Penang Botanic Gardens will blossom, promises curator

Penang Botanic Gardens curator Saw Leng Guan shows the site of a Japanese tunnel built during the occupation period. The place is overgrown with vegetation now.

GEORGE TOWN: The caretaker of the famous Penang Botanic Gardens here has called for calm over its hotly-debated master plan, giving the assurance that it will one day be the finest in the world.

Curator Saw Leng Guan said the gardens’ special area plan (SAP) had been meticulously thought out by him and other experts, with the ultimate goal to revitalise the gardens and welcome a new golden era.

The noted botanist said recent qualms by NGOs raised on the 135-year-old gardens’ SAP were matters related to procedures, which he said had been duly complied with.

The SAP is a legally-binding town planning document which dictates what can be developed and what cannot be developed.

Saw hoped Penangites and tourists at large would see the SAP for its positive points, which has seven major improvement projects to beautify the gardens and, at the same time, preserve more than 30 lawns, some dating back to 1884.

He said more than 800,000 people had visited the gardens this year alone.

As such, the SAP puts it on track to be a real joy, ready to rival the Botanic Gardens in Singapore and even Kew in London, he added.

“Maintaining a garden of such a scale goes beyond just upkeep and cleanliness. Past managers lacked the vision for a real botanic garden and were more focused on running it like a park.

The Rifle Club (white building) next to the entrance of the Penang Botanic Gardens is expected to be cleared to give way to a proposed cable car station to the summit of Penang Hill.

“If we want to see improvements in the gardens, we must have the support of the people and the state authorities to move forward.

“We cannot be fighting over the same periphery issues and not take an interest in the main thing — which is to bring world standards and improve the facilities of the garden,” he told FMT in an interview.

Saw assumed the role of the gardens’ curator in 2017, a year after being awarded the prestigious Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) medal. This makes him one of only four recipients of the award worldwide.

The Taiping-born has more than 30 years of botany experience and was given the RBGE medal in recognition of his outstanding contributions in the field of botany and taxonomy.

On Wednesday, a group of activists had sounded off the Penang government for not consulting them before the SAP was passed, raising concerns over a cable car project and other technical details.

NGOs have taken part in public hearings, says Penang govt

State executive councillor Jagdeep Singh Deo.

State executive councillor Jagdeep Singh Deo, whose portfolio includes town and country planning, said the gardens’ SAP was approved with feedback from all parties, including the same NGOs which are now registering protests.

He said a total of 27 sessions —including focus group discussions, town hall sessions and public inspections — with the government, NGOs and other stakeholders had taken place over seven years.

Jagdeep said the SAP was mooted on Mar 3, 2011, with approval by the state government on July 4, 2018. He said a total of 110 objection notices were received during that period.

He said the most recent public engagement was held on March 1, 2018, with 103 people, including MPs, state officials, community leaders and NGO reps taking part.

“From 2011 until the SAP was gazetted, there was ample time for all to present their views on the plan.

“Those who participated in these public hearings are also those who are protesting now. I suspect they have forgotten or are suffering from short-term memory loss,” he told reporters on the sidelines of an event here yesterday.

The SAP covers an area of 242ha, which is bigger than the earlier demarcated gardens area of 29ha. The expanded area includes secondary forests, native virgin forests, and unlogged forests with precious woods.

The plan includes improving garden composition, visitor facilities and plant collection management.

It would also see nine tunnels and a torpedo assembly station, from the Japanese Occupation era, being reopened. The tunnels were closed in 1987.

Existing hiking trails would also be improved, and a viewing tower and deck would be built.

A key development would be the Central Visitor Complex, which will include a car park for 500 vehicles outside the gardens.

Established in 1884, the gardens are the first of its kind in the country. After that came the establishment of the Forest Research Institute Arboretum in Kepong.

Work on the famous Taiping gardens was believed to have started around that time.