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Problems in Penang

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?

Guan Eng
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].
Uthayakumar (Courtesy of theSun)
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.

Pullquote: "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".

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.

Pullquote: "We don't necessarily have a loyal and effective civil service"

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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15 Responses to “Problems in Penang”

  1. Friends says:

    The Penang state government must strategise and employ high-calibre people. Dealing with BN won’t be easy. BN is cunning and ruthless. BN is single-minded in creating chaos and racial confrontation because it needs a pretext to topple the PR government.

  2. vincent says:

    The problem with Pakatan Rakyat in Penang is they made too many promises to the people. The people at Kg Buah Pala are not happy because the DAP promised to settle their issue. As it turns out, these are empty promises.

    So, it is not that Penang people forget about Koh Tsu Koon who caused the problem at Kg Buah Pala, but they are even more angry at DAP who bluffed them. And DAP never admitted that they bluffed the Penang people and keep on pushing the blame to BN. That makes Penang people even angrier at DAP.

  3. Nicholas Aw says:

    Problems in Penang are aggravated by both internal and external forces. Within the Pakatan domain there were already signs of trouble brewing with the resignation of Fairus Khairuddin and also the boycott of the swearing-in ceremony of the Seberang Prai Municipal Council President by KeADILan politicans. The latest issue being Kampung Buah Pala where it is obvious that there are external forces involved with the alleged instigation of MIC in particular and the BN in general.

    To top this, the Pakatan Rakyat made a promise that it could not fulfill. This promise was probably made without being fully aware of the situation of Kampung Buah Pala since it was then under the jurisdiction of the BN government and it would have been impossible to scrutinize official documents. Perhaps, it is a painful lesson for PR that it should not make promises unless it can be sure of keeping them.

    Lim Guan Eng’s appeal to the federal government to help solve this issue is like pining for the moon. The only way Najib will help is if Penang is surrendered to the BN which is what PR would say “over my dead body”. Therefore, Guan Eng might as well just forget about getting help from the federal government. Would a nemesis extend a hand to help?

    The only solution is for the CM to meet the villagers in all sincerity. The latter should also not take advantage of the situation and make unrealistic demands. Both parties should keep their cool and work out a gentleman’s agreement so that it results in a win-win situation.

  4. politiccerdik says:

    Who doesn’t like to be associated with a winner? Pakatan won handsomely in 308 due to a clever strategy brought upon by Anwar to glue PAS and DAP for that GE12. Supported by people power, DAP’s rocket has roared off into the sky (before 308, the rocket was grounded for years).

    Now Umno/BN has to bully you to check your growing strength, what do you expect? Just think. Can MCA, Gerakan and MIC be government without the backing of Umno? Same with DAP, you cannot survive well as an island. The three Pakatan parties should go to higher gear and be fused together, instead of just being glued which cannot last.

    IF three of them cannot do so now, why not at least two of them, preferably PKR and DAP. If it can be done, then Umno/BN will, in essence, lose their visible sole target in DAP. Umno/BN will be at a loss in their political attacks because PKR/DAP, as one, means Malays, Chinese, Indians and other Malaysians will be one potent force. This is probably what the voters want in the next GE.

    With the merging of Pakatan parties, I foresee there will be tension in BN. They will self-implode through bickering. The trouble with Pakatan is, it is full of the so-called good and courageous politicians but lack the politically clever ones in the likes of Anwar and Dr Mahathir.

    Every thing has a start and an end. DAP should merge on a high note with PKR. Remember, PKR won big, from 1 parliamentary seat [in 20040 to 31 parliamentary seats [in 2008]. If both of you merge, then GE13 may see you all winning more than 100 parliamentary seats, with or without Anwar. With Anwar, will be more. Be noble in your political pursuit, put people’s power first. Put it to a vote.

  5. Well I must be frank, I have never been a friend of DAP. I am not going to be apologetic about it but in the Kampung Buah Pala case, I blame it on the PR state government.

    Land matters are under the state’s purview. They were not a party to the agreement but they were the one, when they inherited the matter, decided to give the land away and accept the RM3.5 million from the koperasi. So to me, they are guilty.

    They should have nipped it in the bud but sadly the CM was inadequate and perhaps received the wrong advice? After making that blunder, instead of negotiating with the landowner, the koperasi and the developer, they decided to blame the previous state government.

    As far as I know, a well-oiled state government would seek to discuss the matter with the parties involves. The state need not buy the land but swap the land with another piece as the land was given to the koperasi after its land was taken by the state. This should be the way.

    Discuss with the Land and Mines Department and you might get pieces of land that can be swapped, or take some PDC land at Bayan coast to swap with. All this is in the state’s hands.

    My friend is a director of the Land and Mines Department of Penang and I can assure you although the state holds little land, it still has land that can be swapped […]

  6. DANGER says:

    It would take at least another two general elections before PR state govts could rule effectively. BN has been in power in all these states for more than 50 years. The civil service is virtually staffed by BN supporters. It is impossible to end the culture of corruption and incompetence overnight. Herein lies PR’s headache. It has to rule to meet the people’s expectation. But it could not do that effectively with the existing bureaucrats, many of whom are openly allied to BN. At the same time BN is bent on toppling the PR by whatever means. It wouldn’t surprise us if BN launches another coup in the near future.

  7. kamal says:

    “was stunned when I read that Najib described his ‘1Malaysia’ as justice for all. He’s trying to adopt our agenda”

    I think firstly, the political adviser needs to understand [that] unity as a populist slogan or as a […] meaningful policy is neither new nor is it the sole preorgative of PR.

    I would say a lot of people pinned their hopes on [a] maturing Malaysian politics by voting the opposition into five states in the March [08] elections. And I think that it was premature for any political party to assume more than what it was; a public statement by voters.

    Now that the “opposition” are in power they need to act. If Lim Guan Eng wants to meet the villagers at Kg Buah Pala, then he should go see them. He shouldn’t be making demands of who should and shouldn’t be there. People have a right to be present at any meeting where they feel they have an interest to be heard. It is ironic and perhaps a little hypocritical on DAP’s side to make this demand. Of course, the news could be wrongly reported and of course, PR has inherited a complicated situation but it shouldn’t: 1. blame the past, 2. blame government servants.

    If I read correctly, the adviser is saying DAP can’t do anything on issues that some people feel are important but are asking for people to bear with them while they work towards pressuring the federal government to buy over PLUS. If they are disempowered to act in state matters how sure are they that they will succeed in pressuring the federal government? And how does this distinguish form from substance?

    I agree, free us from the toll roads by all means. But don’t throw in the towel and expect people to still feel that you offer a viable solution. If the PM’s 1Malaysia is hijacking PR’s idea, well, the result is in what is done at the end, and not what is being said. To PR leaders and advisers, what have you done to improve greater public participation in decision-making and how are you representing a united Malaysian interest in the face of political opposition that is more creative, more powerful and more entrenched? You have to respond as equals because you are.

    As a Malaysian, I will rejoice if either BN, PR or the components of either coalition, comes to power because these are legal political representations of the majority (however we may want to debate that). We must mend the rift once the election is over. BN or PR represent the people because the people voted them in. Unity is not the preorgative of any party or anybody; the moment we say that, we have to start asking ourselves if we are the ones being rhetorical.

    And if there are segments or groups throwing unsubstantiated accusations at PR, than PR has to learn that it has to deal with it and convince the people that this is not true.

    Politics is about power, but democratic politics is about the power of the people. And so elected representatives have to convince us, the ones with power, that they deserve to be there. Holding office isn’t about elected representatives; it is about us, the people. Now if Kampung Buah Pala folks feel they are misrepresented, it is up to PR to prove to the people that this is not the case, that the Penang government really has no options.

    People are not pressuring the PR government, people are pressuring the authorities to satisfy their demands. Now the question is, are they morally right and is there a political struggle to be met or is it as the adviser has clearly stated, it is just a technical matter which the courts have decided on. Doesn’t all these sound a tad too familiar?

    And I don’t believe PR lacks maturity or experience. But I do believe they have to put their ears to the ground again. In the end, they need to realise, that the source of their significance, like the elected representives in BN, are the people.

  8. Eric says:

    @wan zaharizan
    “they are guilty”, well I beg to differ. I think some of your arguments are highly subjective.

    “They were not a party to the agreement”. I think this is wrong. In law, there is no such thing as the BN Penang state government, which would be different from the PR Penang state government. There is only one Penang state government at any time (though this may not apply to Perak ;). Which party controls the state government’s DUN does not affect this. For example, when PR took over last March, civil servants did not see their employment status change, right? PR simply had to honour the previous team’s commitments. Imagine the mess after every election, if every new government could just set aside the previous team’s commitments!

    “They should have nipped it in the bud.” Are you saying they should have refused the last payment of a nearly-closed contract ( How would this work exactly? The state government should have refused to honour any contract, reject any payment so long as they have not fully re-read the contracts and assessed their consequences? How long would this period last exactly? How exactly would you expect people to go about their business while the state government is “nipping” the bud of every contract they find wrong?

    “they decided to blame the previous state government” What else would you expect them to do exactly? The BN team already cost the Penang taxpayers over RM40 million in a “mistake” [].

    “instead of negotiating with the landowner, the koperasi and the developer” Are you serious? Did you ever try to renegotiate a closed deal where you are no party? This is business here. No child’s play, sadly. Do you think the koperasi made no other commitment based on the expected money? Do you think the developer just sat around waiting for the land title? Do you think they waited until they got the title to start getting architects’ plan, tenders, etc? If you remember, Gerbang Perdana got way over RM250 million in compensation for the crooked bridge they did not even start building. You also forgot another party to this. What does the state government tell the homebuyers in the Nusmetro development?

    “The state need not buy the land but swap the land with another piece as the land was given to the koperasi after its land was taken by the state” You have to be realistic, by March 08 all the deals between Nusmetro and the Koperasi were long done ( Even if the Koperasi agreed to a land swap, while the sale was already in process if you noticed, do you think Nusmetro could simply be shown the door? These types of contract are covered by all sorts of damages if one party walks out. Judging at the friendliness of some BN exco members towards Nusmetro, you can guess who its shareholders are. Same here, what would you say if you’d bought a unit in the development and the state government changes the location to Bayan? I bet we’d hear another story then.

    By all means, criticise the state government. Criticism is the only way to improve. But please criticise realistically. If I were you, I’d look elsewhere for the culprit. Wonder why there was no follow-up on the MACC report lodged by the state government ( on a strangely cheap land sale where the land, sold for RM3.21 million, is now worth RM150 million? Wonder why some BN exco were so generous in giving further discounts to the developer? These questions are more worthwhile, to me, than unrealistic blaming.

  9. Ahh Eric, the blame game will never stop, will it?

    For me, [when the] PR government assumed office, they are the executive in charge. True, the government servants remain the same but the executive [is] different. They have [the] power to modify or rescind any orders of the former state government yet they did not so.

    They knew the price quoted was ridiculously low but still agreed to the terms and then blamed the shortcoming [on the previous] executive. They [is] still land in town or in Bayan as you mentioned. To negotiate means to talk, to parlay as in Parliament, and even now the PR government is talking to them to find an amicable solution.

    As for the houseowner, I am baffled you can sell something when you have not acquired the land yet? Yes the DO might have been issued but as long as the land is still not yours until 2 Aug, can you sell the house?


  10. fslam says:

    The issue is very clear cut.

    Koh Tsu Koon and his exco sold the land to Kooperative Syarikat Pegawai-Pegawai Pulau Pinang. The cooperative paid the initial down payment.

    Then the balance was quickly paid by the cooperaive when Koh Tsu Koon lost the Penang state government in the last GE knowing very well that if it lingered on longer, Lim Guan Eng, on knowing [about it], would block the sale.

    This [balance amount] was paid when Lim Guan Eng was forming his exco and the land office did not make any reference to the new CM.

    Can you blame Lim Guan Eng for all this fiasco? We have to be fair to Guan Eng and the PR state government.

    The one who made the decision to sell has to be held responsible and once the deposit was paid, you cannot do much except to pay compensation many times over the sale price even if Guan Eng knows this but he was not informed.

    It is natural for Guan Eng to blame the previous state government because he had to clean up all the [problems] left behind. Wouldn’t you?

    Do the people of Penang want back [the previous] government […]?

  11. fslam says:

    Wan Zaharizan,

    How do you know that Lim Guan Eng knew that the Kg Buah Pala land was sold [for a] rather ridiculously low [price]? Do you have the evidence?

    Did Guan Eng know this issue when the land office took the final settlement? Did the land office inform Guan Eng?

    Put it in another scenario. Does the MB of Terengganu know that a piece of land was transferred in Dungun when he took office just after assuming office?

  12. fslam, why do you need to defend Lim Guan Eng? I wonder why? For me, when a new government, especially if it is a new team, takes over, usually previous decisions will be reviewed. The Kg Buah Pala issue was well known and during the [last] GE, promises were made by PR to the Kg Buah Pala residents that this matter would be resolved and these residents would remain [in the village] if they were elected. They were elected so it is safe that Lim Guan Eng should keep the promise. And if he is incompetent, than he should not sit in the chair because he forgot to review all decisions made [previously], don’t you think so? I rest my case.

  13. @fslam

    I never said that the previous state government is not guilty but two wrongs do not make a right. The land in question was part and parcel of the Brown Estate. Later that part of the land was put in trust to be used by the workers to stay and live there. This trust is the same as wakaf land where certain conditions were attached but unlike wakaf land, this trust was given to the state to manage.

    How it changed hands is still a question perplexes me. This is the reason why the land is not a freehold land but leased. Even then Guan Eng seems to make a blunder [about this]. He is the new executive in charge, he could rescind or waive or affirm the land deal. He chose to affirm. Whether he received the right counsel, that is left to be debated but it shows that the PR government of the day is weak.

    By asking the federal government to bail him out for his blunder saddens me. It is like asking a thief to give back what he has. Surely a thief should understand another thief’s persona […]?

    For me, the fault lies in Guan Eng and if DAP and their supporters insist that BN is at fault, to me, two wrong do not make a right! And please fslam and eric, you have the right to defend Guan Eng but I will still stand my ground and [ask you to] respect me as I do you to keep your opinion to yourself or rebut me with facts […].

  14. Lam says:

    Let’s agree on one thing. The PR state govt, (this also applies to the other PR states), is done in by the civil servants. The civil servants (cs) own the cooperative, and it was obvious that the senior cs, who are inevitably the signatories in the state administration, surreptitiously expedited the balance payment and transfer of the land in a concerted scheme to ‘cross the finish line’ while the state govt was being formed. Otherwise the cs stood to lose millions. The cs have had it so good for decades, no wonder the PR politicians just can’t afford to trust their sincerity. It is all because of vested interest.

  15. @Lam, please understand the relationship between federal and state. The states have their own privy purse and budget. This is derived from the taxes that they are allowed to charge. Sometimes, a certain amount is provided by the federal government in terms of grants or loans. That is why certain states are rich and some are poor.

    To run the states, they have their own staff. These state staff are government employees […] and the highest staff is the state secretary. The state secretary can be removed by the Governor or the Sultan/Raja/Yang di Pertuan and depending on the state constitution, on the advice of the CM or Mentri Besar. As state officials, they are beholden to the state government of the day.

    Guan Eng must know that it is the basis of […] governing. One of the things that was disputed in Perak was the role of the state secretary but we leave it to the court to make the judgment. In [the Kg Buah Pala] case, Guan Eng has the right to review as he is the executive in charge in Penang. His failure to nip it in the bud has resulted in this mess so before you start commenting, please get the facts right.

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