A clubby home away
Do politicians really need so many fancy ways to relax?
The parliamentary club in the grand new parliament complex in Kiak Kai, Bangkok, is drawing more than its share of attention, even though the club has yet to open.
It comes amid claims the club, to be funded by lawmakers themselves with parliament simply providing space in the building, will come equipped with massage rooms, a golf driving range, karaoke rooms and a ballroom.
Many say the club is too extravagant at a time of economic hardship. The club saga has also exposed blunders and flaws in the construction process which has delayed completion of the complex for years.
Located on the fifth floor of the middle section of the parliament compound formally called Sappaya-Sapasathan, the club stoked curiosity when the media was led on a recent tour of the facility.
A glimpse into the club revealed what resembled a leisure-cum-entertainment centre which will offer a wide array of amenities, from spa service and yoga rooms, a ballroom, karaoke bars, traditional massage quarters and a driving range. On the other end of the hall, a fitness centre will be up and running.
Many of these amenities have yet to be built. But the mere suggestion that lawmakers need so many expensive and creative ways to relax in a publicly funded complex is riling the public.
No taxpayer financing
The club was lambasted even by some of the lawmakers who said it was excessive and unnecessary.
Leading the media tour was Peerasak Porjit, chairman of the Senate committee for social and leisure activities. He defended the club as a place where lawmakers and officials could de-stress after work.
He said the club was designed in 2011 during the time when the economy was robust. As construction of parliament suffered delays, so did the club's inauguration.
Mr Peerasak said Parliament President Chuan Leekpai will likely appoint a panel to decide if the design and layout of the club should be reviewed, once the club is handed to parliament by the contractor.
He said the responsibility of procuring and maintaining the club amenities will be split between the two Houses. The Senate will take care of the fitness centre and treadmills while the other of the amenities will be looked after by the MPs.
The senator insisted no taxpayers' money will be diverted into running the club.
"We [the lawmakers] chipped in and we have never taken any money from state coffers.
"If it is basketball goal hoops we want, we have to fork out our own money to buy them," Mr Peerasak said.
What parliament provides are empty rooms in the club. Amenities and equipment must be obtained by the lawmakers themselves.
It is against the law to purchase the equipment and reimburse the state for them later, he said, adding that no parliament club procurement fund exists either, though one could be set up with approval from the legislators.
The budget for building the club forms part of the construction fund of the new parliament house.
Mr Peerasak said the controversy surrounding the club was a blessing in disguise as the public attention will allow for prudent spending on the project.
The project should be responsive to public sentiment and the economic difficulties many are facing.
"Under the current economic circumstances, it's not ideal to push for something that comes across as over the top," he said.
Repurposing club an option
The senator said that after the contractor completes the club and hands it over to parliament, the rooms may be repurposed to make them answer to more serious usage. "The karaoke bars and the rooms catering to boisterous activities may be gone," he added.
The committee chairman admitted the club occupies a large space with multiple functions. Personally, Mr Peerasak thought it was too big.
The fate of the club is tied to parliament house which has been plagued by delays and construction flaws which manifest in problems including a leaky roof.
Pornpit Phetcharoen, House of Representatives secretary-general, said that before the structural design of the club was approved, it was put to a hearing by stakeholders.
The old parliament house had a leisure club, where lawmakers who signed up as club members raised funds to keep activities going. "The club kept everyone happy from the inside out," she said.
The regulations governing management of the club at the new parliament are issued by the Treasury Department since parliament sits on public land.
She said it is up to those in charge of political affairs, a reference to lawmakers and cabinet ministers, to decide whether the review the functions of the club.
The club may create an economic opportunity for people including traditional masseurs who can earn a living working there. "How the club is used should be considered from different points of view," she said.
Previously, the club in the old parliament was financed by fees paid by members and ran its own accounts. The House of Representatives' secretariat office had nothing to do with the business of the club.
The club at the new parliament, however, lacks public support.
Nuntana, a 55-year-old civil servant who declined to give her surname, said parliament is a place where significant national issues are addressed and is not a place for entertainment or leisure. "The parliamentarians should spend more time working, not relaxing," she said.
However, Earth, 21, a university student, said relaxation can improve lawmakers' legislative performance although it could also make them lazy.
Construction being watched
As for parliament house, Ms Pornpit said construction is more than 99% complete.
The committee inspecting construction will move in to do its job. Inspectors comprise project consultants and supervisors.
The last portion of the work was being expedited and there is no room for missteps since the project is being watched, Ms Pornpit said.
The inspection panel would give precise timing for the project's completion.
However, the House of Representatives secretary-general conceded questions were being asked as to why the project appeared to have ground to a halt with the project completion falling short by a mere 0.2%.
"It's about managing the building contract and there several issues (that might have caused a setback)," she said.
No more contract extensions have been granted. If the contractor fails to hand over the project on time, it will be fined.
Watchara Phetthong, a former Democrat Party MP, has slammed the persistent delays and alleged a construction budget overrun exceeding 20 billion baht.
He argued the functions of the various rooms at the parliamentary club could be modified and the costs bargained down.
He cited a case where price of the kitchenware to be bought for the parliament convention hall were brought down in talks by 40-60 million baht. "The budget for building the club could also be saved since it was set aside as a lump sum and not for specific rooms in the club,'' he said.
For the parliament house construction, Mr Watchara said wrong or substandard materials were used in some cases, and the quality of materials not thoroughly inspected.
In the end, certain sections of the building had to be dismantled and rebuilt to material specifications stipulated in the contract. "The roof often leaks in many places but this was hushed up," the former MP said.
Sino-Thai Engineering and Construction Plc (Stecon) was awarded the construction contract worth 23 billion baht on April 30, 2013 during Somsak Kiatsuranont's stint as parliament president. The project was bound by a 900-day deadline which was supposed to expire on Nov 24, 2015.
The construction was dogged by problems including the late transfer of land ownership to contractor, the difficulty over removing more than one million square metres of soil at the site and the some of the soil ending up on the property of a private company. As a result, the deadline was extended four times.
Earlier, the secretariat of the House of Representatives rejected a request by Stecon to extend the deadline for a fifth time, from January to May, after the company failed to finish the project by deadline on Dec 31 last year. Following the decision, Stecon is now subject to a fine of 12.3 million baht per day, until the work is complete.
Stecon has appealed against the decision and asked that the fines be waived, citing "work outside the main contract" as the reason for slow progress -- referring to additional work which includes the installation of information technology systems, communication and audio-visual cables.
It also blamed the Covid-19 pandemic for the delay, saying workers have been barred from accessing construction sites in Bangkok and imported materials didn't arrive in time. Lawmakers moved in since August 2019, even though construction has yet to be finalised. It is among the world's biggest parliament buildings, at 424,000 square metres of space, sitting on 120 rai of land.