NGOs, experts free from accountability? — Timothy Tye and Joshua Woo

MAY 23 — We are pleased that our article that raises critical questions about Penang’s non-governmental organisations (NGOs) has elicited responses from members of the public, including a transport expert from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).

We wish to offer a response in view of the interest from the public, especially among the NGOs.

Our previous article affirms that the society needs constructive contribution from good NGOs to grow. NGOs play a big role in society. As one of us (Timothy Tye) is a spoke person of the civil group AnakPinang, we certainly encourage NGOs to be constructive.

Therefore, the allegation that our article “attacks” NGOs in general or belittles the role of NGOs in society is a gross misreading.

The gist of our article remains that NGOs, given the role they play in society and their capability to sway public opinion over policies such as the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP), should be held accountable for their action. This, alas, is presently absent.

Instead of suggesting ways to make the NGOs more accountable, responders sidestepped the matter, and switched to making allegation that the PTMP lacks accountability. We are then accused of double-standard for raising questions about the NGOs’ own accountability while not doing the same on PTMP.

We are reluctant to dwell on this irrelevant allegation as it deviates from the subject matter. Nonetheless, as a matter of courtesy, we shall just briefly touch on PTMP.

As far as we are concerned, the PTMP was chosen through open Request-for-Proposal procurement method, a form of open tender employed by reputable institutions such as the World Bank and United Nations. The selection of the proposal is based on the recommendation by KPMG, an objective independent reviewer.

Besides using a widely recognised open procurement method, the Penang state government leaders championing PTMP are also held accountable through every election cycle. The public is free to eject them from office if they fail to perform.

The same, however, cannot be said of the NGOs that continue to remain free from accountability. As it is, the public is unable to take action when NGOs act for their own self-interest.

Actually, the PTMP bidding process can serve as a model to instill an accountable mechanism to check the autonomy of NGOs.

Open selection of NGOs

AnakPinang recommends that NGOs appointed into public institutions such as the local councils and various public-interest committees be subjected to open selection.

Instead of reserving places for specific NGOs, the authorities should introduce an open selection process where NGOs wishing to be appointed have to register to be considered. The NGOs have to submit their proposal and bid for the place.

An expert objective reviewer will then make recommendation to the authorities which NGOs should be appointed. At the end of each term or a specific duration, the reviewer and the authorities will review the appointed NGOs to decide either to remove them or ban them, or to allow them to be considered for reappointment.

Specifically on local council, while local election cannot be decided at the state level, an open selection method is possible. Unlike party-appointed councilors, which is tied to the accountability of the party through general election, NGOs are accountability-free. The open selection method will hold the appointed NGOs accountable for their action.

Uninformed disagreement

We also noticed that the disagreement over our article is caused by the responders’ lack of information. Or, at least we hope not, caused by willful ignorance.

The two responders to our article alleged that the PTMP is inferior and has deviated from the earlier proposal recommended by the Halcrow’s study. NGOs and individuals objecting the PTMP have been insisting on this point.

For instance, the USM transport expert states that, “the PTMP, as it stands, is a developer-modified version of the original Halcrow study and recommendations which for all intents and purposes deviates entirely in form and functions,” and he went on to criticise the plan to build PIL1 expressway (which is one component of PTMP). He has argued the same point earlier in an article co-authored with Lim Mah Hui from anti-PTMP NGOs.

The other responder agrees with the USM expert, stating that the comments made by anti-PTMP NGOs “are well founded and backed by other experts, such as those from Universiti Sains Malaysia.”

Last week, a transport consultant with 30 years experiences condemned PTMP without understanding. This week, we have a USM transport expert doing the same.

To say that PTMP “deviates entirely in form and functions” from Halcrow is incredible.

PTMP is not a deviation but an improvisation based on Halcrow’s study. As in all improvisations, some components are retained, some improved upon, and some removed.

Take for instance, the PIL1. The plan to build this road was proposed by Halcrow’s study, where it is known as “George Town Outer Bypass”.

As stated in Halcrow’s study, “The George Town Outer Bypass is being promoted as a high-quality highway link joining the Jelutong Expressway (now known as Lebuhraya Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu) on the east coast of Penang Island to Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah on the north coast. As such it is envisioned to be a limited-access highway providing intermediate connections to Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah, Jalan Bukit Gambir, Jalan Thean Teik and the Gurney Drive area Construction of the George Town Outer Bypass will require some 30 per cent of the scheme to be constructed within tunnel beneath the Penang Hills.” (Halcrow’s Report: The Highway Improvement Plan, May 2013, page 9, 15).

Those who have seen the PIL1 alignment would know that it is in essence the alignment proposed as “George Town Outer Bypass” by Halcrow. Therefore, we found it odd for people of claimed academic expertise to make a bold and generalised statement that PTMP “deviates entirely” from Halcrow.

Are we supposed to believe these “experts” just because they have doctorates? In the same way that NGOs are spared from accountability, should these “experts” be likewise spared accountability when they make statements that demonstrate a lack of homework?

* Timothy Tye is a spokesperson of civil group AnakPinang and a former council member of Penang Heritage Trust. Joshua Woo is a former councillor of the Seberang Perai Municipal Council.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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