Update (15 November): The bill to corporatise the Penang Botanic Garden was passed yesterday with barely any prior publicity.
One BN state assembly rep reportedly questioned why the general manager reports to the chairman (who will be the chief minister) rather than to the board of directors.
Concern was expressed that the bill allows for the collection of fees: a DAP exco member conceded that fees should not be charged for entrance into the gardens; but then he suggested that fees could be charged for a certain ‘product’ within the gardens.
Uh-oh, if the Penang Hills Corporation is the model to be used, then we have reason to be concerned.
Original post (14 November):
With the Penang public largely unaware, moves are afoot to ‘corporatise’ the Penang Botanic Garden and turn it into a Penang State Park (Botanic) Corporation.
A committee looking into a special area plan for the garden had made several recommendations after holding public hearings and discussions a few years ago.
One of the recommendations was to turn it into a corporatised body like Penang Hills Corporation. The idea was to give the garden greater autonomy in decision-making, staffing and salary scales, and to reduce red tape.
Funds used to come from the federal government (for development, later via the ministry of tourism) and the state government (for operations and wages).
Garden staff used to be appointed by the federal Public Services Department and then seconded to the Botanic Garden Department. Recently the directors have come from the Agriculture Department.
In the past only one graduate was appointed. Several more were appointed more recently, but these lacked experience in botany and horticulture and were graduates in other fields. The lack of experienced botanists was a major shortcoming.
The state government resorted to hiring consultants as contract officers.
After the ‘leaning arches’ fiasco, the federal government said it would not release any more development funds without a masterplan for the garden. Hence the move for a special area plan for the garden. Presumably with the controversial cable car plan in mind, the SAP for Penang Hill was believed to be linked to the SAP for the garden.
With corporatisation, which is separate from the special area plan, more experienced people in relevant fields can be recruited.
In the early 1990s, an accounting firm reviewed an idea to privatise the garden. The plan was not accepted. Some are worried that corporatisation now could be a prelude to privatisation – though Penang Hills Corporation could be a more likely model.
While the intentions may be noble this time around, what are the safeguards to prevent certain parties from commercialising the garden and turning it into a for-profit venture?
Some questions arise:
- Will the corporation be a non-profit or for-profit venture?
- What is the financial model and plan for the corporation? What are the revenue sources?
- What about the alarming plan for a cable car at the last moment – a move that was not among the recommendations by the committee? Is a base station for cable cars planned within the garden? If the cable car was included at the last moment, shouldn’t the entire Special Area Plan be put up for public display and public feedback again? Does the corporatisation proposal allow for a cable car station in the garden?
- What happened to the Special Area Plan for the garden (which is separate from the corporatisation proposal)? The report was submitted to the state government two years ago. Has it been accepted or rejected? (The need for SAPs was used as an excuse for holding back the Penang Island Local Plan.)
- Who will become chairman of the corporation? What are the checks and balances to ensure that the chairman and the board cannot do what they like with the garden? How will they be accountable to the public? How do we ensure that a single person does not end up dominating decisions on the garden?
- From what I hear, the proposed corporation allows for sale of assets. What are the checks and balances in place to prevent any sale of land in the expanded 580-acre garden?
- Will the nature of the botanic garden be changed into a “park”?
- Will more cafes and theme park-like attractions be allowed in the future, turning it into a “tourist attraction” with a corresponding rise in visitor numbers?