Brickendonbury revisited

By R. Nadeswaran, The Sun

In April 2008, the council voted against the plans and we lost an awful lot of money – perhaps running into millions – for architects’ fees, travel (first class) for our officials, accommodation and the daily subsistence. To date, we have no knowledge of how much was spent.

IN MAY 2007, two trips were made to the Tun Abdul Razak Research Centre in Brickendonbury – one as a visitor and another clandestinely, to have a look at the site and to confirm claims by the Sports Ministry and the National Sports Council that “Malaysian squash players used the centre and have given rave reviews.”

This phrase had been used extensively to hoodwink the majority of the media that Brickendonbury ought to be converted to first, a “forward base” for our athletes en route to Europe, and then a “high performance centre”. Some even gave wrong information to the Cabinet Committee on Sports and when these blatant lies were pointed out, it prompted a 14-page letter to the then deputy prime minister in his capacity as the chairman of the committee and copies to all and sundry including the editor of this newspaper, except me – the guy who wrote the articles.

Despite being told time and again that developments will not be approved by the authorities because the centre is in a green belt, no one listened. They took on the services of two architect-planners, first White Young Green and later, David Lane Associates. What the ministry made us to believe was that the plan was to “renovate existing facilities to accommodate our athletes” but what they did not tell us was that there were no accommodation facilities in the first place. During preliminary talks with the local council, they wanted to build rooms to accommodate 50, but when plans were submitted, it went up to 70.

In April 2008, the council voted against the plans and we lost an awful lot of money – perhaps running into millions – for architects’ fees, travel (first class) for our officials, accommodation and the daily subsistence. To date, we have no knowledge of how much was spent.

Fast forward to last Thursday. I was invited by the centre’s CEO, Kamaruddin Ab Malek, and a car was sent to pick me up from the Hertford North Station for a 15-minute drive to the centre. As the car entered the vast area, nothing had changed. The greens and lines of trees lined the road to the centre.

Getting down and looking around, there was nothing to suggest that there had been any material change – it would never have been allowed by the authorities. Everything was intact including the small unused pool which was supposed to be upgraded to “an Olympic size pool”. Yes, the playing field with the undulating ground was there; the lines drawn to show that football can be played had disappeared but two goalposts tucked away in one corner were a giveaway. The “administrative office” which had been taken over by the ministry had been handed back to the centre and the old chestnut tree opposite stood out bare.

Despite the rain, a walk around made it rewarding. I was standing on a historical site which was earmarked for plunder and rape in the name of sports. As I stood to imagine the multi-storey buildings, a FIFA-approved football pitch, a changing room and scores of Malaysian supporters cheering from the sidelines, I wondered aloud what a colossal waste of money it would have been – RM490 million – no less although it was cut down to “RM70 million for renovation”. There were no hostel facilities and the nearest “civilisation” was a 10-minute drive away. There was nothing to renovate. There is a nice white building, a greenhouse and other ancillary buildings. But no one stays there.

This time around, I did not have to hide the camera or video camera because there were none. Kamaruddin was a gracious host and I gave him a glimpse of my earlier escapade and the campaign to save taxpayers’ money. He was hosting a lunch for friends and contemporaries of the late Tan Sri Dr B. C. “Mr Natural Rubber” Shekar who had joined in the relentless campaign to keep the research facilities. In a note to me in 2007, he wrote: The question of spending RM490 million on the sports academy is irrelevant to the issue of TARRC’s R&D activity. The R&D operations and expertise have been built over 67 years and even expending RM4 billion cannot generate such a centre of excellence in a decade or more.

The lunch was to present BC’s autobiography to his friends. When I was invited to receive mine, I was described as a friend of the family and “the Malaysian journalist who prevented the takeover of this centre” and BC’s wife, Puan Sri Sukumari, penned these prophetic words: The late Tan Sri held you in high regard. Hope this book gives food for thought to your fertile probing mind.”

The return journey was problematic. The train was stuck for more than two hours due to a signal failure. Reading BC’s pioneering days took my mind to that fateful day in July 2006 during the World Cup in Germany. I had been working double-shift on the newspaper. What if I had put off sending the note to the 48 councillors of the East Herts Borough Council on the proposed development? What if I had not communicated with Kevin Steptoe, the council’s planning officer? What if I did not make that trip from Athens to London after the European Cup final between AC Milan and Liverpool a year later? What if I had remained silent and let the ministry and its officials tell one lie after another and continue feeding misinformation to the media?

Even if I had not raised the alarm, planning permission would have been refused by the local authorities; but the Malaysian public would have been told a series of fibs to justify spending the money. No, to us, it was a case of wasteful spending. For RM490 million, we could have built six fully equipped hospitals or 20 rural hospitals which would have improved health services and in turn, provided a better quality of life for all Malaysians.

There was a price to pay for my stand although a few prefer to call it a folly. So-called sports “experts” were roped in to send letters and statements criticising me. A delegation representing the minister visited fellow editors with a request to get me to tone down. Letters of complaint were sent on my “conduct” to many including members of the cabinet, my bosses and government officials. I had no chance to defend myself – nothing was communicated to me. One former director summoned my editors to complain that “Nades never visited Brickendonbury. He is relying on reports from the (Hertfordshire) Mercury.” Then there was an issue of my interview with the newspaper’s Raymond Brown. He had asked if I would personally come and object if an application was submitted and the Mercury reported something on these lines: A Malaysian journalist is willing to travel 6,000 miles to object to the construction of a training centre in East Herts.

What’s wrong in standing up for something you believe in? No, to many speaking against wasteful expenditure is taboo. Malaysian journalists are expected to kow-tow and say: “Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full!”

Was it worth it and would I do it again? A stationary train and with a book in front and there’s plenty of time for reflection. I needed no time to say: Yes and if there’s a price to pay for telling the truth and safeguarding public money, so be it! By the way, since the project is dead and buried, could Datuk Ramlan Aziz, the former head of the National Sports Council, shed some light on how much we spent on this venture which was doomed from the word “Go”?