Interview – Head of Northern Corridor Implementation Authority

PART I: Interview (face-to-face) with Datuk Redza Rafiq, Chief Executive, Northern Corridor Implementation Authority (NCIA).

The Northern Corridor Implementation Authority (NCIA) was established under the Northern Corridor Implementation Authority Act 2008 (Act 687) as the authority responsible for providing direction and devising policies and strategies in relation to socioeconomic development in the Northern Corridor Economic Region (NCER) states of Perlis, Kedah, Perak, and Penang. We met with the Authority’s Chief Executive, Datuk Redza Rafiq (pictured above left), accompanied by Muhammad Zaki Bin Mohd Saman, Director, Industry Development – Services –Division (pictured above), and asked Datuk Redza how it all began…

I was working in the private sector, running the company that owned the new cyber city called Cyberjaya. In 2009, we were the third best performer in declaring dividends, and the government was one of the shareholders, and they were very happy. The top performer was Petronas. I hadn’t been thinking much about the north, because we were working in the Klang valley (eds: near Kuala Lumpur). The government asked me to take this role at the NCIA. I am only assuming it because of continued good performance. NCIA is a hybrid creature. We are a federal government entity, but the state governments are with us. On our council, we have the four chief ministers, and on our management committee, we have the state secretaries of all the four states. So that ensures smooth implementation. This is a unique thing, and in Malaysia, this is the first of its kind, and so far, it has worked! It’s proven by the fact that as we move forward, the Malaysian Government has been consistent in our pursuing a regional approach to economic development, because they now see, through our endeavours, that each region is unique. Each region has its own strengths, its own value propositions, and its own idiosyncrasies.

Who asked you to move over to the authority?

It was the Prime Minister. I now report directly to him. In our first meeting, he said to me, “This is not a company. Your job here is not to make money. You are to develop economic initiatives for the people of this region. You are to create job opportunities, business opportunities, and reinvigorate the region.” That’s how my journey began. And we sort of brought a change in flavour. Because while this is a government entity, an authority, I try to run it like the private sector, with the right speed and efficiency of delivery to make sure we are able to keep up with the investors, because the government’s positioning is that we want the private sector to spearhead economic growth with the government playing the role of enabler and facilitator. So how do we best do this? That’s how we’ve formulated our positioning to actually move this ahead. In the course of all our businesses, the plan is to “plan, promote, facilitate, undertake and sustain”. Most of the time we do these. We hand-hold them from pre-investment process to investment, all the way to post-investment, and they become our partners. So, we have a lot of these private sector partners and we take the relationship very seriously. So much so that when we organise events, they come. One time, the Prime Minister asked me, “How were we able to bring 7,000 people at such short notice for an event?”, and I said, “They are not members of the general public. They are our stakeholders, they are our participants, they are our beneficiaries, they are our business partners. They just come together for our event. Because they want to know what’s new, they want to know what they can do more with us. And they want to know what roles they can play further. Because we believe in a win-win relationship. It’s a quid-pro-quo relationship with the companies, and this has caused a change in the Northern Region in terms of investments coming in. We have three key sectors. We have manufacturing, we have agriculture and bio industries, and we have a huge sector called “services”. Services comprises tourism, logistics and global business services, and tourism has been going from strength to strength. Before the Osram scenario, tourism had been overtaking the manufacturing sector for two consecutive years, in bringing in investments, bringing in business opportunities, and job opportunities to the Northern Region. But Osram came in with four billion Ringgit in investment, and that wiped out their lead. But tourism has been developing. An example is the old town of Taiping. What has happened is that 575 million Ringgit worth of new hotels came in because we helped the private sector by creating a conducive support eco-system for them to operate in.

Royal Belum Houseboat
Houseboats on Temengor Lake in the Royal Belum State Park

What is the feeling going forwards when it comes to investment in hotel infrastructure?

For the last two or three years, there has been a huge momentum in new hotels being developed. Again, if you look at Taiping, there has been 212% increase in the number of rooms there, and suddenly you have a spike in the number of applications for small businesses, and you have a real momentum. One of the things we have is this transportation “spine”. That has caused a lot of movement for tourists, for commuters to move around. So, we have created this excellent transportation network and logistics infrastructure, and it is one of the key reasons for the spike in tourism in this region. Infrastructure connectivity has the power to integrate economies by deepening trade, investments and business links, and I also believe that in terms of tourism. Here, it improves inclusivity – the element of inclusiveness is here – because of these areas that would have otherwise not been exposed to these kinds of economic endeavours.

Can you give some examples?

Rapid KL is the LRT / bus system in Kuala Lumpur. We have put this in place in Penang, and we have put in Rapid Kamunting – the buses that go into Taiping. Penang Sentral is like KL Sentral; it’s 98% ready. And the impact of all this is firstly a 73% increase in passengers handled by airports in the Northern Corridor and there’s a 30% increase in containers handled by sea ports in the Northern Corridor. If you go on the electrified train system from Pedang Besar in the north, the waiting time to get a ticket is two weeks, because it is so popular, it’s cheap and efficient, so now we need to put in more rolling stock.

The rail system is public. Is there a plan to privatise it at all?

Yes. It’s an interesting question, and we are looking into that. Two thirds of all south Thailand exports go through Malaysia – primarily through Penang port. And this is the strange part – 38% of canned goods from Southern Thailand go through Penang to go to China. How does that work? It’s one of life’s mysteries. So, we’re leveraging this to get the volume. By the same token, we are going to enhance the transportation system, the network, the links, to bring people to Belum. And Belum is something unique. When I first joined NCIA, they came to show me a proposal to do a big jetty – by Belum standards it would be of biblical proportions, something like Belum had never seen before. But they were faced with severe challenges, and I was wondering why they couldn’t do it. I went to see Belum, and before going, I did some reading, because at that point of time, I had no knowledge of these places, because my job was in Klang Valley. What I discovered is that the reason they couldn’t so it was because these were hill slopes, they were not islands. They were places that were affected when the government decided to build a dam. Slopes of hills have a different kind of soil to islands, so they were not able to handle this. In the end, we found a location. The location is actually at the place of the original jetty, which is functional now. The idea… I don’t know whether you know Milford Sound in New Zealand… we were trying to have this feeling that you’re about to go into something interesting. Milford Sound creates that feel as you go onto the jetty. So, it’s the same intention. Of course, it is different, because in Milford Sound, you are going into the “end of the world”. But here, you’re going into one of the oldest rainforests in the world – 130-million years old. And you get to see all sorts of flora and fauna. The award-winning study we did prior to our intervention in Royal Belum is called the Belum-Temengor Tropical Rainforest Integrated Master Plan (BTTR IMP) – that’s quite a mouth-full. The plan involves conservation, it involves development, and it involves management… It’s a three-in-one plan. In the plan, it also states, not just structurally, how the state should run things, it also states the bits and pieces that need to be put together. Some of these include the jetty, the base-camps, and we’ve also done a series of promotional activities to create the momentum, including creating the website.

Going to this park is a real experience. I once saw a wild elephant just metres away there, and I also learned that wild tigers smell like goats(!) Here, it is also possible to see the once endangered Kelah fish at the sanctuary there. Thanks to the efforts of the people there, it is no longer so endangered.

When you set out on this mission, what then made you become so intensely involved with this project in the state park? Why was that so important?

Because it’s a hidden gem. And we felt it was something that had to be showcased, but in a responsible manner; not to be overdeveloped or overused.

How do you prevent overtourism while creating constant growth in tourism?

Interesting… That’s why we embarked on this lengthy study. People were asking why it was that while our studies were usually three to six months long, but this one took longer. We went down to the granular level of details, because you need to come up with the positioning of this place, and to recognise that this is not a normal jungle. Like I mentioned, you can’t just build a jetty anywhere, because it’s hill slopes. We even mapped out the elephant migration patterns so that when tourists came, the timing would be right. There’s also a maximum number of permits that have to be issued. We had to be sure that the permits would be more efficiently released, but at the same time, we still wanted the permits to be there, as we didn’t want to have overtourism. This said, previously, it took three days to get a visiting permit for a local tourist and seven for an international tourist, and now it takes just 24 hours. Why it’s like this, is because this was the region where we had Communist insurgents, so the Thai government and Malaysian government actually worked together to handle this. And now, as the communists all came out and became Malaysian citizens or Thai citizens, there is no more threat here, so we were able to make changes to the permit process, to make it faster, to expedite approvals. The jetty was designed to be the “hub” for this purpose. And the base-camps were constructed to facilitate the work of researchers coming to the region. The jetty costs 20.4 million Ringgit, and the three base camps cost 4.7 million Ringgit.

Who runs these facilities?

They are run by the Perak State Parks Corporation, an entity appointed by the State to run the area, with rangers based in checkpoints and base camps in the State Park.

What’s the business model? Is the corporation self-financing?

Eventually. That’s the goal.

Is there room for any private investment inside the Park?

The Belum-Temengor Tropical Rainforest Integrated Master Plan clearly articulates which components can actually be let by the private sector. For example, the base camp is inside the state park itself. But the hotels are outside the boundary of the State Park. We are in discussion with one renowned resort operator with a view to perhaps having a high-end “glamping” area inside the park, in line with the national eco-tourism policy.

Another area of development is that of houseboats. The only way to visit the park is by boat, and houseboats are being developed by the locals. Some are like floating hotels.

Since you’ve been involved in this project, how has that changed the way you look at sustainability and environmental issues compared to before? Has it changed your way of looking at things?

Definitely. Because here, our engagement is very “ground zero”. And you get a better understanding of how things are; a better understanding of how the locals view things, a better understanding of how the indigenous people view things. They speak like us, but the thinking is different. They are very much in harmony with their surroundings. And they have this thing called “maradjo”. It’s their version of “sulking”. But their version of sulking is not how you would understand sulking. It’s like, if I have maradjo, my family and I, which comprises maybe six nuclear families, would just leave the community and set up another community. They are already nomadic as it is, but with maradjo, this also happens. When we were there, we saw a group that just went through this process.

What is this project bringing them?

One of the key points is that we try to provide them with economic opportunities. Because when tourists come in, we have this thing we’ve done called “shared value”. Usually — in a normal case — when a company goes into a particular location, they will bring economic opportunities, and they will create employment. In the case of shared value, it is a model that is created in such a way that the local communities actually help the companies make money. It’s the other way around. So, we trained the indigenous people so they could become good tour guides, and they actually have activities where they do their handicrafts, and the companies buy these handicrafts to be sold to visitors.

How are visitor number progressing in Royal Belum?

The growth is exponential. 2017 recorded 27,327 visitors. In 2010, there were 9,310.

How are you promoting the region?

We are engaged in a number of major trade events such as ITB, meeting with agents in order to bring in more tourists to the region, particularly from the Netherlands, France, Italy, Germany, and indeed all around Europe.

Other places in Malaysia have canopy walks. Is this something you’re planning for Royal Belum?

Indeed, this is on the drawing board. The canopy walk is being planned, to encourage day-tourists. At the moment, you can only enjoy Royal Belum for three days / two nights through tour packages. So, we are focusing on an area where we can put in a canopy walk, so that people can enjoy this forest’s flora and fauna. It will also create a spill-over effect for local communities, creating jobs in the eco-tourism field. We are consequently pushing to create a canopy walk, but we will also be examining the capacity of a facility like this, limiting activities so as not to damage the environment. Already, we have regular discussions with the State Park, to check whether there may be over-visitation by tourists in any area, and then certain areas may be closed, for example, for a month, to ensure their proper conservation. The state is very serious about trying to conserve the flora and fauna of the region. That’s why any development that is related to the private sector will most likely be outside the Royal -Belum.

PART II: Interview (written) with Datuk Redza Rafiq, Chief Executive, Northern Corridor Implementation Authority (NCIA).

We asked Datuk Redza what the NCIA’s roles are in terms of tourism initiatives…

NCIA plays the following roles throughout the regional development value chain to successfully deliver NCER outcomes:

Utara_1.jpegTourism has become one of the world’s largest and fastest growing industries, creating jobs and generating income as well as preserving heritage, cultural and eco-tourism sites. The Ministry of Tourism & Culture (MOTAC) of Malaysia recorded a total of 26.8 million tourist arrivals with accumulated receipts amounting to RM82.1 billion in 2016. Understanding the immense impact the tourism sector brings to the overall economic well-being of the country aside from fostering inclusive development and social transformation of the nation, NCIA is committed to realising NCER’s full potential as a sustainable tourism destination.

NCIA, in collaboration with various partners including government agencies, local authorities as well as various private institutions, has implemented a host of tourist-centric programmes in a variety of strategic tourist touch-points across the region.

To ensure a diversified and sustainable growth in the tourism sector in the long term, NCIA has formulated a multi-faceted approach with targeted initiatives encompassing upgrading and development of tourism infrastructure, enhancement of tourism-related products and services, capacity building and the implementation of sustainable tourism development best practices as well as marketing and promotion initiatives.

The objective of NCIA’s tourism initiatives is to enhance key tourist destinations in NCER to attract higher-yielding tourists, increasing tourist spending and expanding the size of the tourism industry in the region.

Datuk Redza, why is Belum-Temengor Tropical Rainforest (BTTR) included as one of the destinations actively developed by NCIA?

BTTR is the oldest tropical rainforest in the world (130 million years old) which offers a vast selection of nature and adventure packages including wildlife- and bird-watching activities, jungle trekking as well as flora and fauna trails.

NCIA first started being involved in the development of BTTR in 2010.

Located in Gerik in northern Perak, BTTR was a little known destination in NCER with many yet to be discovered attractions.

The BTTR forms the last and largest contiguous block of natural forest in Peninsular Malaysia. BTTR is home to a vast number of species of flora and fauna, many of which cannot be found anywhere else on Earth such as the Malayan tigers, elephants and tapirs.

Temengor Lake_1.jpg
Temengor Lake, BTTR

BTTR is also unique as it features Temengor Lake, which is a man-made lake dotted with hundreds of tiny islands that is centred by an artificial island, Banding Island.

It has been declared as the Royal Belum State Park by Sultan Azlan Shah on 31 July, 2003. BTTR is identified as an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) Rank 1 under the Malaysian National Physical Plan and recognised by Birdlife International as an Important Bird Area (IBA).

Temengor Lake_Elephant
Wildlife abounds in the national park. It is not uncommon to find wild elephants or tigers in the rainforest.

BTTR is an essential water catchment area and part of the Central Forest Spine. Also identified as a Malaysian Mega Bio-Diversity Hub (MMBH) under the ETP (Economic Transformation Plan; now known as the National Transformation Programme – NTP).

BTTR is also a famous habitat of many animals and is notable for its salt licks (deposit mineral salts used by animals to supplement their nutrition). Salt lick is the rally point for wildlife observation and there are a total of 12 main locations of salt licks; inc. Papan Selatan, Rambai, Kejar and Papan Utara.

Temengor_Orang Asli_1.jpg
Orang Asli Village on Temengor Lake

BTTR also the home of the indigenous people (Orang Asli) and the majority of them are from the Jahai and Temiar tribes.

Datuk Redza, can you briefly explain the initiatives that have been implemented by NCIA in BTTR?

i) The development of Tourism Facilities in BTTR – Upgrading of base camps at Sg. Tiang, Sg. Kejar and Papan

  • Arrival hall, gazebos, kitchen, BBQ pit, camp sites, hammock area, toilet facilities, water tank, guard post, dormitory, A-shaped chalets, twin chalets and hanging bridge.

ii) Upgrading of Pangkalan Aman Public Jetty, Banding Island

  • Rebranded as Hentian Royal Belum Amanjaya
  • Equipped with food stalls and new convenience store
  • Pontoon, ticket and information counter, Orang Asli gift shops, tour guide rooms, sick bay, toilet facilities, VIP room, Muslim prayer room, Perak State Parks Corporation (PSPC) Office, children playground and covered walkway.
BTTR Public Jetty
New BTTR Public Jetty

iii) Marketing & Promotion Programme in 2017:

  • Royal Belum Voluntourism (24-25 February 2017)
  • Royal Belum Photography Challenge (18-20 March 2017)
  • Royal Belum Syahadah Trail (11-13 April 2017)
  • International Media Familiarisation Trip (11-13 May 2017)
  • Royal Belum International Hornbill Expedition (26-28 August 2017)
  • Voluntourism: Nature Camp (30 Sep – 1 Oct 2017)
  • Brainstorming Session with Royal Belum Stakeholders and Industry Players (20-21 Dec 2017)

iv) Previous initiatives in BTTR:

  • Fiesta Kesenian dan Kebudayaan Royal Belum
  • Splendours Coffee Table Book Launch
  • Royal Belum Voluntourism Programme
  • Shared Value Concept – Asliworks
  • Beliaku Mahir – Program Inklusif Sosial Orang Asli Belum

What are the impact and outcomes from NCIA’s initiatives for the development of BTTR?

Statistics of visitors to BTTR recorded the highest number in 2017 with 27,327 visitors. In the whole of 2016, there were 23,375 visitors, while in 2015 there were 20,490 visitors to BTTR. The number had drastically increased, as there were only 9,310 visitors recorded in 2010.

*The number of visitors include both locals and international visitors.

The number of visitors to BTTR peaked mostly in the month of January, March, April, July and August for the past four years.

The implementation of initiatives by NCIA has attracted more foreign tourists into BTTR and mainly consisting of those from European countries such as the Netherlands, France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. Travellers from other countries such as the United States, Indonesia, Japan, China and Singapore also flock to BTTR, making it one of the popular eco-tourism destinations in Malaysia.

The up-skilling programmes initiated by NCIA, such as ‘Asliworks’ and ‘Beliaku Mahir – Program Inklusif Sosial Orang Asli Belum’, led to an increase in the average monthly wages for the working Orang Asli from RM200 to RM400/month, besides creating more job opportunities for Orang Asli people.

What is the future development or initiatives plan for the development of BTTR?

Even though BTTR received more than 20,000 visitors last year, NCIA will not stop planning further developments to create unique and new experiences for day-visitors who do not plan on staying overnight in BTTR.

NCIA with the cooperation of other stakeholders such as Perak State Parks Corporation (PSPC), Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) and Jabatan Kerja Raya (JKR), are currently working closely for the development of a canopy walk in Royal Belum. This canopy walk aims to be the longest canopy walk in Malaysia. This new initiative will provide another unforgettable experience to enjoy the beauty of nature, thus attracting more domestic and foreign tourists.

Improvement and enhancement of the infrastructure in the BTTR was planned carefully to consider sustainable development and proper business plan which will further enhance the eco-tourism activities in the area.

As the number of visitors to BTTR is increasing from year to year, the development of new eco-tourism activities can increase the annual revenue that PSPC can utilise in managing and sustaining BTTR efficiently.

This initiative will also assist PSPC in carrying out more aggressive marketing activities. The rapid development of tourism initiatives in BTTR will also create more employment and business opportunities for tour operators and the Orang Asli communities.

Datuk Redza, can you share with us the Achievement and the Success Stories of NCIA for the past 10 Years?

2018 marks another year of excellence where NCIA will be celebrating its 10 years of sterling performance since its establishment in 2018. The cumulative investment that has been achieved until 2017 is RM89 bil with 115,421 job creations in NCER.

Year Achievement and Success Stories of NCIA for the Past 10 Years
2007 –       NCER Blueprint unveiled
2008 –       Established NCIA under the NCIA Act 2008 (Act 687)

–       George Town inscribed as a UNESCO  World Heritage Site

2009 –       Centre of Excellence (COE) E&E established
2010 –       Penang Port upgrading completed
2011 –       QAV test initiative started

–       Langkawi Tourism Blueprint launched

2012 –       Penang Airport upgrade completed

–       BTC launched and 102 R&D projects approved since 2012 under CREST

–       Paddy – Estate Management Module (5.5MT/year)

–       Agropreneur Integrated Farming & Practical Training Centre established

2013 –       Penang Sentral development unblocked for progress

–       Penang Transport Master Plan Completed

2014 –       Penang Second Bridge completed

–       Manjung included into NCER. TNB Janamanjung – Biggest IPP in Pen. Malaysia

–       Kamunting attracted RM2.1 bil cumulative manufacturing investment

–       RM1 bil investment by First Solar at KHTP

2015 –       One  Auto Hub @ Batu Kawan construction commenced

–       Electrified Double Track between Ipoh and Padang Besar completed

2016 –       Implementation of new growth node projects commenced – KPLC, KSTP, KRC

–       Extension of NCER to the whole of Perak

–       Immediate focus on Southern Perak

–       Royal Belum Jetty completed  – The main gateway to 130 mil years old Rainforest

–       Taiping Heritage Trail completed

–       Penang Design Village opened

–       Rapid Kamunting Bus Service launched

–       RM5 bil of Investment by OSRAM announced

2017 –       Blueprint 2.0 launched

–       CVIA launched and construction of IBC started

–       SBEZ Bukit Kayu Hitam announced

–       Upgrading of Padang Besar KTMB Terminal launched & work commenced

–       New NCER incentive packages introduced