My first two impressions of the grandiose complex of the Miri Port, whose costs have ranged from the government's claim of RM250 million to estimates of RM350 million, are firstly, a sense of dilapidation although the new port started operations only in August 1998 as one can see the disrepair and lack of maintenance of a complex which is greatly underutilised; and secondly, the eerie silence and emptiness of the huge port complex, with hardly any people around and even less port activities.
When I entered the Miri Port complex, I went up to the reception and asked for the highest-ranking officer on duty at the port. While this was being arranged, the receptionist told the accompanying press representatives that cameras were not allowed, to which I objected and asked what was the authority and rationale for the banning of cameras and photograph-taking at a public place like the Miri Port - when there were no such ban in other ports or airports like Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
As I was waiting for the highest-ranking officer, I went into the Information Office of the Port and found that it was quite empty.
When the Miri Port general manager came, he said he had no authority to take me around the Miri Port and would have to seek approval from his higher-ups in the Ministry.
When he went off to communicate with his superiors, I decided to explore the four-storey Miri Port Office complex. I visited the Federal Marine Office which took space on the first floor. There were only two Marine personnel manning the Marine Department when it is clear from the Marine office set-up that it was meant to house at least a dozen officers. There were in fact more computers than marine personnel - a ratio of two or three computers to one marine personnel!
The other two departments which had offices at the Miri Port complex are the Customs and Federal Fisheries Department - but most of the office spaces on the four-storey Miri Port Complex were empty, easily representing some 90 per cent of the complex space on the three upper storeys. The canteen was totally abandoned.
I understand that as hardly anybody uses the Miri Port, the three scantily-staffed federal departments currently using the Miri Port Complex are now even thinking of further paring down their personnel and their minimal scale of operations!
When the Miri Port General Manager came back, he said he had no authority and was too busy to entertain me and show me around the port, especially the wharves and berths, and even suggested that I should not be visiting the Miri Port Complext without authority.
Again objections were raised about photograph-taking on the ground that the Miri Port was a "sensitive infrastructure" as if some parts of the building might collapse if exposed to cameras, but the port general manager was unable to explain why photographs were allowed to be taken at the KLIA but not at the Miri Port.
I told the general manager that the port authorities should be welcoming as many Sarawakians and Malaysians to visit the Miri Port and to take as many photographs as possible to give it the biggest publicity as the Sarawak government should be very proud of the Miri Port and should want as many people as possible to see it.
But the authorities appeared to be ashamed rather than proud of the Miri Port, to the extent that they do not want the Miri Port to be freely photographed. This is understandable as it would show up the great emptiness and underutilisation of the port, the waste of public funds and the folly of development gone mad but this can be no reason or justification for trying to ban cameras at the Miri Port.
All Ministers, both Federal and state, must visit the Miri Port as an object lesson as how not to squander public funds to build a "white elephant" which does not serve its purpose at all.
The Auditor-General who audits Federal and State Government accounts should explain why in all these years of audit of the Sarawak State Government, no query was ever raised about the building of the biggest 'White Elephant" in the country.