Liaw Yew Peng was chief resident engineer of the first Penang Bridge in the 1980s and speaks about some of his happy memories – and disappointments.
Liaw, now 81, was brought into the project by Prof Chin Fung Kee, who had taught him engineering at University of Malaya in 1959. Chin worked on the design of the bridge along with consultants from US infrastructure design firm HNTB, which was hired by the Malaysian government in 1976. (An earlier feasibility study on the Penang Bridge was carried out by Danish and Malaysian consultants in 1971.) The design for the approach spans of the Penang Bridge was done by HNTB’s Seattle office and the Malaysian consultant while the main cable-stayed spans design was done in HNTB’s New York office.
The construction contract was awarded to Korea’s Hyundai Engineering and Construction in 1982 and it was given three years to complete the bridge. The Penang Bridge was finally opened to traffic in September 1985, completed at a cost of close to RM800m – well below budget, thanks to Liaw’s close scrutiny of expenditure and a design change proposed by Hyundai.
Before he was promoted to chief resident engineer of the Penang Bridge, Liaw worked with James Lichy of HNTB’s Seattle office. Liaw was interviewed by Penang Economic Monthly last year:
The bridge may be one of Liaw’s best projects, but some aspects beyond his control left him disappointed. Foremost are the iconic cables at the centre-span of the bridge. Extensively tested in Germany, the cables had a lifespan of over 100 years, as estimated by Prof Chin. Yet the cables have since been replaced in a multi-year project that ended earlier this year, which Liaw estimated cost the public to the tune of hundreds of millions of ringgit. (From what I hear, the replacement of the cables cost close to RM200 million – Anil.)
In talking about the cables, he is clearly upset, raising his voice. According to Liaw, who was chief resident engineer of the bridge, the original contractor responsible for the cables was legally obligated to cover the costs of the cables if they were at fault. “If the cables were overstressed, go back to the contractor! Why does the employer have to pay a few hundred million? It has only been 25 years.” Liaw says that everyone involved in the bridge was outraged when they found out.
Another disappointment for Liaw was his discovery that Penang no longer receives any revenue from the Penang Bridge. “I thought the state government gets 15% of the bridge income. An Exco member (YB Lim Hock Seng, Penang Exco for Public Works, Utilities and Transport) said that the 15% was taken away long ago. So Penang doesn’t benefit from the bridge.” (An email from YB Lim confirms this.)
But there are happy memories as well. The happiest moment for him was during the celebration dinner on the bridge, which hundreds attended, shortly before it was opened for use. “All the hard times, the scolding and cursing were forgotten,” he laughs.
Liaw remains proud of the work he and his fellow engineers did on the bridge, particularly when it came to the budget. Liaw would personally review the expenditures for every single day of the project, and although the bridge was budgeted at RM850mil, the final cost was RM100mil lower. In an age where project budgets continue to balloon, Liaw’s achievement is all the more remarkable.
For the full PEM interview, go here.
From what I gather, Chong Eu had wanted Penang to take over the bridge but was thwarted by a high price quoted by the federal government. The Penang Bridge is now managed by Penang Bridge Sdn Bhd, which comes under UEM. UEM Group in turn is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the federal government-owned Khazanah Nasional Berhad.