By Lee Wei Lian
KAMPUNG SUNGAI KAPAL, April 14 — The south east corner of Johor is best known as a destination for fresh seafood and golf for Singaporeans who arrive every weekend via ferry from Changi just a few kilometers away.
There is a stark contrast however between the impressive development that characterises the economic powerhouse just across the narrow Johor Strait, and the rural towns and villages that stretch from Tanjung Kapal to Sungai Rengit that appear to be in a state of stagnation.
All that could change however if Ngau Boon Keat, executive chairman of the Dialog Group has his way.
Rising from the seabed just off Tanjung Kapal are acres upon acres of freshly reclaimed land that could be the catalyst for making south Johor a petrochemical hub to rival Rotterdam, Houston and Singapore.
To hear Ngau explain it, this corner of Johor, now simply referred to as Pengerang after the parliamentary district of which it is a part, has divine attributes that puts it in the sweetest of sweet spots to take advantage of Asia’s economic boom.
At a media briefing on the Pengerang Independent Deepwater Petroleum Terminal (PIDPT) project on Friday, Ngau who joined Petronas as one of its pioneer engineers 1978 before leaving to start Dialog in the 1984, reeled off facts and figures to back his vision.
Pengerang, he said has water that is 24 meters deep as compared to Singapore’s 18 meters and Rotterdam’s 20-22 meters, allowing the berth of very large crude carriers (VLCCs) and ultra large crude carriers (ULCCs).
He noted that Rotterdam, the world’s largest refining centre, has an oil storage capacity of 28 million cubic meters to cater for a base population of 400 million while Singapore has an independent storage capacity of only 10 million cubic meters for a regional population of 3 billion.
The under-construction RM5 billion oil terminal, which has a planned capacity of 5 million cubic meters, also has the advantage of being located at the entrance to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and in an oil and gas exporting country to boot.
“This type of port cannot be made by humans,” said Ngau.
The vision however has not been without its troubles.
Dialog and its partners were slapped with a lawsuit last week by fishermen who are seeking to suspend the project unless they are compensated for alleged loss of income from the land reclamation.
The massive RM60 billion oil refinery and petrochemical complex, known as RAPID, being built by Petronas in Pengerang, was also hit last month with accusations that it would cause unacceptable pollution and displacement of local villagers.
Ngau returns to his vision of a Rotterdam east to refute Pengerang’s detractors.
“Rotterdam is one of the most beautiful port cities in the world,” he said while showing images of the Dutch city under a pale blue sky on a projection screen.
“They were reclaiming land in 1978 and they are still reclaiming land today. They are the largest oil refining centre in the world. We want Pengerang to be the Rotterdam of Asia.”
He also noted that Singapore, known to be strict with environmental regulations, is the third largest oil refining hub globally.
“If Singapore can do it, why can’t we? Take a drive in Jurong in Singapore and you will see refineries in the Jurong town itself and not on Jurong island.”
He noted that Dialog’s partner — Dutch company Vopak which is the largest independent oil terminal operator in the world — manages facilities in developed countries with strict anti-pollution measures.
“They operate in Europe and US which have stringent environmental standards and they can survive,” he said. “Our technology today is more advanced so why should we have problems unless Malaysians are very sloppy.”
Vopak Malaysia’s managing director Law Say Huat told The Malaysian Insider that the 400 year old company was very concerned about sustainability.
“The standards today are even higher than before,” he said.
The project manager for the Pengerang oil terminal, Chong Chong Wooi said he believed the project was the first in Malaysia to use online monitoring — whereby the Department of the Environment could remotely access sensors in real time to check sediment levels in the waters off Pengerang.
For Ngau, Pengerang is also about the future of Malaysia.
The oil and gas veteran came back to Kuala Lumpur from his studies in New Zealand in 1972 but failed to secure a job even after sending out 200 resumes.
A friend then advised to him to try for a job in Singapore.
He landed a job with Mobil Singapore after just one interview.
“Singapore was just starting to build refineries then and eight out of ten people working on the refineries were Malaysians,” said Ngau. “Singapore doesn’t even have one drop of oil. In 2012, most of the people in Singapore refineries are still Malaysians.”
Ngau said that if Malaysia, which was an oil exporting country didn’t invest in adding value to its oil and gas resources now, it would not be able to create high paying high quality jobs for the future.
“If Malaysia just wants to sell raw materials then fine, you will end up working for Singapore,” he said.
Ngau said that history was at risk of repeating itself with liquified natural gas (LNG) as Singapore was already building LNG terminals.
He said that he first had the idea of a deepwater oil terminal in Pengerang in 2007.
“I took the state government to Rotterdam to have a look and told them we could be like Rotterdam,” he said. “After 40 years, Singapore has no more land to build on. We have a deepwater port, we are close to the third largest refiner in the world and we can add value to our own oil and gas.”
About four years after he first had his brainwave, land reclamation work started on Pengerang last October.
Ngau gives Pengerang 15-20 years to reach Rotterdam-like levels of scale in petroleum storage and refinery.
“Malaysians then will no longer have to go to Singapore and the Middle East to look for high value jobs,” he said.