A total of RM5 million in federal funds has been approved for projects at the Penang Botanic Garden. But would you accept such funds if this was the result?
Photos by three concerned Botanic Garden lovers – Click icon on bottom right to expand to full-screen slideshow mode
These are the projects under the Ninth Malaysia Plan:
- Vendor/hawker centre
- Eco-stream walk
- Administrative and visitors’ centre
- Garden mall
The Penang State Development Office (SDO), which comes under the Implementation Coordination Unit of the Prime Minister’s Deparment (ICU JPM), had given the Jabatan Pengairan and Saliran Pulau Pinang (tasked with implementing the projects) until 31 October to resolve outstanding issues. Otherwise, it would take back the RM5 million federal allocation for the Garden. That was the reason for the rush we saw around the end of October to push through these projects – never mind that some of them appear worrying.
From what I hear, part of the problem is the project briefs were not submitted for review by the Garden Management Committee, chaired by the state exco member for tourism. Instead, each project appeared to be drawn up independently by the respective consultants and did not integrate with the other projects and the overall Garden environment. It appeared that the various consultants may not have been aware of the Committee’s overall master-plan and its long-term plans for the Garden.
Let’s take a quick look at each project. A couple of people who care for the Garden have helped me to identify the major concerns:
- Have the land preparation and physical layout alone depleted all the funds?
- Any funds left for the exhibition structures and facilities?
- Any funds left for sourcing locally available and endemic bamboo species, let alone exotic species?
- Did the Jabatan heed the advice of the local expert engaged by NGOs?
- Did this project, conceived by engineers, receive botanic and ecological feedback?
- The paved walkway, instead of being laid along the banks of the stream, follows the existing road.
- Was the realignment of the walkway done on an ad hoc basis? (A stretch of the walkway now cuts through the premises of the Friends of Penang Botanic Garden and the Malaysian Nature Society, Penang branch.)
- Are there funds left for the planned second bridge and the soft-landscaping of the entire project?
- Was the missing second bridge included in the specifications? If so, has the RM1 million payment already been made despite the bridge being missing?
Administrative and visitors’ centre
- The site, re-acquired from the federal government, was originally meant for the Federation School for the Deaf under Social Welfare Ministry. But because of a landslip at the site, the federal government found an alternative site for the school. Does the project brief mention this history?
- The geotech report done on the pavillion was apparently against any construction on the hilltop but construction work on a hill-top temple is nearing completion. Apparently, the implementing agency was only aware of the problem after a public outcry, and an expert has been engaged to re-do the geotech study. In the meantime, work on both projects continues.
- The newspaper cutting (photo above) shows damage to the Warden Retention Home, following a landslip at the same site 47 years ago.
- Originally conceptualised as the show-piece entry to the Garden proper and to the nearby Quarry Garden/Park.
- Meant to be a pedestrian mall with water features and other attractions (in accordance with a policy of barring traffic within the Garden).
- Supposed to complement the adjacent Formal Garden and encompass the grounds now occupied by the Rifle Club and Shooting Range (supposed to be relocated). But this mall could end up marring the landscape. Apparently, no effort to blend the project with the Formal Garden.
- Can it really be a pedestrian mall when the concrete/paved spaces and roadway could turn out to be massive with even more car park space?
Part of the problem is that some of us have a strange urge to pour concrete and tar on any open green space we can find – even the Penang Botanic Garden, which has stood the test of time. These folks cannot bear to see such open green spaces lying untouched.
To compound the matter, the Garden has been under the care of civil servants, some of whom may not have the necessary expertise. Without such expertise, these civil servants may then take the easy way out by contracting out maintenance and development projects.
Since Chong Eu’s days, the Garden was managed by the Garden Management Committee under a state enactment. But, according to a source, the legality of the Committee was questioned following a reorganisation of the civil service, as the Pengarah of Jabatan Taman Botani reports to the State Secretary and not to the state exco for tourism. So the Committee now serves only in an advisory role. (Submissions for the Ninth Malaysia Plan were prepared by the former Pengarah, who has since retired.)
The lack of expertise and coordination, the eagerness to accept federal funds at all costs, and the administrative tangle have combined to create this mess.
Some in the state government might want to put all the blame on the federal government (and to be sure, the feds have to share the blame), but says one critic:
… (state) decision makers seemed to have forgotten that the projects were being implemented on their land. If they had taken the interest or (were) aware of the projects – the least they could have done was to find out more details: if not agreeable, then flatly say NO; if they had objections, they clearly would have had the time to impose variations and changes.
Doing nothing infers that the State Government had no objections and had consented; not only that, by not lifting a little finger, they had practically given the civil servants carte blanche to do as they like.
No matter who is responsible, many Penangites won’t be too pleased or impressed with the mess in their precious Garden.