Whither transparency? There was much talk in Penang about freedom of information last week especially around Right to Information Day (28 September).
But sadly, when it came to the crunch, a freedom of information request to the Penang state government to disclose the 20-volume transport proposal by SRS Consortium was rejected.
The SRS transport proposal is expected to cost the state a staggering RM50bn, and the state government is expected to raise this anount by auctioning off 4,500 acres of reclaimed land.
In view of the high stakes, Michael Leow of Sinar Project, which spearheads freedom of information initiatives, submitted a request for the proposal to be made public in line with the Freedom of Information Enactment 2010 in Penang. The 20 volumes are presently locked up in a small room in Komtar, accessible only to Penang Transport Council members, minus their phones and cameras.
Michael had wanted a soft copy of the 20 volumes but was told this was not possible. The most he could hope for was a visit to that locked room in Komtar.
Unfortunately, his request to gain access to the 20 thick volumes was rejected by the deputy state secretary (development). The reason for the rejection? The agreement between the relevant parties has not yet been finalised. Presumably, this refers to the project delivery partner agreement that will be signed between the Penang state government and SRS Consortium. The deadline for signing had been extended to February 2017.
“For a clear CAT process, the public should have been involved transparently, right from the beginning. There is no excuse in this day and age, as the documents could easily have been put online,” said a disappointed Michael, when contacted.
Meanwhile, after the SRS proposal had been submitted to the state government, more controversial components were added such as a monorail line on the mainland. A north-south highway proposed for the island was also expanded. No wonder the cost of the proposal is now almost touching RM50bn.
But the public are largely in the dark about the details. For instance, they have no clue how many buildings would be affected – “encumbrances”, as they are called – by the north-south highway and elevated LRT on the island.
The problem is that if we wait for the agreement to be finalised, it would be too close to the signing deadline. By then it would probably be too late: any changes after the agreement has been signed might result in the familiar refrain that compensation would have to be paid.
At a recent Penang Transport Council meeting, when council members asked when the SRS proposal would be made public, they were told that maybe after a two-day workshop was held to brief council members about the SRS proposal. Well, that two-day workshop on 24-25 September 2016 has come and gone, and still the proposal has not yet been made public.
This delay leaves little time for the SRS proposal to receive proper public scrutiny, feedback and criticism. Perhaps that is the idea.
For now, what is clear is that the FOI Enactment has failed its biggest test.