A rifle club and a scouts’ campsite are incompatible with the objectives of a real botanic garden, writes environmentalist Dr Leong Yueh Kwong.
As a former scout myself, I have fond memories of camping (but never at the Botanic Garden). But I think what Yueh Kwong says below makes plenty of sense. The scouts, as nature lovers, should understand the need to have a protected sanctuary for endangered plants and trees.
Objections to the proposals of putting the scouts’ campsite inside the SAP of Penang Botanic Gardens
The Scouts’ Coronation Camp and the Special Area Plan of the Penang Botanic Gardens
I wish to correct some misinformation that was reported in the press over the last few months concerning the Scouts’ Coronation Camp and the SAP of the Penang Botanic Gardens. The scouts alleged that they have been evicted by the Penang Botanic Gardens and now they do not have any camp site for the youth of Penang. They have solicited and obtain the support of some politicians who are asking that the scouts be given back a place in the master plan of the Penang Botanic Gardens.
The scouts, who are asking for a place in the Penang Botanic Gardens are a special interest group, much like the Rifle Club asking to remain in the Penang Botanic Gardens. The special interest group in making these demands do not seem to care about the broader interest of the public and integrity of the botanic gardens as a botanical institution. Before the gazetted expansion of the PBG, both the Rifle Club and the Scout Camp were not in the Botanic Gardens. After the gazetting in 2004, both these are inside the central part of the Botanic Gardens. These are totally incompatible with the functions of the botanic gardens.
The misinformation used in the scouts’ case is that they have no place to go and therefore would need a place in the botanic gardens for their camping requirements. This is not true to say that they have no more place for camping and a background check would show that this version is too simplistic and does not reflect the truth
Background on Coronation Campsite and Penang Botanic Gardens
The Penang Botanical Gardens Special Area Plan and Gardens Master plan (2011/2012)
The PBG has a long history of association with the history of Penang. It was in a state of benign neglect since the 1960s after the separation of Malaysia and Singapore. However, despite the lack of funds and personnel, it was a well run garden. However, with the retirement of Mr Chiang Kok Choy in the 1970s, there was a noticeable decline in the maintenance of the gardens.
There were many public complaints from the public in the early 1980s on the deteriorating conditions of the PBG. In 1983, after a visit to the PBG Prof. Holttum, a previous director of the Penang and Singapore Gardens, Holttum wrote to Tun Lim Chong Eu on the deteriorating conditions of the gardens and how the gardens could be improved.
Tun Lim then appointed an ad hoc panel to look into the development and management of the PBG and come up with recommendations on how to improve the gardens. The panel included representatives from the university (USM), NGOs and various relevant government departments. These included Dato’ Kam U Tee, then General Manager of PBA, and the heads of various government departments (Botanic Gardens Department, JPBD, JKR and Forestry).
The panel submitted their proposals to the Chief Minister and these resulted in a series of changes such as the expansion of the scope of the gardens to include conservation, education and research. One of the key recommendations was the geographic expansion of the PBG so that there would be more space for the development of the gardens which had many more visitors and regular users.
At that time, there were already about 1.5 million users and visitors to the gardens per year. The proposed expansion was also in line with Tun Lim’s vision and plans to create a green belt from the Youth Park to the Botanic Gardens in view of the increasing urbanisation.
JPBD (Jabatan Perancang Bandar dan Desa) was instructed to come out with a concrete proposal for the expansion. The JPBD proposal was to increase the garden from 72 acres to about 592 acres and this would stretch all the way to beyond the moon gate. All the land for the expansion would be public land and no acquisition of private land was necessary.
However, there were some government quarters as well as the Scouts’ Campsite and the Rifle Club which would be in the expanded area of the PBG and which would have to be relocated as these would be incompatible with the development of the botanic gardens as a botanical institute.
The Scouts’ Coronation Camp
The scouts had asked the PBA for a camp site in the 1950s on PBA land near the front entrance of the PBG on a temporary basis. The whole area around the botanic gardens was then considered remote from the city centre and undeveloped in terms of residential units and apartments, etc., and therefore suitable for a scout camp for outdoors nature activities .
The scouts subsequently called the campsite the Coronation Camp, in commemoration of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth of England in around 1955. Over the years, the scout’s association slowly added in some infrastructure such as electricity, a common kitchen, toilets and water piping. They had held a scout Jamboree at the camp site in the 1960s. However, it was always with the understanding that they did not own the land and were there at the courtesy of PBA.
The proposed expansion of the PBG was approved by the State Planning Committee chaired by the CM in around 1986 or so. However, with the expansion of the botanic gardens, the scout camp would be inside the botanic gardens and not outside as before.
Dato’ Kam then had a number of discussions with the scouts association on the termination of their lease. The permission for the scouts to use the coronation camp site was then changed to a month to month basis, instead of a year to year basis, with the understanding that the scouts would have to move out once the expansion was legally gazetted into the new gardens.
The scouts association agreed to all these conditions but appealed to be allowed to stay as long as possible until the land was transferred from PBA to the botanic gardens. This was agreed to by PBA with the scouts association and various documents were signed.
Replacement site of Coronation Camp by PBA
Dato’ Kam then made a generous offer to replace the coronation camp site with an alternative site on PBA land which was larger in area than the coronation camp site. This site was to be located near the Guillemard Reservoir along the Vale of Tempe Road, and quite near the Federation School of the Deaf. Though there was no legal reason for PBA to compensate the scouts, Dato’ Kam did so, to give the scouts an alternative site as he recognised the need for a site for outdoor activities of the youth of Penang.
The scouts association formally agreed but there was some opposition from among some of the factions of the scouts association who did not wish to move. Some of these groups then attempted to lobby the politicians at that time without much success.
However, in the meantime, though given a new camp site, the scouts association made no attempts to develop the given site as a camp site. They complained that the site was too remote and ‘wild’ and also not flat enough.
In the meantime, the scouts association raised some money and then bought a piece of land at Telok Bahang near the Penang National Park from the late Tan Sri Loh Boon Siew at a special concessionary rate. This has been used by the scouts for the activities for the last 10 years or so.
The previous state government at the repeated requests from the scouts also agreed to give the scouts another piece of land at the Youth Park for their camping purposes. The scouts had said that the younger scouts need to be nearer the city. However, though the Youth Park had allocated the land as well as to prepare a budget, no action was taken by the scouts. This could be due to the change in the State Government in 2008. This plan for the relocation of the camp site to the Youth Park can be verified by the head of the Youth Park as the location as well as a budget had been approved.
The SAP of PBG and the scouts’ media campaign
Some scouts are requesting to stay in the newly expanded Penang Botanic Gardens and have lobbied various politicians and mounted a media campaign. They are asking the public to write to the gardens department to have the campsite in the expanded botanic gardens in the SAP. This is ignoring the fact that a scouts’ campsite inside the botanic gardens is incompatible with the development and management of a real botanic gardens. The request of the scouts and supporters shows a lack of understanding as to what a botanic gardens is.
Experience of the scouts activities in the campsite over the last few decades years has shown that there were also management problems in the scout camp, with the chopping down of trees and plants for camp fires, pollution of the stream and generally unhygienic conditions at various times.
It is therefore not true, as alleged in the press and apparently supported by some members of the government, that there are no alternatives to the camp sites and Penang is the only state without a scouts’ campsite. Besides the Telok Bahang camp site, there is the PBA site where they had not done anything as well as the camp site at the Youth Park. A site up Penang Hill has also been allocated to the scouts. Camping is also allowed in the Penang National Park.
It is not clear whether this misinformation by the scouts is a deliberate attempt to mislead public opinion or done in ignorance. The politicians should verify if the scouts are telling them the whole truth or are being extremely selective in their facts before giving their whole hearted support.
Having proposals of the scouts’ campsite and other incongruous facilities of the shooting club in a botanic gardens will fatally compromise the integrity of the Penang Botanic Gardens as a botanic gardens. The new master plan of the PBG has given it a chance of realising its potential of being one of the premier botanic gardens in the tropics given its outstanding natural assets and location of being in a valley with relatively pristine lowland dipterocarp forest surrounding it. All these are within the city limits of Georgetown. All botanists who had visited the Penang botanic gardens have commented on this enviable and unique setting of the PBG.
Dr Leong Yueh Kwong
13 March 2012