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Asia Dive News : Malaysian minister threatens to close Sipadan

Deputy Chief Minister of Sabah Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat Thursday said that he was seriously considering closing Sipadan Island if people were so concerned about the environmental damage to the island and its surrounding areas of late.

It was reported that a barge carrying sand, stones, steel pipes, and heavy equipment to build RM5 million worth of tourist facilities like toilets and restaurants on the island had scrapped off hundred square metres of corals near the divers' drop-off points.

The damage was detected by two divers last Tuesday.

"People who are not happy with us may just exacerbate the situation and may exaggerate. Okay, but I am considering seriously of closing the island," he told reporters when he was asked to comment on the incident after officiating the "Sabah Museum Day 2006" at the state muzium here Thursday.

If everyone is so concerned, let the corals rest and regenerate as this would take time, while the Sabah Parks' rangers guard the island instead of letting people dive there in excess numbers, Chong, who is also Sabah Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment, said.

When asked on the damage to the corals, he said from the preliminary reports he received from the Sabah Parks, the surface corals were found to have been damaged.

However, he said the decision to close the island, one of the world's top diving spots, would depend on the federal and state government approvals.

When asked how the barge could sail to the protected island, he said the contractor who was involved in the project was not given any approval by Sabah Parks to use such a huge vessel to transport the building materials or equipment.

Instead, the company was given the approval to use only a small boat known as "kumpit" locally to ship the building materials there.

Unfortunately, the officer of Sabah Parks who was in charge of the island went for a meeting in Kota Kinabalu for two days, leaving his subordinates and staff who did not have the guns or military force to stop the barge which suddenly appeared at the drop-off point, Chong said, explaining why the authorities could not stop the barge from entering Sipadan waters.

Chong said he was just as furious as anyone on the damage brought to the corals and that he had instructed the Director of Sabah Parks Datuk Lamry Ali to take appropriate action against the contractor.

Asked whether the contractor would be terminated, he said: "We have to wait and see... the contractor has been very cooperative and has admitted the faults."

He said the contract to build the toilets and restaurants which were more of the canteen types was awarded to a contractor appointed by the state Ministry of Finance.

He said such amenities were needed to provide basic facilities for tourists including divers who travel from Semporna or nearby island resorts like Mabul to the island.

Source: Bernama