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Group raises concerns over Penang Botanic Garden corporatisation

Penang Botanic Garden

The following are areas of concern raised by the Friends of the Penang Botanic Garden Society.

The society will be seeking clarification from the state authority before it decides whether to be for or against the new enactment to corporatise the garden as it feels the raison d’etre of the society is at stake.

1. Enabling legislation

This Bill seeks to repeal the Penang Waterfall Gardens Enactment 1923 [Enactment 11].
During the tenure of Dr Lim Chong Eu, the management of the garden in the mid-1970s was supervised by a Jawatankuasa Pengurusan Induk under the chairmanship of a state ExCo member.

Subsequently, under the chairmanship of Dr Teng Chang Yeow, the name of the garden was changed from the Penang Botanic Gardens Department (Jabatan Kebun Bunga Pulau Pinang) to Jabatan Taman Botani Pulau Pinang; the Jawatankuasa Pengurusan Induk was changed to Jawatankuasa Kemajuan Taman Botani.

It would be of interest to find out whether the 1923 enactment was ever amended to reflect the above major changes, or were merely implemented as administrative decisions by the state ExCo.

2. Objectives and functions of the corporation

The list of corporation objectives do describe the role of a botanic garden in “continuing the tradition of the original landscape parks and focus on showcasing native plant species and other tropical plants’, together with ex-situ conservation, strengthen herbarium and provision for scientific research (but no education component). However, it is glaringly very different from the published functions of the corporation to develop and exploit a park rich in natural resources and thrust as a centre of tourist attraction.

3. Membership of the corporation

When tabled in the Dewan, Clause 9 (1) (e) specifies the membership of the corporation which is blatantly imbalanced, where not more than two members out of not more than 20 has the requisite technical and appropriate expertise in botany and horticulture.

Unlike the Jawatankuasa Pengurusan Induk or Jawatankuasa Kemajuan, there are no appointments being reserved from IPTA/IPTS, relevant NGOs nor distinguished private citizens (anak Pulau Pinang) entrusted with the maintenance and preservation of a local natural heritage site and institution.

When the bill was debated, YB Yap Soo Huey (Pulau Tikus) successfully had it amended so that it now reads “.. including at least two members with expertise..”

4. Power to impose fees

The corporation under Clause 22 (2) (g) has the power to impose fees at its discretion and is not specified. It is troubling in that sub-clause (f) clearly spells out the “tourist attraction” purpose that conveys a sense of commercialisation to generate revenue for this new entity.

5. General manager responsible to the chairman

It is very restrictive that the general manager is answerable only to the chairman and not collectively to the corporation which has the devolved authority and power.

6. Giving directions of a general character

Clause 20 (1) empowers the state authority to give directions of a general character to the Corporation. Such catch-all fuzzy language detracts from the normal practice of giving policy guidelines such as not to interfere with nor micro-manage the administration of the corporation.

7. Disposal of assets

Disposal of assets by the corporation requires the approval of the state authority; it also empowers the state authority to direct the corporation to dispose of its assets.

8. Financial implications

In implementing this bill, it is clearly stated that the government will incur extra financial expenditure, the amount of which cannot at present be ascertained.

It is very important that the government clearly detail its financial plan for incorporating the Botanic Garden and purposefully transform it as a state park and tourist attraction.

While the corporation will have to administer a fund, what is its financial model? Does the government continue with its annual allocations for development and management, or does it envisage a financially independent entity with fully developed commercialised tourist attractions and a fee-paying clientele for the state park.

It is pertinent to note that in the past, the state government had commissioned many studies with the aim of improving the management and governance of the garden, amongst which was included a study on the corporitisation of the Botanic Garden by Deloitte Kassim Chan. Then, it was reported that there were no financially self-sustaining botanic gardens that do not require public expenditure and support.