The Malaysian Insider – BN faces Kuantan voter backlash over rare earth plans

By Shannon Teoh

June 18, 2011

A banner protesting the Lynas plant is seen outside a shop in Kuantan.

KUANTAN, June 18 — In the middle of March, Aida Rahim walked into her office and told her colleagues how excited she was after putting pen to paper on a RM150,000 house in Balok.

Only then did she find out that just 5km away in the Gebeng industrial zone, a rare earth plant was being constructed, raising fears of radiation pollution among citizens of Kuantan.

“I was really excited about the new house until I found out about Lynas,” the mother of three told The Malaysian Insider.

Like the 30-year-old clerk, residents around Kuantan are angry with the government for allowing the Australian miner to begin constructing the refinery that is expected to begin operations in September.

A straw poll conducted by The Malaysian Insider found that 12 of 13 residents here were against the plant, with a sole voice saying she had not yet made her mind up.

Over two-thirds also said that if the government went ahead and approved the plant after ordering a month-long review that concludes at the end of the month, they would not vote for Barisan Nasional (BN) in a general election expected within the year.

This has caused concern among some BN lawmakers, who now want to back the protest against the refinery. But it could already be too late.

“The government can do what it wants now. When it is time to vote, then I will be king,” said Y. T. Cheong, who sells electrical appliances in Kuantan town.

Both Lynas and the government have strenuously defended the RM700 million plant, declaring the radiation levels to be minimal.

The government also expects RM2.3 billion in spinoff investments as well as thousands of job opportunities to spring from a rare earth industry that is crucial for the manufacture of high-technology products such as smartphones, hybrid cars and bombs.

But Kuantan residents are not convinced that the economic benefits outweigh the risks.

Cheong Keng Sheong, a timber exporter, said that environmental damage would affect his revenue and “property prices will also drop. Some businesses will just go bankrupt.”

“I always tell my friends from Kuala Lumpur that Kuantan is the place to be. They will say, let’s go to Port Dickson but I will tell them Kuantan is much nicer. But now all that is at risk,” added Joshua Navindran, a 33-year-old sales and marketing manager.

Another businessman who wanted to be known only as Ong said he, too, forfeited an RM40,000 deposit for a house near Gebeng.

But this reaction comes despite most admitting to only having a cursory understanding of the issue.

“We don’t know the real facts. How dangerous or safe is it? There needs to be more information,” said an insurance executive who asked to be known as Nonie.

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