The Penang Botanic Garden case is a bit complicated if you are trying to establish who exactly is responsible and who contributed to the mess.
The ill-conceived eco-stream walkway and the bambusetam projects were approved during the previous administration. So that part is clear.
Two other projects – the garden mall and the administrative and visitors’ centre – were approved during the tenure of the present administration in Penang.
Who gave the approval? There are conflicting versions as to who gave the green light for the design and final form of these two projects or whether approval was given at all.
The Garden Department people claimed that a technical review committee consisting of the Garden Director, the Drainage and Irrigation Department (JPS) and Public Works Department (JKR) reviewed and approved the proposals for these two projects. The proposals were prepared by consultants appointed by KL in the latter part of 2008.
The question is, was the Penang state exco told about the plan or shown that it included the arches and all those car parks and concrete structures? Did the exco approve it? Was the plan shown and tacit approval given i.e. no objections by the exco? Were the exco’s views even sought?
If the plan was shown and views sought, then the exco could have had a say.
If the Garden’s Department and technical review committee did not inform the exco, then this is a case of the civil service not following proper procedure and making decisions without reference to the exco, said a source familiar with the operations of the Garden.
Crucially, the Botanic Gardens’ Management Committee never met in 2008 as neither the Gardens Department nor the state exco called for a meeting.
Only one meeting was called in 2009, but by then things were already in motion.
For the garden mall and the administrative centre, the appointment of consultants and the design took place after the change of government (around the middle of 2008).
The Director of the PBG and the Director of JPS (the implementing agency) would be the persons responsible for these two development projects. The state exco, however, had the capacity to make sure that these agencies consult with or report to it on various projects under the relevant exco portfolio.
The architect-landscape consultants for the two projects were probably appointed by KL (JPS HQ?). The company got both jobs, budgeted at RM5 million.
The two consultant companies proposed by the previous committee under Teng Chang Yeow were rejected even though they had had a presentation of their preliminary concepts which were not bad.
The newly appointed company which got both projects was unknown in PBG circles; neither did the firm seem familiar with the garden. The consultants thought that what they were designing was a garden mall outside the Botanic Garden and hence they put a lot of parking lots and landscaped it like a public park. They did not seem to know that the expanded Garden was supposed to be a car-free zone and the shooting club should be removed and should not be in the design, said the source.
Even after it was explained to them that the PBG had been expanded from 72 acres to 590 acres, they still put in more ‘hard-scape’ and car parks including some for the shooting club, said the source.
In December 2008, when the Director of the Garden presented the garden mall design and administration and visitors’ centre at the public forum on the ‘Future of the Penang Botanic Garden’, there were a few small arches but no car parks.
Even then a number of people at the forum rejected the design and asked for it to be redrawn. By the middle of 2009, the design changed without those familiar with the Garden being unaware of it, and that was when the two big arches and more car parks came in and the tender exercise took place.
Did the JPS and the Garden Department approve the design change? Soon after, federally appointed civil service people issued an ultimatum to the state government to clear the area or risk losing the projects. Could the state exco have rejected the projects at that point?
The Tourism Ministry now says that they will announce the date of the demolition of the arches together with the proposed salvage job, which would include a larger pond with giant water lilies. The lily pond was in the original project brief which the consultants ignored.
Now a proper investigation needs to be carried out on how such decisions are made and if the necessary consultation was obtained.
There are important lessons to be learned here that could also be applied to other federally funded projects in the state.
Federally appointed officers should not be issuing ultimatums to the state government, nor should they by-pass the state government in ramming through projects in the state.
While federal funds are of course welcome, not all federally funded projects are necessarily good for the state, and these should be studied with a critical eye with extensive consultation and views sought. If these are projects for the public, then they should go through the usual channels and come up for debate and scrutiny in the State Assembly.
The state too needs to be extremely vigilant about projects that are unsustainable and not in the best interests of the people of Penang in the long-run.