Irked by delays in Sarawak hospital projects
John Teo 
Three high-profile hospital projects in Sarawak are seriously delayed for a variety of reasons.

The Sarawak General Hospital (SGH) in Kuching is the main referral hospital for the entire state besides being the only public hospital for the 700,000 or so residents of the city. Finding a parking space in the vicinity of the hospital is a daily nightmare for those city folk who need access to it.

And talk of adding a multi-storey car park to the hospital – a most obvious solution to the unending woes of a greatly inconvenienced public – has been going on for close to a decade now, with no action in sight. It is a no-brainer why this matter has become something of a cause celebre for the political opposition.

The last time state Minister for Local Government Datuk Dr Sim Kui Hian (who used to work as a SGH cardiologist and now oversees state health matters as part of his ministerial duties) said anything memorable about building the car park was to give as the excuse for yet a further delay in starting it the need for cost recalibration following the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax!

That is partly due to the fact that while hospital users fume endlessly over why building a car park created such a big fuss in the first place, the project itself has morphed over the years into something that will cost hundreds of millions of ringgit. It will, apart from the car park, include a hotel and various other hospital-related ancillary facilities.

The whole work package obviously needed to be reworked over and over as new ideas kept being added and in these times of government budget constraints, it had to be made sufficiently attractive commercially so it can become a viable privatised project.

The project was said to have been finally awarded in April, but as yet, there is no visible sign that any physical building work has started.

Meanwhile, the serious congestion at the over-stretched SGH has been aggravated by the continuing delay in the construction of another general hospital for the city. The new Petra Jaya Hospital was supposed to have been completed at the end of last year but more than half a year into 2017, there are as yet no signs it is to be completed soon.

State Health and Medical Services director Dr Jamilah Hashim stated at the end of March that the 300-bed new hospital was still less than 50% completed and the main contractor’s request for a further extension of the June 9 completion deadline has been rejected by the Public Works Department.

“The structure is almost there. Now they need to do piping and other architectural works so they need more workers. They have tried Indonesian workers but (they were found to be) not suitable, because the work now is more architectural works that require the workers to be skilled,” Dr Jamilah had explained.

No sooner had construction of the hospital begun than work stopped when the South Korean main construction sub-contractor quit, allegedly over non-payment by the main contractor.

No less than Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi fumed over the construction delays of yet another hospital project when he made a site inspection in Sri Aman in mid-July. “The construction work is 218 days behind schedule,” an exasperated Zahid said on July 13.

The ‘sickest’ project

“I will not compromise with contractors, consultants or any parties involved in any government projects which are delayed, particularly projects like the Sri Aman Hospital in which the interests and welfare of the people will be affected.”

The Sri Aman Hospital project is easily the “sickest” of all. Construction started in early 2015 (after not a few false starts) and is now scheduled for completion next year.

All these delays not just add to eventual actual construction costs. Far less quantifiable are the opportunity costs lost; in terms of not only the public having to postpone use of these desperately needed amenities but the manhours busy public officials such as Dr Jamilah need to devote to monitoring these projects and juggling resources to mitigate and cope with any serious delays in the delivery of physical facilities.

Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S Subramaniam was stating the very obvious when he reportedly said on July 18: “We want a complete hospital that is built satisfactorily, not become an institution for them to learn,” he said of inexperienced contractors, after visiting an even more seriously delayed hospital project in Pahang.

The Bera project started way back in 2012, was abandoned in 2015 and has to take another two years for new contractors to complete it. Construction costs alone have shot up by more than a third from the original RM88 mil, according to a report.

Given all the problems faced by the three major Sarawak projects and some others across the country, it is a bit curious why it is only now that the health minister talks about creating a list of “authoritative and capable contractors” for new hospital construction.

Should it not be the most elementary standard requirement all along that only contractors with experience in the specialised field of constructing medical facilities be shortlisted for the building of public hospitals?

If the federal government and its most senior representatives are really serious about putting the welfare of sick Malaysians uppermost in their minds, a fool-proof way of appointing credible and really qualified hospital project consultants and contractors is plainly of the first priority.

Otherwise, all the official fulminations over such construction delays may end up becoming as predictable as delays in future projects and invite increased public cynicism, or worse, about government promises on public projects and their on-time delivery.

All this feeds into public alienation against the federal government, sentiments which are proving to be a gold mine for the opposition to exploit. And it is also making the Sarawak government want to gain a stronger hand over such federal responsibilities as the delivery and proper maintenance and functioning of government hospitals and clinics as well as school buildings.

John Teo is based in Sarawak. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 244.