The Selangor Select Committee on Competency, Accountability and Transparency (Selcat), the state legislature’s equivalent of the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament, has given the public a precious lesson on the importance of paying attention to land zoning exercises.
Perhaps more crucially, the Selcat hearing in late June has exposed the extent of lawlessness that exists among civil servants in the Selangor Town and Country Planning Department (JPBD) and the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ).
Disturbing as that sounds, the entire episode, involving hundreds of unauthorised changes to the Petaling Jaya local plan (RTPJ), raises pressing questions about the extent of the problem in the institutions concerned and the likelihood of similar practices existing in other local authorities.
The crux of the matter, however, lies in the question of the accountability of civil servants for unauthorised decisions that may have a range of financial and other implications for the people under their jurisdiction, including ratepayers, landowners, business owners and others.
This leads to the pivotal issue of the political will to bring about a total revamp of governance standards in the public service in order to sweep the public delivery system clean of wrongdoing and begin a new chapter in civil service integrity.
As the residents of Petaling Jaya now intimately know, their City Council has two, or more correctly, three conflicting local plans, which were the subject of the Selcat hearing. In a nutshell, the events which came to light at the hearing are as follows:
The local plan was first approved by the Selangor executive council (exco) on Aug 11, 2010. Some 73 amendments were then made to the plan by the JPBD and MBPJ without the approval of the state exco and the plan was gazetted by the JBPD on Jan 13 last year. Following that, the MBPJ made 210 changes to the RTPJ without consulting the JPBD or the state exco and published the new document on Aug 15, 2011.
Selcat established that these actions were wrong in law on several counts:
- The amended plan was never tabled at the full board meeting of the MBPJ although this was done for the original plan that was approved by the state exco.
- The changes, which former MBPJ town planning director Noraini Roslan described as “corrections”, were not publicised for public objections, and approval was not sought for them from the state government as required under Section 16(3) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1976.
- The second version was gazetted by the JPBD whereas this is the local authority’s responsibility.
- The gazetted document was signed by Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim in his capacity as the State Planning chairman when it should have been signed in his capacity as the Menteri Besar since state exco approval is required before gazetting.
Furthermore, the Selcat hearing was only able to confirm that legal provisions were being breached as a matter of course, but it could not pin the practice down to particular officials.
On day two of the three-day hearing, Selcat, consisting of Selangor Legislative Assembly Speaker Datuk Teng Chang Khim as chairman, Deputy Speaker Haniza Talha and assembly members Saari Sungib (Hulu Kelang), Hannah Yeoh (Subang Jaya) and Sulaiman Abdul Razak (Permatang), spent two hours questioning Noraini and senior assistant director Faiwos Abd Hamid to establish how the changes were authorised, to no avail.
“Who took the initiative to suggest the change? Was it an officer or was it decided by a committee at a meeting? It can’t change on its own,” said an exasperated Teng. A sampling of the responses, as reported in the media, reveals grave weaknesses in the accountability of the officials involved:
- Although Noraini, who is now the Kuala Selangor District Council president, and Faiwos admitted to have ignored the law, neither would say who gave the order for the changes. Incredibly, Faiwos was also unable to produce the minutes of the meeting where the MBPJ amended the local plan.
- Noraini told the hearing that it was “normal practice” to make “corrections” before and after the local plan was gazetted. “We want to put forth the correct plan to the public,” she reportedly said.
- Faiwos first claimed that the JPBD instructed the changes, but was immediately contradicted by JPBD deputy director Norasiah Bee Mohd Haniff. When Teng asked Faiwos who initiated the changes, she replied: “No one gave specific instructions. It involves many departments.”
Following the hearing, Selcat made a preliminary recommendation that the second gazettement of the local plan be revoked, and that the original version that was approved by the state exco be re-gazetted.
For Teng and his team, that is a low-hanging fruit. The Selcat’s final recommendations will need a more probing analysis to get to the roots of the problem.
In searching for the solution to these troubling irregularities, Selcat will have to conduct a deep and unflinching probe. One question that will surface is: who stood to benefit from the changes in land classification? The answers should be of great interest to the public.
This becomes clear from the case of the proposed development of a football field by the Selangor State Development Corporation (PKNS) into 35-storey apartment blocks and two 15-storey business complexes, which galvanised a protest by 10,000 residents of Kelana Jaya and led to the expose of the local plan amendments.
In his testimony before Selcat, Petaling Jaya City Councillor Derek Fernandez pointed out that the football field, classified as recreational land in the original local plan, would fetch about RM20 psf. However, as commercial land in the amended plan, it could go for up to RM500 psf — a 25-fold increase.
That provides a crucial clue, to say the least. Considering that the present case revolves around serious issues of accountability involving public servants, it is surprising that so far the scrutiny has come mostly from a state assembly committee.
Civil servants are governed by a clear code of conduct administered by the Public Services Commission. A responsive administration could be expected to have swung into action to institute an inquiry quite quickly. Should we hold our breath for it?
R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge
This article appeared in The Edge Malaysia on July 16, 2012