Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Some Contracts Just Cannot Tender Out"

The Prime Minister fails to grasp the concept of “open tenders” and contradicts himself with exceptions without basis

We welcome the call by the Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak who said yesterday that the Government would ensure “big projects” be conducted in an “open and transparent way”.

What was however shocking was the fact that when he was later asked about the biggest project under the ETP, the construction of a RM46 billion MRT system, he immediately contradicted himself claiming “there are some contracts that you just cannot tender out.”

The Prime Minister added that while “some projects” could not be tendered out, it did not mean that projects awarded to a major consortium would see “everything else” down the line skipping the open tender process. The Prime Minister completely misses the point of the Government open tenders! The point is to ensure that the Government gets maximum value at the lowest possible cost. But directly awarding a mega-project to a private consortium which subsequently tenders out the respective works maximizes the profits for the consortium, not the Government.

The question we would like to ask is, while the private consortiums are maximising profits for their shareholders, why isn't the Government maximising value and returns for the Malaysian tax-payers?

Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, Datuk Seri Idris Jala subsequently tarnished his own reputation by defending his boss, claiming that “direct negotiations can lower down prices if you know what you're doing.”

Datuk Seri Idris Jala should perhaps read the scores of scathing comments by Malaysians expressing their disappointment with him on the story in Malaysiakini yesterday. Firstly, it is probably in the rarest of circumstances when non-competitive awards of projects can be at a cheaper cost than competitive awards. Secondly, negotiations can always be carried out after the best bid has been selected from a competitive tender. And thirdly, in Malaysia, the experience is direct negotiations often resulted in higher prices not lower! One only has to refer to the new palace project in Jalan Duta where after direct negotiations, the contract size was increased from RM400 million to RM650 million, which was subsequently incurred additional variation orders raising the overall cost to RM811 million.

Datuk Idris Jala's claim that public goods projects like the MRT could not be brought to tender as they were too exorbitant tobe funded by private companies, citing similar experiences in other countries does not make any sense and isn't at all true.

It is exactly because government funding is required for “public goods projects” like the MRT that open tenders should be held to ensure transparency, accountability and best value for the tax-payers money.

In addition, I do not know which countries Datuk Idris Jala was referring to, but both Singapore and Hong Kong with world class MRT systems competitively tendered out the construction of the projects in 1982 and 1975.

In fact, prior to the commencement of works in 1982, the Singapore government engaged 2 independent transport and urban planning specialists teams to conduct independent studies as part of the Comprehensive Traffic Study in 1981. While in Hong Kong, transportation consultants Freeman, Fox, Wilbur Smith & Associates were appointed to study the transportation system in the city-state in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Unfortunately, in Malaysia, we have chosen to “outsource” independent traffic studies to contractors such as Gamuda-MMC who clearly have a vested interest in securing and execution of the project.

Despite the multiple failures of our mega-privatisation projects in the 1990s especially in the transportation such as the Putra and Star LRT lines, the Monorail system and the attempted conslidation of bus companies, the Government has clearly not learnt their lessons. In the MRT's case, the Gamuda-MMC consortium will be awarded the MRT project not because they possess the best technologies, or because they have the cheapest price, or because they can deliver the highest quality services, but because they were first to present their proposal to the Prime Minister and were able to lead Pemandu by the nose on the entire project from conception to the full project details as outlined in the ETP Book.

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