KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia -- Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat said there are no immediate plans to close Sipadan pending an emergency meeting by the related committee to determine the next course of action.
Sabah Parks would continue to issue permits to visitors going to the island, he said, adding that the damage to corals at the world famous dive spot caused by a barge on May 14 was "very minimum or 0.1 per cent but blown out of proportion by the foreign media."
"Last weekend, Sabah Parks sent in a team of qualified officers and divers to do a survey headed by Dr Jamili Nais, Assistant Director of the Sabah Parks, who is himself a qualified diver.
"The findings were contrary to the report in the internet and by all the so-called concerned people," said Chong, who is also Deputy Chief Minister.
He showed the media the Sipadan map and where the incident occurred. The whole Sipadan island ecosystem or coral reef surrounding the island is about 208 hectares and the island (land area) itself is only about 13.5 hectares.
"We thank them (foreign media) for their concern. But stop the exaggeration. Be rational. Malaysians and Sabahans especially are as concerned as anybody (else) in the world when it comes to conservation and preservation of the environment.
He also told the post-Cabinet press conference that funding for the amenities project on the island was by the Federal Government and had nothing to do with the Chief Minister's Department or the State Finance Ministry.
The unauthorised entry of a barge heavily laden with building materials scraped pristine corals and reef at the island legendary "Dropoff Point" last week.
Travel industry sources said there have been numerous foreign cancellations following reports of the damage and announcement of possible temporary closure of the island.
On discrepancy in the project cost, Chong said the Chief Minister only knew that it was a RM2.6 million project based on last year's briefing by the then Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Finance, but which was subsequently increased to RM5m.
"We have not received all the Federal funds yet and because of the urgency to put up a proper sewerage system and toilet facilities on the island, my Ministry has to advance RM2 million," he said.
Apart from the toilet, the island would also have a resthouse and clubhouse, among others.
Chong said Sipadan is jointly administered by the Federal and State government under a committee headed by the Chief Secretary to the Government, and had "nothing to do with Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman or myself".
He also refuted public perception of a "cover-up" on the part of Sabah Parks management in allowing the barge, which was full of construction materials and heavy machinery, to enter Sipadan "quietly".
"I don't know and I don't believe there is a cover-up on the part of Sabah Parks in giving permission for the contractor to use barge quietly."
To another question, Chong said not only Park Rangers station at Sipadan but also army personnel might have allowed the barge to approach the island to offload construction materials, given the impression that the contractor could have obtained the necessary approval.
After all, the park rangers knew there would be a project being implemented on the island.
He said members of the State Cabinet had been briefed on the incident, and that the entry of the barge was unauthorised.
He pointed out that the contractor was highly irresponsible for having used the barge, contrary to an agreement that he should use a 33-hp motor launch to transport the materials.
"The contractor agreed to compensate whatever costs to clean up the area where the barge had allegedly entered," he said.
Chong further explained that the Cabinet had instructed him to convey the message that work specifications must be reviewed pursuant to the instruction of the CM on the indefinite suspension of the project.
Musa last week ordered the immediate suspension of all construction activities on the island until further notice. The directive includes reviewing the provisions to minimise use of heavy materials, such as bricks.
On possible action against the contractor, Chong said:
"I don't want to speculate the kind of action. Furthermore, the damage of the corals has been blown up out of proportion."
"No need to terminate the contract and we should try to complete the construction of the much needed amenities," he said.
"The survey conducted by a team of divers headed by Dr Jamli had concluded that only 3,984 square feet (372.2 square metres) were damaged by the barge, contrary to 2km-3km," he said.
According to him, Sipadan spans 13.5 hectares while the whole island, including the Eco-system, involves 208 hectares, with 12 principal diving locations.
Chong said the actual location where the barge landed was in fact at the drop point which is quite deep and, for that matter, the barge only scrapped the edge of the dropping point contrary to what was reported in the internet that the whole portion was damaged.
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