Of late, there has been talk that the Penang Botanic Garden should follow in the footsteps of its Singapore counterpart and apply for Unesco world heritage status.
We shouldn’t embarrass ourselves when the Penang Botanic Garden still hasn’t sorted out the basics of what constitutes a botanic garden. Imagine, rifle club members firing away merrily at a shooting range, smack in the middle of the garden. And a large dead raintree forlornly greeting visitors at the old main entrance to the garden.
Though there have been some improvements in recent years, many of the structural problems remain – chief among them, the inability to attract qualified and experienced staff because of the low pay.
These structural constraints were identified in a final report of an expert review panel on the development and management of the Penang Botanic Garden in 2009. The following is the executive summary.
The Penang Botanic Gardens was established in 1884 to introduce commercially important plants in British colonies.
The roles have changed over the years and since 1957, the gardens have functioned mainly as a recreational park.
Expansion of the Penang Botanic Gardens
The Penang Botanic Gardens is the oldest botanic gardens in Malaysia and is still the only public botanical gardens in Malaysia.
In 1989, it was proposed to expand the PBG from 72 acres to 590 acres. The expanded gardens was legally gazetted in 2004.
This expansion is the most significant change to the gardens in the 125 years of its existence and presents many challenges and opportunities for future development into a modern botanic gardens
Development of the botanic gardens in the last 20 years
Masterplan for development
After the acceptance of the proposed expansion by the state government, a masterplan for the development of the PBG was prepared by the Town and Country Department with the assistance of an experienced Canadian landscape architect, Clive Justice. The masterplan for the gardens is sometimes referred to as the Clive Justice Plan.
This masterplan was submitted to the state government in 1989 and accepted. However, the implementation of the masterplan had to be delayed until the new areas were legally transferred to the PBG.
Lack of compliance of masterplan
In the mean time, certain projects were implemented but many of these projects did not follow the proposed masterplan. In the mean time, the PBG Department had come out with their own interim layout and concept plan which differed in significant ways from the accepted masterplan.
Projects under the 9th Malaysia Plan
Under the 9th Malaysia Plan (2006 -2010), RM7m was allocated for the development of the PBG. A number of projects were decided upon by the Gardens Department but these were not guided by the masterplan. These projects were contracted to different consultants appointed by the Department of Drainage and Irrigation which was designated as the implementing agency.
Review panel on the development and management of the Penang Botanic Gardens
Concern had been expressed by various people on the unsatisfactory state of the PBG as the maintenance of the flower beds and plant collections appear to be neglected.
The Audit Department undertook a thorough audit in 2006 and pointed out a number of issues and problems on the management performance of the PBG. The Audit Department queried the lack of botanical activities in the gardens.
The Penang state government commissioned an expert panel to review the development and management of the PBG and to recommend improvements that can be undertaken.
This report is the result of the work of the review panel and submitted to the state exco member in 2007.
The management of the Penang Botanic Gardens
There are six objectives in the mission statement of the Penang Botanic Gardens Department.
Out of the six functions, there is very little that can be considered as conservation, education and research in the activities of the PBG Department. The main functions are for recreation and tourism as well as providing services to other government department.
Assessment of management of PBG as a botanic gardens
The review panel identified many of the weaknesses and shortcomings of the PBG as a botanical institute. These included the poor maintenance of plant collections and records, lack of a consistent planting policy and a general lack of any conservation, research and educational activities as specified in the mission statement.
Staffing in the gardens
The most serious shortcoming of the PBG is the lack of qualified and trained staff to manage and operate a botanic gardens. As a result, the expertise for managing the gardens as a botanic gardens is lacking.
There is also no training programme for the garden staff to improve or upgrade their skills.
There is only one graduate level post in the almost 100 staff of the gardens. As a result of the low grade of the curator’s post of the gardens, it had not been able attract qualified staff. Since the retirement of the curator from the pre-independence era in the 1970s, there had been four different curators but none of the curators was qualified or trained either as a botanist or horticulturist. None was sent for training to equip them with the skills to manage a botanic gardens.
The staff structure of the PBG had not changed for the last 50 years. There was one university level staff in 1957, and there is still only one now. While the botanical gardens in other South East Asian countries have developed in keeping with the times, the staff structure of the PBG had remained as if frozen in time.
The inability of the PBG to perform their stated functions is largely because of this antiquated staff structure. There is simply no one in the gardens able to undertake the tasks of conservation, research and education.
Development proposals of the review panel
The review panel identified the potential for development of the PBG as a modern botanic gardens and proposed the prioritisation of the many potential projects. The panel also looked into the physical development, the botanical development and the management requirements, as these should be coordinated so that the development will be integrated.
The panel also identified the short-term, mid-term and long-term proposals and provides detailed recommendations for the development of the PBG. These are elaborated in this report which was presented to the state exco member in 2007.
Development issues of the PBG
Lack of accepted masterplan
One of the most serious issues is the implementation of the projects of the 9th Malaysia Plan without an accepted masterplan to guide the development.
The projects are undertaken by other government agencies and departments and the Botanic Gardens’ Department was not designated as the implementing agency. The Department of Drainage and Irrigation is the implementing agency. The projects are awarded to separate consultants for design and implementation as landscape projects. As a result, the projects are not coordinated or properly reviewed from a botanical perspective. This diminishes the botanical value of the development projects in the gardens.
The ad hoc nature of the implementation of the projects and without the guidance of an accepted masterplan will create many future problems.
Traffic management and parking
Traffic management and parking is the most serious infrastructure problem of the gardens. During the peak periods in the use of the gardens such as during weekends, holidays or special events, the traffic congestion at the Botanic gardens is almost at choking point.
Under the interim layout plan, this traffic problem is not satisfactorily resolved or planned for. This would lead to ad hoc solutions that would compromise the concept of gardens as a traffic-free zone. Already, there are proposals to design the new central core of the gardens as for car parking and this is within the gardens.
Illegal structures in the new gardens
a. Rifle club and shooting range
The continued presence of the rifle club and shooting range within the PBG will seriously compromise the concept of a place of tranquility for relaxation and appreciation of nature. It is incomprehensible that the interests of a few can be allowed to override the will of over 2m visitors a year and compromise the value of the botanic gardens.
b. Batik shop
The illegal batik shop should be demolished as this interferes with the development of the botanic gardens.
Staffing of the PBG
It is impossible to manage the PBG gardens as a botanic gardens without a drastic change in the staff structure of the gardens. There should be at least 12 new posts at the graduate level for the gardens to be able to full fill its mission and objectives
Management committee of the PBG
The Botanic Gardens has a legally constituted management committee since the 1930s. This makes it different from other government departments. The management committee advises the PBG Department on various management and scientific issues and provides an oversight function into the development of the gardens.
The enactment is in the process of being updated and revised and is currently in the office of the state legal adviser before being presented to the State Assembly for enactment. The management committee should be activated in view of the many issues and problems facing the gardens at this juncture.
The PBG is one of the most valuable natural assets of Penang with great potential for developing into one of the best botanic gardens in the tropics. The challenge at the present moment is to make sure that this potential is not lost through poor planning and implementation.