Be man enough to take the blame

By Wong Chun Wai, The Star

Those involved in the fiasco of Pulau Jerejak should stop blaming others for the things that went wrong.

THREE international disasters have been cited by former Penang Chief Minister Tan Sri Koh Tsu Koon as reasons for the massive RM30mil losses in the tourism development project in Pulau Jerejak.

These are the Sept 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the global financial crisis, and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003.

But even if all this were true, Dr Koh is unlikely to find many sympathetic listeners. He can be sure of getting many cynical responses, though.

That, unfortunately, is a problem among many politicians – they tend to blame everyone and everything, and especially the press, except themselves.

The losses stemmed from the Tropical Island Resort (TIR) development project, which is a joint venture between the Penang Development Corporation and the federal government-owned Urban Development Authority (UDA). The PDC holds 49% of the stakes while UDA owns the rest.

The PDC has reportedly incurred investment expenditure and debt of RM19mil, and another RM11mil in land premium which has yet to be paid to the Penang Land Administra­tor.

The sore point is that while the land premium has not been paid, it is said that the title deed has been issued.

Penangites have always treated Pulau Jerejak as a mysterious island, one that is so near yet so far because most parts have always remained restricted to the people even after the maximum security prison there was shut down in 1993.

There’s plenty of history in Pulau Jerejak: It was Captain Francis Light’s first stop during his voyage to Penang Island in 1786; it became the site of a health quarantine centre when immigrants swamped Penang; a leper asylum was built here in the late 19th century; and at different times in its history, it was the site of a German submarine base and a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients.

It eventually became known as the Alcatraz of Malaysia because of the Jerejak prison.

I have visited the island twice only. The first was in the 1980s when, as a rookie reporter, I went with lawyer Karpal Singh who took me along so I could see what it was like inside a prison.

I was restricted to the administration office while Karpal Singh spoke to his client. In fact, the boat that was supposed to take us there never showed up. We ended up travelling on a barge stacked with watermelons and with a few guards and a couple of prisoners as fellow passengers.

The other time was when The Star organised a youth programme at the newly-built resort in 2004. We arrived to find the resort almost deserted, and it did not take us long to find out why.

The large tract of forest behind it was under-utilised, so the eco-tourism part of it was neglected.

Unlike the sandy beaches along the touristy belt of Batu Feringghi, most parts of the island’s seaside are rocky, which makes swimming unsafe.

This could be a place for team-building exercises but not for tourists. There is only so much rock climbing and telematch exercises one can do before boredom seeps in.

The resort is only a small part of the 362ha island and unless there is an integrated plan to link up the whole area, any tourism plan is likely to fail. In short, not much creative thinking has been put into it.

More efficient transport, such as river boats similar to those in Thailand, to ferry tourists across from Batu Maung would help, for example.

The amenities on the resort were good but government agencies have never done well running hotels and restaurants. Let’s face it, most of the time service is bad.

Do a Google search and you will find angry comments posted by dissatisfied tourists who have visited the resort. A few have even included pictures in their posts to support their rants.

The running of tourism programmes should not be left to civil servants but to the professionals who would be fired if they missed sales targets or chalked up losses from government-run subsidiaries.

In fact, Penangites have the right to demand more answers to explain this fiasco. No one should give ridiculous excuses and expect to get away with it. We are talking about RM30mil in losses here!

It’s our money and the Public Accounts Committee should take up the issue immediately. Stop playing political games and come up with decent answers. Even if we cannot recoup the money, at least we can learn from the mistakes.

In the first place, how could the PDC end up with only a minority share, which effectively means they do not have the final say in how the tourist development project would be run?

It is basic business sense that you must have the controlling stake, especially when the state owns the island.

The failure of TIR is the result of poor planning, management and marketing, it’s as simple as that. We should be man enough to take responsibility and stop blaming terrorists, rogue speculators and diseases for the fiasco in Pulau Jerejak.