JOHOR BARU/KUALA LUMPUR - A strip of sandbank stretching from mangrove swamps in south Johor Baru to the middle of the narrow Johor Strait can be seen from the Second Link bridge some 2km away.
The sandbank is part of a controversial reclamation project by a Chinese developer that has led Singapore to ask the Malaysian government for more details so it can study its possible impact on the Republic and the strait.
China's Country Garden Holdings has said it plans to raise a 2,000ha man-made island in the strait to build luxury homes over the next 30 years. Its partner in the project is Johor state company Kumpulan Prasarana Rakyat Johor.
The sandbank, Johor officials have indicated, is the first part of this massive project - called Forest City - and will be expanded into a 49ha island, roughly the size of 70 football fields.
The sandbank can be seen on the left side of the Second Link bridge as one leaves Tuas checkpoint and drives into Gelang Patah in Johor.
Yesterday, a team from The Straits Times visited the site and spotted four lorries and three excavators still working on the sandbank, despite a Johor official saying on Tuesday that the developer had voluntarily stopped work for a week after the project attracted controversy.
The excavators were filling up the big lorries with sand, which was then ferried to a corner of the sandbank. The sand was dumped into waters not far from the mangrove swamps, presumably to join the sandbank to mainland Johor. It was not clear where the white sand used for the reclamation originated from.
Not far from this frenetic building site were regular scenes around the Johor Strait - a fisherman casting his net into the waters and, just beyond the mangroves, villagers tucking into breakfast at a roadside restaurant in Kampung Tanjung Kupang.
A fisherman who wanted to be known only as Ali showed his catch of the day, which included several kilograms of prawn, swordfish and mullet.
"I can sell this for RM500 (S$194), and sometimes a day's catch can be sold for RM1,000," he said. The reclamation project, he added, "will affect us badly".
He said some fishermen in the area have been paid RM5,000 by the developers as compensation for the coastal project, but asked: "How long could that sustain us?"
The project has also courted controversy domestically, with Malaysian media identifying Johor's Sultan Ibrahim Ismail Sultan Iskandar as a backer of the Country Gardens plan. This has alarmed legal experts and politicians, as Malaysian royalty is not supposed to be involved in business dealings.
Adding to this are reports that the project's promoters are not carrying out environmental impact assessment (EIA) studies, as required by Malaysian law. They are said to be exploiting a loophole that exempts projects smaller than 50ha from such studies.
The first phase of Forest City is 49ha.
Environmentalists are worried about the effect on the marine life, mangrove swamps and water flows in the Johor Strait.
Johor's environment chief Ayub Rahmat had told The Straits Times on Tuesday that the Forest City developers had voluntarily stopped work for about a week while awaiting approval from the Department of Environment.
Asked yesterday why excavators and lorries were still working on the sandbank, he said the developers had asked for "a bit more time" to wind down their operations.