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Answer the questions, not attack the messenger

by Lim Mah Hui

Originally published on 19/12/2016 https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/opinion/2016/12/19/answer-the-questions-not-attack-the-messenger/

I followed with interest the recent discourse between Roger Teoh and his former DAP colleagues, particularly Chris Lee and Syerleena Abdul Rashid, who are my fellow councillors in the Penang Island City Council. I am disappointed, though not surprised, that instead of answering his questions and engaging in a substantive and civil exchange of ideas, they chose to resort to political spinning and personal attacks on him – a tactic often used by politicians against their opponents. When confronted with inconvenient facts and difficult questions, they offer puerile answers or better still distract with personal vilifications.

As far as I have read, Roger has not traded any personal recrimination against them or even the DAP. The DAP leaders cannot easily brand Roger a spoiler or Barisan Nasional stooge. He was one of them; and, I was told, a staunch supporter.

In May/June this year, Roger wrote a couple of articles to publicly oppose my views on the Penang Transport Master Plan, particularly on the point that Penang should not imitate Kuala Lumpur’s road building frenzy as it has already been scientifically proven that it does not solve traffic congestion. Sometime later in the year, Roger changed his views as a result of further empirical research.

Roger was brave enough to change his mind when the facts and data spoke otherwise. As a scholar and someone who wanted to make a contribution to policymaking in his party, he started to share his results with the DAP leadership who unfortunately consistently rebuffed his initiatives without offering anything substantive.

If the DAP leaders had taken his concerns seriously and engaged in constructive discussions, I doubt Roger would have taken his ideas publicly. Nothing is more frustrating than having policymakers make decisions based on political expediency rather than data, evidence and scientific analysis and then claiming to do the latter. Chris’s “answers” to Roger’s articles – parroting party line – is a case in point. Recognising and lamenting over traffic congestion is one thing; prescribing failed policies of prioritising building more roads rather than a good public transportation system is like prescribing aspirin to a cancer patient. As Roger pointed out, empirical studies in many countries have shown the futility of the road building frenzy. The new mayor of Houston early this year publicly admitted that investments of over RM10 billion to build and expand the 26-lane Katy freeway did not solve traffic congestion. He said a new paradigm was needed. So why is Penang bent on repeating failure?

Roger’s questions are valid and have been raised by not only him but also other transport experts as well as members of the public. To date, the Penang government has not given any convincing answers.

Perhaps Chris can help enlighten the public on some of the questions raised below.

  1. Why is the state government so reluctant to make available for public scrutiny and feedback the SRS proposed master transport plan? The standard answer given by the state that the agreement has not yet been signed makes a mockery of our intelligence. Why bother to “consult” the public for input and feedback after the agreement is signed and all projects approved?
  2. Why has the state government not commissioned independent detailed financial feasibility studies of the different modes of public transport systems i.e. LRT, tram and BRT in order to choose the most cost-efficient option? Instead the state government has simply accepted SRS’s recommendation of the LRT as the only mode of public transport for the Komtar–Bayan Lepas line. Are we being taken for an expensive ride here?
  3. Serious questions have been raised many times about the unrealistic population and ridership projections that will affect the financial sustainability of the projects but no satisfactory answers have been provided.
  4. Why is the state spending so much more money on road building than on public transport when it claims to move people not cars? In the first phase of the Penang Transport Master Plan, about RM16 billion is allocated for building the Pan Island Link 1, the cross channel tunnel, and three other major highways on the island, while only RM6 billion is allocated for the Komtar-Bayan Lepas LRT project. After all the money is spent on road building, there may not be much, if any, left for public transport.

There are many more questions that have been raised publicly as well as in the Penang Transport Council of which I sit as a member. But they have not been satisfactorily answered.

Until these are openly and widely discussed, not just in top-down briefing sessions to the public by SRS, I concur with Roger that something is not right, that we have not seen the change that voters expected with a new government that preaches a CAT policy but has been acting otherwise on the PTMP.

As the honourable MPs Tony Pua and Ong Kian Meng have rightly criticised the federal government for lack of due diligence and called for greater transparency over mega projects in the Klang Valley, Penang people also hope the same can be said for the Penang government. The first, but not the last step, that needs to be taken is for the state to provide full disclosure of the studies and the due diligence done.

Otherwise, instead of seeing change, Penang voters may feel short-changed.

Lim Mah Hui is Penang Island City Councillor.

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