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Along The Watchtower

Wednesday, 11 July 2018 | MYT 12:00 AM

A state of ‘white elephants’

IT was supposed to be two weeks of recuperation in Melaka in between medical appointments, but there was no escape from politics.

The daunting challenges faced by the new Pakatan Harapan state government was the main subject of discussion among friends in my hometown.

One of them related how a senior federal officer, recently transferred to the state to help revive its economy, described the situation as such a “financial mess” that he did not know where to start.

The losses inherited from the previous Barisan Nasional administration amount to a whopping RM845mil, mostly from mismanaged projects.

Khoo Poay Tiong, the new MP for Kota Melaka and former two-term Air Keroh assemblyman, were among those who filled me in with details of the wastage and losses incurred by the state over the decades.

But I missed the chance to talk to Adly Zahari, the first non-Barisan Nasional Chief Minister of Melaka since 1957. The 47-year-old CM had already left when I arrived at a Hari Raya open house where he was the guest of honour.

Let’s look at what he has done over the past two months.

For a start, he confirmed that the office of the CM will be limited to two terms, as promised under the coalition’s manifesto. Amid flak from Umno and PAS, he has also recognised the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC), fulfilling another PH pledge.

Adly also set up the Melaka Competency, Accountability and Transparency (Melcat) committee to evaluate the performance of the state government, including himself, exco members and heads of departments.

Another laudable move is the proposed formation of the Smart City Advisory Council under the State Economic Planning Unit to ensure that projects benefit the people. This is certainly relevant because Melaka is arguably the state with the most number of “white elephants”.

From the grossly under-utilised Melaka International Airport to empty museums and hotels and the shortest monorail system, there are just too many costly and unprofitable projects in the small state.

Based on news reports, the airport in Batu Berendam has swallowed at least RM440mil so far.

In 2009, RM131mil was allocated to extend the runway to 1,880m to accommodate Boeing 737-400s but this has not happened at the terminal equipped with facilities that can handle 1.5 million passengers a year.

Four years ago, it was already losing RM3.5mil a year. Today, with only one regular daily service from Pekan Baru, ferrying mostly Indonesians seeking treatment in Melaka’s private hospitals, and thrice-weekly flights to Penang – both services are operated by Malindo Air – the losses are much higher.

With KLIA just an hour away via the North South Expressway, it is understandable that people prefer driving to and from Melaka.

There are at least 25 other projects in the state classified as “white elephants”. They include a marina jetty, an agro park, a bird park and several shunned museums, including one highlighting Umno.

Two of them – a hotel meant to help uplift the livelihood of the Melaka Portuguese community and a park dedicated to extreme sports – warrant mention.

The Hotel Lisbon is among Melaka’s hidden gems. It is a beautiful complex designed to look like a Portuguese fortress, with one end facing the sea. It houses rooms on its sides, a food court behind and a circular paved courtyard in the middle.

Costing RM18mil, it was part of a RM38mil project funded by the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry which also included the reclamation of 2.4ha land from the sea.

A previous CM handed over the complex to an operator of a nasi kandar business instead of to the Portuguese community or a hotel management company.

It was promptly rebranded into a “halal” hotel, a strange juxtaposition in a place where tourists go for affordable beer and non-kosher Portuguese food.

It soon closed down and the place was rented to a local university. Over the years, there have only been “visiting” students.

The state government has now taken the building back but a check showed that three bronze cannons – part of the “fortress” design – have gone missing and the fountain no longer works.

As for the 12ha Taman Extreme Tasik Chin Chin in Jasin, RM25mil was spent in creating it more than five years ago.

Among the companies who showed interest in managing the park was an established extreme sports operator.

However, the government gave it to a politically connected youth organisation. The youth organisation later approached the experienced operator with a proposition for a joint venture but the offer was spurned.

The plus point for the new government is that the number of tourists coming to the state is still rising, with more than 16.7 million tourists recorded last year.

Ten years ago, Melaka and Penang were jointly declared World Heritage cities. How far has Melaka grown as a heritage city, and as a place of arts and culture?

Yes, people come to the state to see Jonker Walk and take the river cruise but the city’s real charm is its living heritage, not its old or newly built monuments.

How about spreading the “Walk” area from Heeren Street to Kampung Pantai and from Jalan Kubu to Jalan Laksamana? There are more places with craftsmen and living heritage in the area.

This would help reduce the congestion, ensure better fire prevention and safety, and enable roads to be closed in stages for the movement of goods.

Media consultant M. Veera Pandiyan likes this observation by Thomas Fuller: Wilful waste brings woeful want.