Concerned Penangites distributed leaflets yesterday calling for a halt to projects to ‘upgrade’ the Penang Botanic Garden which have resulted in more concrete structures, including two large arches at the entrance.
They came face-to-face with federal and state government officials responsible for managing and overseeing the Garden who were there for the launch of the official programme to mark the 126th anniversary of the historical site.
One activist was overhead telling the officials, “The whole world is trying to move towards more greenery; here, we are adding more concrete.” The officials say they will hold a public briefing on what is happening to the Garden.
What went wrong at the Garden? Who is responsible for the mess? A source familiar with the workings of the Garden described the situation as follows:
We can say that the present development of the gardens is the result of failures at many levels.
–the failure to provide for and develop the expertise necessary to develop and manage a botanic garden. There was one graduate-level curator/director 52 years ago at the independence of Malaya and still only one curator/director now. As such, there is no expertise to manage the botanic garden as a botanic garden. The counterpart to the Penang Botanic Garden, the Singapore Botanic Garden, which was very similar to the Penang Botanic Garden, now has more than 35 graduate-level staff of which more than half have graduate degrees.
– the failure to have an orderly transition and handover from the retirement of the previous director to an inexperienced new director who was a recent graduate not in the field of botany or horticulture (at a time when the state government changed hands),
– the failure of the present garden management which has no expertise in the planning and management of a botanic garden to seek and get expert advise,
– the failure of the new state exco to understand the bureaucratic procedures of project implementation and properly review and oversee the projects,
– the failure of the garden management and state government to consult the public and to understand the sensitivity of the people of Penang towards one of the most cherished and historic institutions in the state,
– the failure of the federal government to be sensitive to the needs of the botanic garden where it can appoint fresh and inexperienced personnel to be the director of the garden and to appoint consultants for the garden development against the recommendations of the previous state government, which had shortlisted competent consultants for the job
State government officials are arguing that all the projects were approved by the previous government. This is at best only partially true, says the source. Even though the projects may come from the federal government, how they are actually carried out is the state’s prerogative, he says.
The allocation came during the 9th MP, ie 2006. RM7 million was allocated for the development of the expanded garden which had been recently gazetted to include about 590 acres of the surrounding areas of the old garden. The RM7 million figure must have been based on the JKR estimate in 1989 for the implementation of the Clive Justice Masterplan which was commissioned when the expansion of the garden was proposed. Because the gazetting of the transfer of land to the PBG took so long (gazetted only in 2004), the master plan had been superseded by a number of ad hoc developments and this made the master plan dated and inapplicable (the construction of the horticulture center, the hawker stalls, the surau and the quarry public park).
With the allocation of the funds under the 9MP, the PBG Dept proposed in 2006 the construction of a huge archway and entrance of the newly extended PBG (at the site of the former illegal batik shop) at an estimated cost of RM1 million. This was rejected by the PBG management committee chaired by YB Teng Chang Yeow. The PBG also proposed the construction of a garden mall at the place where the old government quarters and coffee shop was.
The PBG Dept then in 2007 asked a landscape consultant to submit a proposal of the design. After the presentation by the consultants to the Management Committee, the design was not accepted as it had too much hard landscape and unsightly water fountains and arches. The idea then was to have a more botanical water gardens with water lily and lotus ponds as well as for the giant water lily, Victoria spp.
Goverment-funded projects are normally handled by the JKR. The JKR, because of their heavy workload under the 9th MP, requested the DID to implement the projects, which included the eco-stream walkway and bambusetum. However, before these projects could be completed, the government of Penang changed.
The state exco, however, did not convene any meeting of the PBG management committee in 2008 and all the review and approvals for projects were undertaken without any scrunity or review. The consultants were also changed by DID, apparently in KL. The new consultants made one presentation of their proposed plans to the PBG Department and the Scientific advisory committee, which consisted of academics, botanists and NGOs. The scientific advisory disagreed with the proposals and requested that the plans be re-done. It is usually at the review stage that suggestions and counter proposals were made. It is not clear whether the proposals were presented to the relevant state exco, as normally the exco member would have to approve the final project. The scientifc advisory committee was never invited again to provide input on the nature of the water gardens or any other developments (because of their critical views?).
Alarmed at the developments, some members of the scientific advisory committee together with the Friends of Botanic Garden and MNS organised a forum in December 2008 on ‘The Future of the Penang Botanic Garden’. All the reviews and approvals for the development projects were in 2008 and early 2009. There would be ample time and opportunities to review and modify the projects and have public input. In fact, for the forum, the consultants were asked to present their proposals but the PBG did not do so (or they did not want to come?). The proposal was presented by the Director of the PBG.
It is therefore disingenous to say that all the projects were approved by the previous government and nothing can be done. It is not credible. It is a case of (the failure) of the PBG, the implementing agencies and PBG management committee.