I was amused to hear that the state government has reached out to nearly 17,000 people through “public engagement sessions” to explain details about the Penang transport masterplan.
First, which transport plan did they “engage” the public with – the original Halcrow masterplan or the exorbitant SRS RM46bn mega transport proposal?
What do they mean by “engagement” – perhaps a more accurate word might be briefings, as some media reports described those sessions. Were the public presented with all transport alternatives? Were they briefed on the financial viability of each alternative and its environmental impact? Were they shown a cost-benefit analysis of the various options? Were they told that highways would get congested after five to 10 years? Was climate change and emissions discussed? If not, why not? Are we immune?
Those 17,000 people they reached out to – did they include all those in affected neighbourhoods, businesses, schoolchildren and their parents, teachers and principals, religious congregations, all park-goers?
Last I heard, the fisherfolk in southern Penang Island were not impressed with those “engagements”. Many of them stand to lose their livelihoods. Were the fisherfolk part of the 17,000?
That didn’t go down too well, did it?
I attended one of those 965 “engagement” sessions and it confirmed what I had anticipated. It was more of a top-down briefing of the SRS plans. Hardly anything about the Halcrow masterplan and why it was drastically changed.
There is a big difference between:
a) participatory decision-making, where all options are on the table and alternatives discussed, and
b) top-down briefings, where the big decisions have already been made elsewhere
a) is required in Strategic Environmental Assessments, which is a systematic decision-making process to ensure that environmental and sustainability aspects are effectively considered.
Wikipedia describes its key characteristic as
• “a structured, rigorous, participative, open and transparent environmental impact assessment-based process”
• “a participative, open and transparent, possibly non-EIA-based process, applied in a more flexible manner to policies”..
Its aim is “to support more effective and efficient decision-making for sustainable development and improved governance by providing for a substantive focus regarding questions, issues and alternatives to be considered in policy, plan and programme (PPP) making”
In the European Union, strategically enforced assessment procedures are required by Directive 2001/42/EC (known as the SEA Directive).
The operative phrase is participatory decision-making with all alternatives on the table.
I believe what we witnessed in Penang was mostly b) – that is, top-down briefings going by the term “engagements” with some Q and A. The reality is that most of the really big decisions (about land reclamation and massive highways etc) were made away from the public eye, behind the scenes.
The RM46bn “transport” plan is more of a property play linking up the Gurney sea front reclamation with the property development in the three southern islands. Indeed, SRS stands for Southern Reclamation Scheme; so that tells you where the priorities lie.
This same mode of “engagement” (top-down briefings with Q and A) was used in the Penang Transport Council – at least that was my impression, when I was in it.
All the big decisions were made elsewhere and at the transport council meetings, civil society representatives had to listen to briefings about the SRS proposal. For a long time, the SRS proposal was hidden from the public. When it was finally put on public display, we couldn’t even take photos or images from the 20 volumes to share with the public. Even now, they don’t want to put the 20 volumes online. Transparency? I think not.
True, we could raise questions and objections at the Penang Transport Council. And quite a few objections were raised (especially about the inherent conflict of interest of a contractor and developers acting as project consultants or delivery partner). The objections were noted, the explanations hardly convincing. And that was it. It was frustrating – and little changed.
Similarly, who’s idea was it to have a tunnel? How was the decision made? From what I hear, even the Halcrow consultants had to treat it as a fait accompli.
As a colleague pointed out, RTM reaches millions of people every night and briefs them about latest developments. But that’s hardly participatory decision-making.