can’t see the drive for them to venture to new surroundings,” added the 62-year-old businessman.
Such a view is not unique. Former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said recently that BR1M should be halted, pointing out that the programme has created a breed of Malaysians who are dependent on the government and who lack personal initiative to improve their financial status.
Second Finance Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Husni Hanadzlah announced last month that the government plans to distribute BR1M ― which started as a RM500 payment last year and will be distributed this year again to households that draw incomes below RM3,000 a month ― twice yearly from 2014.
Mohamad Sabri said that he is helping his wife, Wan Kasmawati Wan Husain, in her glassware and kitchen supplies business called Wan Kasma Enterprise, after she first started selling plates from home in 1998.
Wan Kasmawati and Mohamad Sabri left their jobs in Petronas in 1999 and 2005 respectively ― she was a clerk; he was an engineer ― to open a shop later in 2006. Both are from the neighbouring town of Dungun.
Mohamad Sabri pointed out that many food stalls in Kerteh were also opened by foreigners.
“You can see that those who cook are from Thailand, doing tom yam. Even the clinic beside my shop, the wife is from Kuantan; the husband is not from Kerteh,” he said.
Wan Kasmawati said that she started selling plates, cups and other glassware because it was a low-risk business. Her annual turnover is between RM50,000 and RM100,000.
“They say if the Chinese can do, why not Malay?” said the 52-year-old businesswoman, adding that they did not take loans, except for the shop lot.
“No debts. All the things in my shop belong to me,” Wan Kasmawati added proudly, before tending to a customer whom she called by name.
Azami Abdullah, head of the stakeholder relations department in the Petronas East Coast Regional Office (ECRO), said that Bandar Baru Kerteh is a “ghost town” at night.
“There’s not much development in Kerteh, in terms of the night life,” Azami told The Malay Mail Online in a recent interview at his office in Kerteh here.
The 53-year-old who was born in Kerteh acknowledged that Petronas has opened up job opportunities in the town, such as maintenance work when the plants shut down for two to three months annually, which can involve up to 5,000 contractors at a single plant.
Azami noted, however, the locals were slow in seizing the business opportunities, such as in the food and beverage industry during the beginning.
“They were not very business-minded… in the early days, it was just (pre-cooked) food. No hot food. Only started in the 90s because people from Cambodia started the (FB) business here. They started pasar malam and warung. Mostly ikan bakar and seafood restaurants,” he added.
Azami, who saw Kerteh transform from a small village of just 400 people to the heart of Petronas’s operations in peninsular Malaysia, expressed doubts that Kerteh would become a city like Kuala Lumpur one day.
“Not likely,” he said.
Still, not all things can be measured in ringgit and sen. Petronas ECRO general manager Wan Hasnan Abdullah pointed out that the fishermen, rubber tappers and villagers in Kerteh tend to prioritise relationships over work.
“While some business-minded people, locals included, may see those in Kerteh as slow in seizing business opportunities, the locals may have different views. To them, community relationships are equally important, if not more important than making money,” he told The Malay Mail Online in a recent interview at his office in Kerteh.
Zaid Lani, a 45-year-old fisherman, said that fishing was a tough job as fishermen have to go out to sea 12 hours away from Kerteh twice a week and stay out for three days at a time to make more lucrative catches like red snappers and groupers, which are sold at RM20 and RM25 per kilo respectively.
“The middlemen are the problem. They buy cheap and sell expensive to the public, but we have no choice. The middlemen supply fuel and fish traps,” Zaid told The Malay Mail Online near the seashore in Kerteh, where fish are sold by the roadside under zinc-topped shacks.
When asked why fishermen only worked till noon, he said: “Before this, our boats didn’t have engines. Now, we have bigger boats.”
Zaid, whose eldest son is studying mechanical engineering in Kelantan, stressed that he would not allow his children to live the hard life of a fisherman.
“Now, the youths go to work in Petronas plants. Only the veterans are left here,” said Zaid.
Azami himself is a fisherman’s son who began working in Petronas in 1983 when he was 23.
He noted that half of small businesses like restaurants, sundry shops and clinics in Kerteh were set up by locals, and the other half by people from other states in the country.
Most of the successful businesses, however, do not belong to the locals in Kerteh.
“The best sundry shop here does not belong to Kerteh people. The mini market – not Kerteh people. Most of the doctors here are from outside Kerteh,” said Azami.
But there is an exception. “One Chinese guy – a Kerteh guy – runs a successful workshop. He’s successful because he’s hardworking,” he noted.
Azami said that it was easier for people from the outside to spot opportunities within Kerteh.
He recalled that before Petronas set up shop in Kerteh in the early 1980s, there had been just one football field, one school and only a midwife’s clinic in the area. There were no hotels.
A helibase was built in 1983 to provide logistical support for offshore operations involving Petronas employees. An airport was built later to serve the needs of the industry. It is now open to the public with two flights to Kuala Lumpur daily.
Nasi dagang, a popular Terengganu dish of rice cooked with coconut milk, eaten with “gulai ikan tongkol” (spicy fish curry cooked with tuna) cost just 10 sen in the 70s. Now, it costs RM2 for a very small packet, said Azami.
“You have to buy two or three packs for dinner,” he added.
A simple breakfast of nasi lemak and teh tarik costs at least RM5. A lunch of white rice, chicken or fish, and vegetables or “acar” (pickled vegetables) at a warung is priced at RM8.
“The locals feel the cost of living is rising in Kemaman; some says it is higher in Kemaman compared to other small towns,” said Azami.
Home-stays and budget hotels have sprouted up over the past two to three years to accommodate the surge in contract workers during plant shutdowns.
Wan Hasnan said that home-stays charge up to RM4,000 a month for a double-storey house, or RM2,500 for a single-storey place. Property prices have risen to RM400,000 for bungalows, while rentals for such houses cost around RM 1,000.
“The development of Terengganu can be attributed to the commencement of oil and gas industry, especially in Kerteh,” he said.
“I came here in 1980. I was a Petronas scholar. It was a fishing village back then. It was unimaginable that it’d be like this 30 years ago,” he added.
According to Wan Hasnan, there is a 2,550-km pipeline that runs from Kerteh throughout the peninsula, and even to Singapore, while six gas processing plants in Kerteh and Paka have a combined capacity of 2,000 million standard cubic feet a day.
Out of Petronas’ 6,000 employees in Kerteh, half are from Terengganu, said Wan Hasnan.
Since the start of Petronas’ operations in Kerteh in 1983, the availability of feedstock, which is the raw material required for an industrial process, has attracted at least RM80 billion of investment, including more than US$9 billion (RM27 billion) of investments from petrochemical and chemical manufacturers, the Terengganu State Economic Planning Unit (UPEN) said recently.
“Terengganu’s vast reserves have positioned the state as a major petrochemical hub in Asean,” UPEN told The Malay Mail Online via email recently.
Roslee Daud, the Terengganu executive council member in charge of the Entrepreneur, Rural Development, Consumerism and Co-operatives portfolio, said that the oil and gas industry has boosted purchasing power and improved quality of life in Terengganu.
“When people’s income increase, it gives businessmen a chance to sell them things,” Roslee told The Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.
“Before this, people could only just afford to provide for their family. Now, quality of life is better. Last time, people eat at home. Now, restaurants can find business,” he added.