FLASHBACK: The dam's in a mess
The dam's in a mess May 16-31, 1997
Malaysia's controversial mega dam project in the Eastern state of Sarawak is showing signs of stress. Reports of construction mishaps and financial problems faced by Ekran, the main contractor of the Bakun Hydroelectric Dam Project are being blacked out from the tighly-controlled Malaysian press. Recently a reporter was expelled from Sarawak after he went there to report on the relocation of 9,500 people displaced from the dam area. But recent writings on the Internet by prominent Malaysian journalist, M.G.G. Pillai are slowly gaining credibility.
Pillai, the first Malaysian to be awarded the Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard University, was banned from entering Singapore from 1971-1980, and another ban was imposed in 1990. A regular writer on the Internet newsgroups, Pillai is no stranger to controversies. His sharp and often penetrating analyses of Malaysian politics finally led to one defamation suit that awaits final disposition at the Federal Court, the Court of Appeal having confirmed the High Court award of RM2 million against him; and to another for RM100 million by Ekran chairman Ting Pek Khiing.
The latest sign of possible hiccups in the Bakun project came in early April: a report that Ekran might scrap the foreign portion of an initial public offering (IPO) shares in Bakun Hydro-Electric Corp., the dam's main operating company. Project bosses had hoped foreigners would take up a tenth of the (US)$1.2 billion IPO in June. But investment fund managers are balking, worried about possibly laggard returns and the dam's $5.5 billion pricetag. Domestic investors may now have to raise their stake to 25 per cent from 15 per cent. If that happens, it would be the first time in recent memory that foreigners would be left out of a major Kuala Lumpur IPO. Ekran officials have declined to comment. Still, Ekran's chairman, Ting Pek Khiing maintained that the shares for foreigners were 'oversubscribed'.
Persistent 'rumors', denied by Ekran, have also circulated of workers being caught in a landslip during tunneling. But onsite witnesses have reported 10 deaths - six Korean and four Malaysian workers crushed in accidental cave-ins.
With a strong backing from government leaders, Ting's defense of Bakun has been zealous: he is now threatening to sue Pillai over comments on the Internet questioning the dam.