Gardens going to seed

loading The offending arches.

The recent development of Penang’s historic Botanic Gardens have made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. PEM examines what Penangites are so heated up about, and why the large twin arches constructed at the Gardens’ entrance have raised such a commotion.

Loh-Lim Lin Lee: “The public wants to be involved before a project is carried out.”

It was a Thursday, and Loh-Lim Lin Lee was buying fruit in the Penang Botanic Gardens. The next thing she knew, a man drove up to her on a motorcycle and began scolding her furiously in Hokkien: “How did you allow these monstrosities to be built?” He gestured, but Loh-Lim knew exactly what he was talking about.

Their gaze fell upon two massive concrete arches currently under construction just outside the entrance to the Gardens proper, standing tall by a fountain and car park. They were part of a RM7mil allocation under the Ninth Malaysia Plan, and meant to be a new facade welcoming visitors to the Gardens.

Loh-Lim could only laugh as she recalled the conversation. As an architect, she is a familiar face in the Penang conservation scene, particularly with her work on Suffolk House and the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. She said that, as a representative of the Penang Heritage Trust, she and other Botanic Gardens stakeholders have had no input in the construction of the arches. No one did, and that, she said, is the problem. “The public didn’t get to see the plans. The public wants to be involved before a project is carried out.” But the public wasn’t informed, not until the projects were well under way. Then it was too late, and widespread outrage soon followed.

Established in 1884 as part of the British effort to develop regional economic crops, the Penang Botanic Gardens eventually evolved into a research facility, with a long line of British botanists serving as the Gardens’ curators. Before splitt ing from the Straits Administration, the Penang Botanic Gardens boasted a collection of more than 3,000 species of plants. Some curators discovered indigenous species and had them named after them, while others carefully developed plant houses that would serve as a blueprint for botanic development in the South-East Asian region.

The Gardens’ development screeched to a halt during World War II, when the Japanese converted the plant houses into weapons and ammunition stores, and secret passages were built underneath the Gardens. By the time the British returned in 1945, the Gardens was unrecognisable, strewn with debris and collateral damage. The Gardens was handed over to the Federation of Malay States from Singapore, and under the leadership of Frederick Sydney Banfield, was restored to its original splendour.

In 1956, Cheang Kok Choy, a former student of Banfield, became the first Malaysian curator of the Penang Botanic Gardens, serving till 1976. Cheang is often spoken of by Gardens lovers today in revered tones; it was his vision and aesthetic sense that guided the Gardens’ development, and his mark can still be felt and seen today.

“He was wonderful,” Loh-Lim said fondly. “He understood the Gardens. Anything you see in the Gardens today that is good was all set up by him.”

The same has not been said for the string of successors who followed him. Seconded from the Department of Agriculture, they generally had little or no knowledge of botany, or the management of a botanical centre. Furthermore, the directors of the Gardens after Cheang have generally been the only graduate staff in its management team. For a Botanic Gardens, this one isn’t staffed with enough people with an in-depth knowledge of botany. Stories of plants being damaged by workers are not uncommon.

Recently, four Gardens projects amounting to RM7mil were submitted to the Ministry of Tourism, all of which were approved: the Visitors’ Pavilion, the Facade, the Eco- Stream Walkway and the Bambusetum. There were problems with these projects, not least of which is that they were built without referring to any sort of master plan. The Gardens never really had one. A master plan was developed from 1989 to 1990 by retired Canadian landscape architect Clive Justice, during which a land transfer deal was being worked on, one that would expand the Gardens from 72 acres to 596 acres. But the land deal was approved only in 2004, and by then the plan, which had been approved by Chief Minister Lim Chong Eu, was forgotten.

“You need to have a master plan,” Loh-Lim said. “This is really where you need the experts, the botanists. You cannot have an increase from 72 to 592 acres and not have a master plan. The entire development, from the arches to the hawker complex to what’s happening inside the Botanic Gardens, is totally ecologically insensitive.

“You are a Botanic Gardens. If you want to do something, you do it in a sensitive fashion to the surroundings. If you don’t have a master plan, you are leaving yourself open to infl uence.”

The arches, Loh-Lim argued, can hardly be called “sensitive”. They are massive concrete structures, sticking out like a sore thumb in front of the Gardens’ vibrant greenery. “What are they celebrating? Brick and concrete? If the architects showed the slightest amount of sensitivity, they would never have built the arches.” It doesn’t help when, during a public hearing in April, the architect revealed that he didn’t know that the grounds he was working on were actually in the Gardens. (Incidentally, the consultants for the Gardens’ projects are based in Kuala Lumpur.)

The arches that have sparked Penangites’ outrage are not the only thing that’s wrong with the Gardens, according to Loh-Lim. The other projects, upon closer inspection, are perplexing to say the least. The Bambusetum, which costs RM1mil, is basically a few clumps of bamboo plants stuck into the ground. The Eco-Stream Walkway is another project that had Loh-Lim shaking her head. “It used to be a beautiful stream. My children went there on MNS (Malaysian Nature Society) weekend stays. Look what they’ve done now. It’s basically a glorified drain. Everything on both sides has been cleared. There are no shrubs, nothing. It’s shocking. They’ve put in bricks, laid a path and put up these little rest huts along the way. There is not one thing ‘eco’ about it!”

When asked about the projects, Penang Botanic Gardens director Nor Wahida Hassan said, “I’m under instructions from the state secretary not to give any comments.” Regarding the Bambusetum, however, she said that the project was still under development. “Two phases have been completed, with only one more remaining.”

The RM1mil Bambusetum project. No, really.

The lack of public consultation has irked the public as no one outside the project’s planners were told about the development plans. Not even the Botanic Gardens Management Committee, which stumbled across the plans in 2008 and swiftly called for a meeting to review the projects. Several more reviews and public forums followed, and reports on the devastating effects these projects would have on the Gardens were written up and submitted to the state government, including two reports by the Socio-Economic and Environmental Research Institute (SERI). In spite of this, work on the projects carried on.

The federal government took the rapidlygrowing public outcry seriously, and held a forum in the Gardens on April 17, 2010. (As talks went on, gunfire from the nearby rifle range rang throughout the Gardens; just another headache in the long list of headaches.) In attendance were NGOs, Jamie Yeoh from the Penang State Ministry of Tourism’s office, and the project’s architects, among many others. “Ignore the NGOs at your peril,” Loh-Lim said with a laugh. “People are very upset about the Botanic Gardens. This is our money and you build stupid stuff like this. I haven’t heard a single person praise the arches.” Proposals for cosmetic changes to the arches were soundly rejected. Ahmad Chik, a member of the Botanic Gardens Management Committee said, “You don’t leave this folly behind for future generations.”

The state government has said that the Botanic Gardens development was a federal project and thus out of its hands, but according to Loh-Lim, final approval was made by Danny Law, the State Exco for Tourism, Development and Culture in 2009. “Funding is federal, yes, but form and content have final approval from the state.”

After the uproar over the arches, many have asked how much it would cost to tear them down. Loh-Lim said money isn’t the real issue here, but public consultation. She pointed to the Gardens’ fern house, a delicate site that is difficult to supervise and requires careful maintenance. An attempt was made to repair its roof recently; some of the plants died from exposure to the elements. “Things are not as simple as they seem,” she said. “Drastic action cannot be taken without consultation.” A decision regarding the arches is expected to be made soon.

Meanwhile, work on the rest of the projects is nearing completion with millions of taxpayers’ ringgit already spent. Loh-Lim looked tired towards the end of the interview. “We’re spread very thin, and it’s like hitting your head against the wall. Nobody says thank you, and everyone sees you as a troublemaker.”

Does she think her efforts have been wasted? “If nothing else, the government will be much more careful from now on. Nobody in the Gardens is going to do one wrong thing without checking first. At least we tried our darndest and we can tell the people of Penang that we tried our best.”

Here’s hoping that it was enough.

Ben Wismen is a research officer at SERI specialising in environmental and sustainability studies, local governance and heritage.

Jeffrey Hardy Quah was chased by a monkey once in the Gardens when he was six. He can still see it lunge at him whenever he closes his eyes.

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