‘Ex-treasurer of ashram is CEO of developer company’

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KUALA LUMPUR: The proposed development of the 110-year-old Vivekananda Ashram site in Brickfields is courting new controversy following a revelation that the chief executive officer of the developer, F3 Capital Sdn Bhd, was a senior office bearer of the Ashram Committee.

Documents made available to The Edge Financial Daily reveal that as at Jan 29 this year, K Vignesh Naidu was holding the post of honorary treasurer of the ashram’s management committee, while he is also a director of F3 Capital.

Appointed to the F3 Capital board on April 2, 2004, Vignesh, 41, is a substantial shareholder with one million shares.

F3 Capital’s other directors, who also hold one million shares each, are Quah Huat Hock and Low Kim Lan, both aged 53. Its balance sheet from 2013 shows a net profit of over RM700,000.

Committee officials were tight-lipped but it is understood that Vignesh stepped down as treasurer in March, before tenders were called for the ashram’s redevelopment.

However discussions and deliberations for the development of the site for a 23-storey serviced apartment have been ongoing for a while.

This is the third attempt to develop the ashram site, in what its trustees say is a dire need to ensure cash flow to sustain its activities, which include primarily education and cultural programmes. Its balance sheet shows it has RM213,000 in cash and a staff strength of just two. The ashram has a membership of 90 people which, according to sources, has remained stagnant for years.

A signboard outside the premises announces a proposal to convert the land use from “institution” to “commercial”.

Vivekananda Ashram supports four schools: SJK (T) Vivekananda in Brickfields, both the Vivekananda primary and secondary schools in Kuala Lumpur and SJK (T) Thamboosamy Pillai in Sentul.

After the last attempt to sell the land for RM15 million 10 years ago the ashram was locked up with few activities taking place in the current building, which was erected in 1934.

The development plan — which boasts Veritas Designs as its architect — shows an eight-storey car park that cantilevers over the ashram.

The plan illustrates what the ashram trustees have been saying — that the ashram and the 121-year-old statue of Swami Vivekananda will not be touched. Only the hostel and multipurpose hall behind the ashram will make way.

However, opponents of the redevelopment say the 110-year old ashram’s main building may not withstand the enormous construction that will take place over it.

Among the chief concerns is that piling for the 23-storey building would surely weaken the historic building and this may precipitate its collapse.

The trustees’ contention that funds are needed for the schools under their purview has also been challenged by Deputy Education Minister P Kamalanathan, who said the government had given RM6 million to SJK (T) Vivekananda Brickfields, SJK (T) Vivekananda PJ, and SMK Vivekananda over the last two years.

The funds were given by cheques made out to the Vivekananda Ashram trust — and verified by the trust’s own statements of accounts made available to The Edge Financial Daily.

“Allocations amounting to RM3 million were issued in 2012, and another RM3 million in 2013,” Kamalanathan said.

An additional RM20,000 was given to SJK (T) Vivekananda PJ for upgrading works.

Kamalanathan said SJK (T) Thamboosamy Pillai in Sentul will receive RM2 million soon, for the building of an extra block.

Nazri lends support to preserving Vivekananda Ashram

Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, meanwhile, said the board of trustees had rejected the National Heritage Department’s application to gazette the place as a heritage site in 2008.

“They did try [to gazette it] but it was a pity that the trustees were not in favour of it,” Nazri was quoted as saying.

Nazri, who signed a petition to save the ashram when he visited the site yesterday, said he would advise the board of trustees to consider conserving the building.

He also said that emphasis must be given to old buildings in the country and buildings above 100 years old should be preserved.

The National Heritage Department had also confirmed that the trustees did not consent to the gazetting and because of that, the building is not covered by the National Heritage Act 2005.

The department said the local authority must give planning permission before any development can be carried out. In the case of heritage buildings, it said the local authority must consult the heritage department before giving planning permission.

While no financial figures have been put on the project value, it is estimated that the gross development value (GDV) of the project is in the region of RM60 million.

Ashram officials declined to reveal more or how much the institution will receive from the development.

Vivekananda Ashram chairman Tan Sri Dr K Ampikaipakan declined comment, saying a statement will be issued soon to correct misconceptions about the project.

Vignesh could not be reached for comment but is quoted in an Oct 16 report in The Star as saying that F3 Capital would provide enough parking bays for the development, in line with Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) requirements.

“We will also surrender a sizeable portion of the land to City Hall to cater to any future road-widening projects,” he said in his capacity as F3 Capital CEO.

“Bear in mind that the project is residential and not commercial, hence it will not attract traffic to the area,” he was quoted as saying.

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on November 6, 2014.