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Istana Rakyat in Putrajaya - MGG Pillai
By web aNtu

18/1/2000 1:44 am Tue

Now Istana Rakyat It Is In Putra Jaya

The Putra Jaya palatial official residence for the Prime Minister, named Seri Perdana, built in stealth, out of parliamentary purview, by a Petronas-led consortium, is as controversial as ever. When questioned about it, after the deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, was sacked in September 1998, the Prime Minister denied all responsibility for it, blaming it on He Who Must Be Destroyed At All Cost for its grandiosity because it would soon be his residence. The cabinet, upset when chicken prices are fixed without its consent, wanted no part in the construction of Putra Jaya, and sleepwalked through it. The Prime Minister's office insists it only cost RM17.6 million, which is what his living quarters cost. But the fencing alone cost about RM12 million and the extension about RM200 million more. The extravagance is evident when you drive into Putra Jaya, with even the lampposts built to order and with, I counted, twelve different designs (and I did not go through all of Putra Jaya). With such concern for no-expense barred building, the palace is huge in an administrative wasteland in grandeur with Tughlak's capital outside Delhi he had to abandon for lack of water in the 14th century. No one seeing it, even from a distance, would say it is a modest six-bedroomed residence of a Prime Minister. It is ten times as large as the Istana Negara, where the Yang Dipertuan Agong, the head of state, resides. It is, if you accept the official spin, a six-roomed modest residence but with a huge attached palace in spacious grounds, built-in accommodation for a few hundred security detail, and huge public facilities that only the prime minister can use.

Putra Jaya, land bought from what was Prang Besar Estate, was designed as the new federal capital. Its positioning within the Multimedia Super Corridor and near CyberJaya encouraged property speculation to such heights that those working in Putra Jaya cannot afford homes in the vicinty and have to commute either from Seremban or Kuala Lumpur. When homes should have been built for the lower ranking civil servants, the emphasis is on the higher end; as outright purchase not as a perk of the job. Which means it creates pressures in two decades or so when there would be no houses for them to stay in. In any case, federal capital it would not be. The federal authorities presumed its fiat ran in Selangor, which refused to alienate this land as Federal Territory; the earlier transfer in 1973 of Kuala Lumpur is still a sore point in Selangor. The government's refusal to come clean with what it wanted -- Putra Jaya is built in secrecy, tenders awarded to satraps of the administration, not by competitive bidding -- and as pressure grew, it found itself tied in knots. There is nothing in Putra Jaya now than the Prime Minister's Department, the Mosque and the Prime Minister's Istana Rakyat. The ministers have their suite of offices in the Prime Minister's Department and have no direct contact now with their ministries, still in Kuala Lumpur. No provision is made for a palace for the head of state, and the diplomatic corps would not move so long as the head of state lives in Kuala Lumpur -- only three emba#sies, including China, have agreed to site their emba#sies in Putra Jaya; the European Community would have a representative office during normal working hours. A strong suspicious exists within the diplomatic corps that the pressure to move is to snap up the desirable diplomatic properties for a song in exchange for bare expensive land in Putra Jaya to construct their compounds from scratch.

The public is led to believe that He Who Must Be Destroyed At All Cost in Sungei Buloh prison was so powerful that he could ride roughshod over the cabinet and build what he wanted, even ordering the Prime Minister to oversee its construction against his will. Suddenly, the Prime Minister changes his tune yet again, at his Hari Raya Open House on Saturday, to proclaim it an Istana Rakyat, a people's palace. That he describes it as a palace makes moot his claims of a six-room residence. Besides people's palaces elsewhere, usually in communist countries, by definition, are lavish and outrageous to build and maintain. Which accounts why mainstream newspapers do not inform the people how the Istana Rakyat looks like. Besides, when the Prime Minister strives to neutralise the sultans as a source of power, he talks lovingly nd strangely of residing in a palace. If justification there is for an official residence in Putra Jaya, it disappeared when it became not the federal capital but an administrative capital. The buildings, where construction has begun, are in varying state of completion. A new frenzy of construction -- of the Treasury and other related buildings -- is about to begin and promises to be even more outrageously expensive than the three already completed. And ministers like Datin Rafidah Aziz grumble that her international trade and industry ministry is taking its own time to complete. As more information surfaces, the more it looks like Tughlak's Delhi.

All this sanctifies the make-believe world he moves in. Fifty thousand thronged Putra Jaya -- according to him, to thank him for winning the elections, see the new palace, and, incidentally, wish him the seasons' greetings -- and only 20,000 at the PWTC in Kuala Lumpur to greet the deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. That makes him 2-1/2 times more reasons why he should continue in office until the next elections; his deputy is too new to hold the reins, and needs to be hand-held through until the next elections. He tries every rule in the book to be returned unopposed as UMNO president in May. But UMNO does not see why the vacant deputy presidency be given on a platter to Dato' Seri Abdullah. His pious claim that UMNO could not stand a fractious party election is ingenious: if a 53-year-old party, in office for 42 years, would be split because the leadership is challenged, then it has no right to be in office. UMNO's current difficulties stem from a refusal to encourage open elections, especially after the Prime Minister was challenged twice for the UMNO presidency. This breeds not renewed strength but complacency and arrogance, acquiring so much flab that the threat of a challenge frightens the leaders into dissarray. Which he personified at the Hari Raya Open House. The Istana Rakyat becomes his prison as Sungei Buloh is Dato' Seri Anwar's. This alone makes it incumbent he returns to the UMNO presidency unopposed. Meanwhile, would the Prime Minister now take the people into his confidence and tell them what "their" palace cost?

M.G.G. Pillai