Penang Botanic Gardens: Restructure enactment, formulate masterplan, drop cable car station

Penang Forum would like to refer to the two recent legislative processes that concern Taman Botani Pulau Pinang (Penang Botanic Gardens), henceforth referred to as PBG.

Firstly, the State Legislative Assembly passed the Penang State Park (Botanic) Corporation Enactment 2017 on 14 November 2017, which effectively repeals the Penang Waterfall Gardens Enactment 1923 (as amended in 2005 and 2010).

Subsequently, we note that State Executive Councillor YB Jagdeep Singh Deo had expressly stated that this enactment would preserve and protect the gardens from damage due to development projects.

Recently, Jagdeep also said that he welcomed the views of several civil society groups regarding the recent approval of the Penang State Park (Botanic) Corporation Enactment 2017. “The proposal for the Enactment will be open for public review by early next year, and hopes to be gazetted by the first quarter of 2018 (Jan to March)” (Bulletin Mutiara, Facebook; 29 November 2017).

Penang Forum acknowledges this initiative and shall participate in this exercise to fine-tune the provisions in the enactment.

Jagdeep had explained that in tabling the enactment in the state assembly, there was due process in that elected reps were presented with the bill 10 days before it was tabled (Malaysiakini, 29 November 2017).

However, while Pakatan Harapan elected reps may have been consulted, there was no public consultation on the enactment as claimed. The reported public consultation was for a second completely separate legislative process in preparing the Special Area Plan for the Penang Botanic Gardens, under the provision of Section 16B of the Town and Country Planning Act 1976.

The draft SAP was prepared by AJM Planning and Urban Design Group, and conforming to due process, was exhibited for public comment in January 2012. The public feedback and other input were then evaluated together with the draft SAP by a review committee under the auspices of Jabatan Perancangan Bandar dan Desa Pulau Pinang, and its recommendations and final report were then submitted to the state government.

Reportedly, the state government had reservations on the final SAP, and Dr Saw Leng Guan, the present PBG curator, wrote that “due to a number of concerns expressed by the consultants of PBG at the time, the PBG-SAP was not gazetted” (Bulletin Mutiara, Facebook; 30 November 2017), but was amended in 2016.

This amended SAP was then subjected to another review by the new PBG consultant as decided by the State Planning Committee in February 2017, and this new “draft is to be reviewed by a panel in December 2017, and then subjected to a public hearing, likely in the first quarter of 2018” (Bulletin Mutiara, Facebook; 30 November 2017).

Penang Forum believes that these convoluted and repeated amendments by individuals and reviews contravene the spirit of public consultation and due process as stipulated in the Town and Country Act 1976. Furthermore, with the passing of the enactment, the historical PBG ceases to exist; so how can the gazetting of the SAP for the PBG be pursued?

Unesco world heritage site?

Jagdeep has extolled the enactment, claiming that it would enable the corporation to preserve, improve and enhance both the PBG and its management and strive towards inscription by Unesco as a world heritage site, citing the Singapore Botanic Gardens as an example.

He said that “the state government has the plan of having greater products within the Gardens, such as what’s being done at the Singapore Gardens by the Bay, namely the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest…” (Bulletin Mutiara, Facebook; 29 November 2017).

What Jagdeep says is very confusing because:

  • the ‘Singapore Botanic Gardens’ (“SBG”) and ‘Gardens by the Bay’ (“GbtB”) are completely separate entities: the SGB is an entity administered under the Singapore National Parks Board, while the billion-dollar GbtB is a specially built tourism product, run by a completely independent corporation. Jagdeep’s statement conflates the two.
  • the Penang State Park (Botanic) Corporation that is established with the passing of the enactment is a newly minted entity. It will have to struggle to qualify for Unesco heritage site listing, which is for historical sites.

Penang Forum’s proposals

The main function of a botanic gardens is the collection, study, and conservation of plants. It should carry out public education and have strong links with the research and higher education centres of the country.

Horticulture is an important function and the botanic gardens can be a centre of horticultural research and development and help promote the horticultural industry of Penang. Besides being a botanic institution, it can also be a place of recreation and tourism destination but these are not its primary functions.

Taking into consideration this main idea of what a botanic gardens should be, as well as the issues that we have pointed to above, Penang Forum proposes the following:

1. That the state government restructure the enactment to emulate Singapore’s National Parks Board, by declaring the corporation as a non-commercial entity to administer and develop a judicious mix of botanic institutions, nature reserves and recreational park lands. The state must prioritise and cater to the rakyat in preserving our historical natural heritage and provide more open recreational spaces that may also serve as tourist destinations.

  • That the corporation emplace and administer the PBG (Kebun Bunga Pulau Pinang) as a distinct entity to preserve its identity and history. Improvements, developments and other enhancement of its managerial capacities can continue unimpeded;
  • That the existing Bukit Pancor State Park in Seberang Perai and Taman Rimba in Teluk Bahang be similarly emplaced, administered and further developed by the corporation;
  • That the corporation undertake an exercise to acquire, administer and develop suitable park lands, nature reserves and other prospective sites for use by the increasingly urbanised population of Penang. Prime locations will include the Bukit Dumbar recreational area and the public-access areas in the vicinity of both the Mengkuang and Teluk Bahang Dams, and nature, hill and bicycle trails.

2. The SAP legislative exercise should be terminated as the outcome is merely a local plan with “detailed guidance for its implementation and management” that will guide the future direction of the PBG. The SAP is NOT a masterplan. The state needs to appoint a competent independent consultant to develop a proper masterplan that will encompass:

  • a set of development principles and strategies and an implementation timeline;
  • a management plan (including detailed financial provisions, organisational structure and governance and
  • a detailed physical plan.

3. Reportedly, the state intends to build a base station for the Penang Hill cable car system within the grounds of the PBG. Such an important proposal was NOT even listed in the executive summary of the draft SAP that was distributed during the public exhibition. Penang Forum categorically rejects this proposal because such a busy station would be incompatible with maintenance of the serene tranquility of the PBG. It would create a horrendous transportation nightmare, having to cater to the anticipated vehicle numbers and provision of additional parking spaces to an already congested pedestrianised gardens.

4. The Penang Rifle Club as presently located on the land of the expanded PBG. It is not conducive for any botanic garden to have a rifle club located in its premises for obvious reasons. The state government needs to work towards relocating the club quickly. After all, it was expressly acknowledged that the club would be relocated after the Penang Sukma Games despite a refurbishment and facilities upgrade.

Penang Forum believes that bringing the existing recreational areas under this system of parks, gardens and conservation areas of Penang is necessary to conserve the rich biodiversity of the flora and fauna of Penang. It will also contribute to a greener Penang, improve the people’s quality of life, and constitute a vision of Penang as a city of gardens.

Penang Forum steering committee
9 December 2017

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