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Chronology of building a white elephant

March 17, 2017

Will Knowledge Park in Terengganu, delayed by almost 10 years, still fulfill what it was intended to do.

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taman-ilmu-terengganuBy CY Ming

The Great Wall of China with all of its branches measure out to be 21,196km, and is the only man-made structure visible from outer space.

It was meant for the defence of territories in warfare, and also used to solidify rule in a region during peace time. It was built over several hundred years by successive Chinese dynasties.

It is now a great tourist attraction but there is nothing grand about it. Millions of lives were lost during its construction, which had not prevented invasions from the north.

Before you laugh at ancient dynasties for not learning from lessons of the past, we now have an entrepreneur-turned-president of a country that is building a border wall.

The initial length of the planned wall at the United States and Mexico border will be over 1,600 km, exactly half of the entire border length separating these two countries.

Malaysia is considering building a 141km-long electric fence along the Kelantan border with Thailand to combat smuggling, which would be effective if surveillance is tight on all boats.

South of the Kelantan border is the district of Besut in Terengganu. Here, in between Sungai Keluang Besar and the South China Sea is 280 hectares of land touted as Knowledge Park and meant to be an education hub.

It was the brainchild of Idris Jusoh, who was Terengganu menteri besar between 2004 and 2008. Work on the project started in 2007 and was planned to complete the following year.

But in 2008, Ahmad Said took over as menteri besar until he was replaced in 2014. In 2013, the cost of the project was estimated at RM400 million.

Initially, construction at the site was slow and some parts were at a standstill, but it was said to be nearing completion by 2014.

But two years later, many of the buildings have since been ransacked by looters, scavengers and vandals. Some ceilings have collapsed, which is quite common in buildings in Terengganu.

It started with the RM300 million Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin stadium in 2009, followed by a mosque in Kampung Batu Putih in Kertih a few months later.

In May 2013, it happened to another mosque in Kampung Binjai Kertas, followed by the Kampung Tebauk Mosque in Bukit Tunggal five months later.

But these ceiling collapses paled in comparison with what happened at Knowledge Park. The main administration building was demolished half-way after RM17.86 million had already been spent constructing it, due to substandard building materials and safety issues.

The cost of the project had run to RM746.26 million but would require another RM230.6 million to restore it to just 60% of its original target.

Would the occupants of these buildings, if any, take pride in such a wasteful project? Can knowledge and education hubs be built overnight using only bricks and mortar?

If we cannot get our education system right, such education hubs are nothing more than the continuation of rote-learning in schools.

The quality of teaching staff and students determine the standard of educational institutions. Focussing on opulence and extravagance shows only gross ignorance.

Last month, Terengganu Menteri Besar Ahmad Razif Abdul Rahman said the Knowledge Park is expected to start operations in October, and the state government is working with the higher education ministry, now led by Idris, who is also the Besut MP.

But under Budget 2017, the operating expenditure for the top 10 public universities had been slashed by RM1.467 billion.

With finances and resources stretched thin at many tertiary institutions and Federal government agencies, they are unlikely to contribute significantly towards the success of Knowledge Park, which is likely to be another white elephant, until it is carted away brick by brick.

It makes one wonder whether mammoth projects are aimed at benefitting those handing out contracts, ending with contractors cutting corners to make some profit.

Such practices will continue as long as there is too much greed and too little shame or guilt.

CY Ming is an FMT reader.

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