Problems in Penang

LCT in Komtar (

THE Pakatan Rakyat (PR) has been busy fire-fighting, no less in Penang.

The PR state government in this northern state recently came under fire from Kampung Buah Pala villagers over their impending eviction. The villagers are aided by sympathisers, including the influential Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), and the state government’s image has no doubt suffered a battering.

But even before this, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s administration provided detractors plenty of fodder to speculate that PR would unravel. The resignation of Deputy Chief Minister 1 Mohammad Fairus Khairuddin and the subsequent Penanti by-election to find his replacement was informative of the political tension within the state.

Based on news reports, Lim doesn’t appear to have his team’s full cooperation. And the problems somehow consistently appear to come from PKR. There was the boycott of the swearing-in ceremony of the new Seberang Prai Municipal Council president by PKR councillors, for one. And then recently, Lim’s chief of staff, Jeff Ooi, lashed out at two PKR Penang municipal councillors for being inefficient and truant. Lim is said to be trying to depoliticise local councils, but he clearly faces the challenge of having to juggle the interests of other parties in PR.

The Nut Graph interviewed, by phone on 15 July 2009, Liew Chin Tong, who is adviser to the Penang chief minister, about the challenges the PR government faces in Penang. Liew, who is DAP central executive committee member and also Penang’s Bukit Bendera Member of Parliament, notes that PR’s baptism of fire in Penang is a result of other forces and events coalescing at the same time.

TNG: What is going on with the Kampung Buah Pala issue? There are complaints that the state government isn’t handling it well.

Liew: The whole incident is unfortunate and is a manufactured crisis. People in the state administration feel frustrated because they have done no wrong; it is a mess they inherited and they feel powerless to change things.

Critics say the state can resolve it “by the stroke of a pen”, but the question is, at what cost? The state budget is only RM477 million, just half of Universiti Sains Malaysia’s budget.

For the Tang Hak Ju land scam, the state government had to pay compensation of RM40 million for undeveloped quarry land. For Kampung Buah Pala, it will cost us hundreds of millions. There just isn’t enough money to acquire the land. The state budget is almost all committed to emoluments and very little towards development, so the government is trying to stretch the budget.

But we are feeling that people are using (Kampung) Buah Pala as their platform at the expense of the state government’s integrity, when firstly, the current state government has done no wrong. Secondly, it is powerless in that it cannot, by a stroke of the pen, put the state’s finances into jeopardy by acquiring the land.

There is a theory that Hindraf has been influenced by the Barisan Nasional (BN) into championing the issue on behalf of the Kampung Buah Pala residents. Lim Kit Siang also posted on his blog a piece by Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, lumping Hindraf together with “BN collaborators”. Is there really a BN hand in Hindraf?

The focus has squarely been on Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, which is unfortunate, and that is how the suspicions about Hindraf come in. But I don’t mean all of Hindraf or the organisation per se, but only some leaders in Hindraf.

I’ve written that (Prime Minister Datuk Seri) Najib (Razak) is being very surgical in his use of power and in his attempts to win over votes from fence-sitters. One part of the surgery is to take some Indian [Malaysian] votes from the Pakatan Rakyat. He knows that the MIC alone cannot win back support of [Indian Malaysians]. Whereas, the DAP has credibility with [Indian Malaysians]. So, if there is a third force, then the DAP will suffer. The party P Uthayakumar wants to form will get to take some Indian [Malaysian] votes away as a spoiler.

[Editor’s note: On 19 July 2009, Uthayakumar launched the Human Rights Party, a multiracial party that aims to help marginalised communities, regardless of race.]

Why is the chief minister so adamant about not meeting the village residents in the presence of their lawyer?

The state government is of the view that the person who claims to be their lawyer is not their official representative. But Guan Eng does want to meet the residents; he has asked them to meet him.

The problem with this crisis is that there is no option left for the state government. Those campaigning against the government are leaving no options but to keep the village as it is. There are arguments that the village should be preserved as a heritage site. In other circumstances, this argument would be valid. But in this case, there is already a court order for eviction. As the state government, they feel it would be wrong to go against the court order and subject themselves to lawsuits. Unfortunately, the court order has become the parameter which limits our options.

So what is the way out?

I just hope the villagers can meet Guan Eng to talk, and find a middle ground in their understanding. I hope there can be a middle position without going against the court order.

On a macro level, I am very uncomfortable with those who depict this as a racial thing. They say it is because the state government is a “Chinese government”, so they are taking away land from Indians. There are provocateurs who are pinning it on Guan Eng and saying that all this is because of a “Chinese government”.

This is not true at all. I see this as attempts to push the DAP back to the pre-March 2008 situation, as a party with support mainly from Chinese [Malaysians]. It is an attempt to take away Malay [Malaysian] and Indian [Malaysian] support, to force Malaysia to go back [to] before March 2008.

Hindraf has a strong chapter in Penang. Is this affecting how the state government operates?

No, no. Many in Hindraf are our good friends. I never meant Hindraf and their aspirations as a whole. I think only certain leaders have taken a very racial line, which I dislike. It is unfortunate that they focus on Guan Eng and create an image for him, that he is not taking care of [Indian Malaysians].

It’s all fishy because I find it happening as part of the current prevailing scenario.

What scenario exactly?

Where Najib is trying to engineer surgery on various Pakatan parties, to take away public support for us.

What other challenges does the Penang Pakatan Rakyat government face?

Firstly, we are new. And some people see us as inexperienced.

Secondly, we want to do things differently.

Thirdly, we don’t necessarily have a very loyal and effective civil service, although there are some civil servants who are very good and are getting the hang of working in sync with the chief minister. But we do face incompetency and some uncooperativeness.

But fourthly, state power is also very limited while people’s expectations are sky-high. In actual fact, there’s only so much a state government can do. It can be a facilitator, but it doesn’t control many other things. For example, public transport. Taxis and buses come under the Commercial Vehicles Licensing Board. That’s a federal agency. The airport and Penang port are also under federal agencies.

There are complaints that the chief minister blames the previous BN administration too much instead of being proactive.

There are a lot of things [for] which there is no choice but to do so. For example, Kampung Buah Pala. The sale of the land borders on fraud, and yet there is a court order for eviction. The state is forced between a rock and a hard place. And yet the state has tried hard to prevent the residents’ homes from being demolished.

This is a classic case where there is no other way to explain to the people, but that this is a mess which began in the previous administration. Guan Eng is saying we didn’t create this mess, we are trying to clean it up, but our hands are tied.

Is the chief minister having problems getting cooperation from Penang PKR? Because there is so much in the news that shows Penang PKR going against the state government.

I’d really rather not answer that question specifically.

But in the big picture, PKR, and for that matter, Pakatan Rakyat as a whole, is facing this question: do we want to reaffirm new politics? Or embrace the old way of Umno politics? Can we reaffirm our faith in new politics and push for reform, or will we let our agenda be hijacked by Najib?

I was stunned when I read that Najib described his “1Malaysia” as justice for all. He’s trying to adopt our agenda. So we must reaffirm Pakatan’s new politics and push for structural reform and policy overhaul. We can’t let Najib get away with populist solutions without structural change

For example, Pakatan’s proposal for the government to buy back PLUS Expressways Bhd. If it does that, by 2016 there will be no need to charge toll on the North-South Expressway. We have to keep pushing this to show people that we have pragmatic solutions. If we push for things like these, then Najib will have to reform. If he does all these and gets re-elected, then fine.

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