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Deliberations over the fate of Penang's iconic, but loss-making ferry service linking the island to Butterworth seem never-ending. Often when the topic is broached, it would invariably turn political.
The people of Penang are very much attached to their ferry service, which is the oldest in the country, operating since 1920, and closing down the service will never be permissible. However, the ferry service represents a financial burden for its operator Penang Port Sdn Bhd (PPSB), losing millions each year. It recorded a loss of RM23 million from ferry operations in 2013.
It is understood that Seaport Terminal (Johore) Sdn Bhd's, a company owned by tycoon Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary, price for taking over PPSB in November 2013 included the burden of the loss-making ferry service, but one it is willing to let go at any time. PPSB was formerly a wholly government-owned subsidiary under the Finance Ministry.
As far back as 2009, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng had made it known that the DAP-led Penang state government was keen to take over the operation of the ferry system from PPSB. However, the move was seen as as a political ploy by then transport minister Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat.
In an exclusive interview with The Edge Financial Daily, Guan Eng once again expressed the Penang government's keenness to take over the ferry service.
Indeed, Guan Eng said the Penang government is in the midst of preparing a report for the federal government, detailing plans to take over the loss-making ferry service and the course of path it would take to revive it.
According to Guan Eng, the federal government has indicated its willingness to consider the Penang government's proposal, but has requested for more information before it makes a decision.
“We are preparing a more detailed report for the federal government. We are also looking at appointing a consultant to handle the talks with the transport ministry.
“The fact that they had called for a meeting [with us] indicates that they have strong interest [in our proposal]... [but] I think we will wait for an official confirmation [before we appoint a consultant],” he said.
Guan Eng was commenting on the outcome of the meeting between Penang state secretary Datuk Seri Farizan Darus and Transport Ministry secretary-general Datuk Seri Saripuddin Kasim on Jan 8.
The Penang government is prepared to take over the management and operation of the ferry service under four conditions. They include it be excluded from all liabilities or debts of PPSB until the date the state government takes over, and that it will only absorb all employees in the lower and supporting services directly involved in the operation of the ferry service, while the retainment of management staff will be solely at the discretion of the state government.
Another condition is that the transport ministry must approve 30 water taxi licences to the Penang government to operate water taxi services.
On funding for the ferry service, Guan Eng said the state will use its internal funds.
“In terms of funding, you are looking at tens or hundreds of million of ringgit. We will come up with it. We do not have RM27 billion, but we have RM100 million,” he said, referring to the proposed RM27 billion Penang Transport Master Plan.
“However, in terms of the purchase of 30 water taxis, it would definitely be through an open competitive tender,” he added.
Guan Eng said the state government may also consider calling a request for proposals for a joint-venture partner to run the ferry service and water taxis.