Seri Perdana’s Cost: ‘Now, What Shall We Tell ‘em?’

A new round of renovation which will cost RM65 million over 2011-2012 is proposed in the 2011 Budget, this article from Liew Chin Tong’s book Speaking for the Reformasi Generation, published in 2009, and was first published in Malaysiakini on Nov 22, 2005, sets the record of the cost of Seri Perdana Putrajaya straight.

“Money, money, money everywhere, and not a single cent to account for.” This seems to be the philosophy behind the building of Seri Perdana – “eighth wonder of the modern world.”

Let me first appeal to your common sense. If a mansion was planned in 1995 and completed in 1999, wouldn’t you have already done your accounts by now, if not earlier? Shouldn’t you have a very clear idea about how much it cost?

But it seems that common sense does not apply to the construction of Seri Perdana, the Prime Minister’s official residence in Putrajaya.

There have been at least five versions of the construction cost. The earliest figure given by the government was in July 1998 when it was claimed that the “private quarters” of the home cost RM17 million.

It has since been revised upwards many times until we were told in 2003 that the entire structure cost RM201 million. Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Dato’ Seri Nazri Abdul Aziz added a sixth version yesterday which makes the whole affair extremely problematic.

Work on Seri Perdana began in 1995 and was completed in mid-1999. The house was said to be haunted and the then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad only moved in nearly a year after it was completed.

It took Dato’Seri Abdullah Badahwi even longer to relocate from the Deputy Prime Minister’s residence in Precint 16, Putrajaya – a stone’s throw away from Seri Perdana in Precint 10. Abdullah took over the rein of the country on Oct 31, 2003, but moved in reluctantly in August 2005. Sadly, his wife Endon Mahmood only stayed in the house for a short time before she passed away.

It is hard to know whether the palatial house is actually haunted but it seems to continue to haunt the government politically. The construction of the edifice took more or less three years but it seems it has taken a far longer time to construct the balance sheets of just how much it cost.

In his written reply to the member of Parliament for Seputeh Teresa Kok, Nazri claimed that “the original cost of constructing the official residence of the Prime Minister, with regards specially to the private residential block where he and the family resides, amounts to RM24.17 million.”

Stringent scrutiny of Nazri’s reply is needed for two reasons. First, it contradicts previous figures given by the Prime Minister’s Department in Parliament. Second, it shows that the government is still not prepared to come clean on the astronomical cost involved in constructing the official residences of the Prime Minister and his deputy.

Let us trace the long history (and mysteries) of the accounting for the residences.
During the Arau by-election in July 1998 which BN lost, PAS was the first to allege that Seri Perdana cost RM200 million to build.

The then deputy minister in Prime Minister’s Department, Fauzi Abdul Rahman, told Parliament that the residence was divided into ‘public amenities’ and ‘private quarters’. He said the so-called private quarters cost “only” RM17 million, not the alleged RM200 million. (Hansard, July 14, 1998, p. 98).

Two months later, hours before Anwar Ibrahim was arrested by a balaclava-clad special squad on the evening of Sept 20, 1998, the just-sacked Deputy Prime Minister told CNBC TV that Mahathir wanted “to live in a world of fantasy” and it cost taxpayers RM200 million to build Seri Perdana (Reuters, Nov 12, 1998).

On Oct 26, 1998, Fauzi revised his figures upwards to RM17.5 million for the building of Seri Perdana’s private quarters. Apparently responding to Anwar’s allegations, Fauzi also revealed to Parliament that the “public amenities” at the residence cost RM57.9 million, totaling RM75.4 million (Hansard, Oct 26, 1998, p. 34).

Even if the figures were correct, they are staggering. Take for instance, a low-cost house in a non-urban area is priced at RM25,000. The government could have built more than 3000 units of such houses with RM75 million for the thousands of people who live in slum areas.

In fact, the construction of Putrajaya itself has resulted in the eviction of 875 families, comprising about 2000 people from the estates there where they lived for generations (Straits Times, Nov 5, 1995). Put in simple terms, they deserve a shelter; the Prime Minister does not deserve a palace.

Accordingly, such astronomical figures were fueling public opposition in the post-economic crisis environment. The government understood the political ramification and was tight-lipped over the cost of constructing the various buildings in Putrajaya.

The city’s plans, already under construction then, were shrouded in secrecy. PAS’ organ Harakah on Nov 6, 1998 ran a bird’s-eye photo of Seri Perdana and dubbed it a “mahligai”, which in Malay, according to USM academic Maznah Mohamad, really means an otherworldly or celestial palace.

Public resentment against Mahathir was obvious. Reformasi websites called him a pharaoh for his fondness of great edifices.

On May 4, 1999, Fauzi again revised the government’s figures for Seri Perdana upwards in Parliament. According to him, apart from the previously revealed sum of RM75.4 millon, the government spent another RM45 million on “software” (Hansard, May 4, 1999, p. 83), probably to pay for the residence’s French furniture and landscaping costs.

Thus, the total figure stood at RM214 million.

Then, in an unpredicted turn of events, the Malaysian public was told of another figure. In early 2002, Arca 3, an architectural firm that designed the residence, filed a lawsuit against its main contractor, Setia Putrajaya (SP Setia).

According to court documents, the plaintiff was promised a 3.9 percent commission derived from the cost of construction. It claimed that the construction cost, excluding the “software”, was RM110 million (The Sun, Jan 8, 2002).

Had the figure been accurate, the final cost including the 3.9 percent fees, the “software”, the access roads and bridges as well as other expenses would not differ too much from the figure of RM200 million alleged by Anwar.

This was proven right when former MP for Kubang Kerian Husam Musa posed the question to the Prime Minister’s Department again. According to him, the written reply stated that the cost was RM 201 million, a million ringgit more than what Anwar suggested! (Hansard, April 2, 2003, p. 59).

It is noteworthy that there were two parts to Teresa Kok’s question. Besides enquiring on the cost of Seri Perdana, she also asked about the cost of the Deputy Prime Minister’s residence in Putrajaya.

The cost of the Deputy Prime Minister’s residence was never revealed. It was built sometime in late 1999 or early 2000 after Abdullah replaced Anwar as the DPM. Anwar had earlier rejected the proposal to build any such edifice despite the suggested cost being revised downwards from RM70 million to RM40 million (Reuters, Nov 12, 1998).

Nazri claimed that the “private residential block” of the DPM’s residence cost RM13.51 million while the renovation cost is yet to be finalised, presumably to accommodate Najib Abdul Razak’s relocation. It will not be surprising if the DPM’s residence eventually has cost RM100 million. While the Abdullah administration may have no qualms in blaming Mahathir for extravagance, Abdullah is solely responsible for the construction of the DPM’s residence, as well as the RM15.81 million renovation of Seri Perdana itself.

It is shocking that his residence had to undergo extensive renovations after being used by Mahathir for a mere three years or so.

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