Jun 17, 2008
WHEN the opposition swept into power in Penang in the March 8 general election, no one was more surprised than DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng who led the election campaign.
Three days later, Lim, a qualified accountant from Malacca, was sworn in as Penang’s fourth Chief Minister.
The new chief executive has introduced some populist measures and claims to be the first to implement the CAT (competency, accountability, transparency) policy in the country.
In an interview in conjunction with his 100 days in office, Lim described his CAT government as a new political and social experiment to prove that a clean government is possible and at the same time, allow people to share in the prosperity.
He also answers questions by The Star readers on what he has achieved to date and his plans to make Penang regain its lustre and lead again.
What are your administration’s achievements since coming into power? (Kenneth Khoo, Penang
Among the things we have done are cancelling all summonses issued before March 8, implementing an open tender system for government contracts and introducing a new land reform policy that allows the people to take back ownership of the land.
We have cut down the state’s expenses by cancelling the order of new cars valued at over RM600,000 and also instructed government departments and officers to cut cost when travelling.
For example, they should fly economy instead of business class and take a deluxe room instead of a suite which they are entitled to. When holding government functions, we do it in government complexes and have cooked food that is catered so that small time businesses can earn some money.
We also distribute welfare aid to fire and flood victims within 24 hours. In the past it was besok lusa (tomorrow or the day after).
In view of rising costs, we want to give every poor family a small gesture of RM100 each.
We do all this belt-tightening so that we can channel back the savings to the rakyat.
I feel that there is not enough of “caring” so we want to take the first step. The people should have a renewal of faith in the government that represents them and there should be hope for the future and love for each other as Malaysians.
Our future is here – good or bad. We have faced lots of challenges, especially when trying to push for the open tender. When we made efforts to attract foreign investors, we were also challenged.
One company wanted to invest billions and billions of ringgit here but because of some irresponsible opposition party’s statement about the Second Bridge being cancelled, they decided against it. We are still trying to convince them but it is not easy.
The fuel price increase is not our doing but we have to bear it. We have to bear all these but we will be strong.
Finally, we are the first CAT government in Malaysia to adopt the principles of competency, accountability and transparency.
We can have good governance in Penang because we have good people. A government is as good as its people. We want to allow them to reclaim ownership in this government – we want their voices to be heard and for them to participate in making decisions which are made for their benefit and not for any private gain.
To encourage excellence, we recognised the top SPM and STPM top students. This is to show our emphasis to retain brain power. We hope those outside of Penang will come back because there is opportunity here.
We have many, many ideas in the areas of medical tourism, soft skills and software.
It is really a heartache to see Penang lagging a century behind Singapore where at one time we were ahead. Will we be able to lead again? (Tan the Penangite
No doubt Penang has lagged behind. How to reverse that is to make Penang dynamic again and we will focus on our core competencies.
In terms of the manufacturing sector, that means leveraging on brainpower, superior skills, superior supply and superior chain network.
Another area is tourism. There are eight key thrusts we want to focus on. For heritage tourism, we want to leverage on the fact that Penang is the most prominent heritage city in Malaysia and hopefully, with the Unesco listing, we can attract more interest. That’s number one.
Number two is educational tourism. We believe Penang has great potential with our established academic history as well as brainpower to attract students from foreign countries to study in Penang.
Number three is medical tourism. We believe that the natural surroundings coupled with the best doctors and nurses in Malaysia will provide the best synergies to make Penang the premier medical destination for those who seek treatment.
Fourthly, we want to make Penang a convention city – you need an icon to push Penang.
Fifth is to make the state a culinary centre. We want Penang’s food to attract tourists.
Sixth is eco tourism. Go up to Penang Hill and you will realise why Penang is called the Pearl of the Orient – it is one of the most beautiful places on Earth so let’s regain its lustre.
Seventh is making Penang the regional headquarters for MNCs – we want them to relocate here and bring along their friends and families.
Finally, we want Penang to be a cultural, film and arts centre. We have a long tradition and history of arts and artists who reside in Penang. Here we have the advantage of international city living but at the same time, the green comforts away from the rat race.
This effort to promote tourism is different from the previous administration which did not have focus, sustainable effort or icons. What are the icons they have built for Penang?
To promote Penang, we should have a list of “Top 10” products to recommend to tourist – we must have products from the native communities – a few items from the Chinese, India and Malay community each.
For example – nutmeg, coffee, pottery and traditional biscuits – these can help generate income and promote Penang.
I went on a business networking trip recently and met all the big boys in Hong Kong. They have all been here 20 years ago but they have not been coming back since. Why?
Because there is nothing here for them. They prefer to go to Bali because somehow, they feel they can get what they want there – to bring them back is not easy but we must focus. We can be as safe as Bali, we have good food and hospitable people who speak English.
Do you have a structural development plan for Penang? (Kong Leong Teng
As far as tourism is concerned, we have a master plan which we are proceeding full steam ahead. We want to put it on paper but we are worried that there won’t be any land left then. Land is going like hot cakes.
Your new land policy to convert leasehold to freehold land may be popular among the people but won’t it hamper future development by the state government. (Cheah, Kuala Lumpur
It’s only residential, not commercial and not industrial. What we are doing is returning land to the people. That is why we do not allow Penang state leaders to apply.
What do you hope to achieve with CAT (competency, accountability, transparency) policy? (Mohd. Anwar, Penang
We believe we should have a new political paradigm - a new course where we choose the best and the brightest.
But when we did that, we were criticised heavily because they say that you should have greater loyalty to your party - you cannot serve the government, you cannot have both feet in two different boats but what I say is which is a higher loyalty? Loyalty to the country and to the people or loyalty to your own political party?
We are not asking you to leave or abandon your political party but to serve the people and if that can be done in the west - for example America - whether you are Republican or Democrat, if you are selected to serve, you still serve - that is the norm internationally but in Malaysia it is seen as abnormal. We regret that our efforts to improve excellence, to choose people based on their ability and honesty has been criticised by those who oppose but we will continue to establish our CAT government in line with principles of democracy and transparency to have a clean government.
This is something new - never done before in Malaysia because corruption is seen as a part of life. We want to show that corruption is not our culture and we can have a clean government that can bring prosperity which we can then share with the people.
I do not know whether we will succeed but I am willing to fail trying than failing to try.
Finally, we believe in the people. We believe that the election results show that the people want to reclaim their ownership in the government. And this government belongs to them. We must let them decide and decide and work for their own benefit - not our own benefit.
That’s why we say no leaders of administration can apply for state land because state land belongs to the rakyat.
But with regards to the land scam, we cannot give all juicy details now because of legal issues but you can see how frightened the previous administration is – they refuse to even see me and talk about it – neither (former chief minister Tan Sri Dr Koh) Tsu Koon or (his deputy Datuk Seri Abdul) Rashid.
Your exco members are required to declare their assets but this has yet to be done. (Cheng Heng Tan
We wanted to but the Prime Minister’s department communicated to my state secretary that they wanted uniformity. And since we want to maintain good federal relations, we are waiting for them to send us the new forms because we also want to declare openly.
If they do not give us the forms, we have to do this on our own but we do not want to use this issue to score political points.
How does the state plan to lessen the burden of the people in light of the price increases? (Clement Chiang
Actually this is the federal government’s responsibility. They should be cleaning up the mess – after all they control Petronas. With the fuel increase, they have windfall profits which should be distributed among low and middle income owners.
Having said that, while we detest the unwillingness to share Petronas profits, we also rap Petronas for willing to indulge in extravagant expenses like buying private jets and sponsoring the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (which is only Malaysian in name) and throwing extravagant functions which are a waste of money.
They spent RM500mil in 10 years on an orchestra which is 90% made up of foreigners. What is the point of the private jets and helicopter? If it is to conduct oil explorations, it is alright but this is for the comfort of their executives. Why can’t they fly with MAS and let the national carrier earn some profits instead of wasting more than RM100mil on the jet?
Don’t spend money indiscriminately.
What we are asking is that each family be given RM6,000 a year for households earning less than RM6,000 a month. Share – let all of us have a stake in the economy because natural resources belong to the people of Malaysia.
As an MP, these are things I must speak up on yet when I do, I am accused of trying to get publicity.
Back to Penang – we don’t have much money but we want to show that we remember the people and we know what they are going through. That is why I announced that I want to give at least 100,000 families at least RM100 each. This will cost the state government at least RM10mil.
This is the concept of “kongsi bersama rakyat” because if we manage to attract RM1.2bil or more than RM100mil in investments, the rakyat must feel like they are “stakeholders” in the Penang economy.
They should have a right to share but this is a one-off - we don’t encourage giving cash but people are suffering from the price hike.
We are not talking about those who don’t want to find jobs - we are talking about those with jobs and are having difficulty making ends meet - and they tell me they don’t know what to do.
They say if they force their company to increase their pay, the company will close down because the company is also affected by the price hike. They just don’t have enough money to make ends meet and they feel abandoned, they feel like the government doesn’t care. We want to show that the state government does.
How do you plan on tackling the traffic congestion problem in the state? (Nyak Cheek
It is not only the traffic congestion – we have to deal with the three Cs which are congestion, cleanliness and crime.
Our efforts to upgrade public transportation is limited by the constrains to get the necessary permits by the CVLB and LPJP. This takes time so we are trying to work out some kind of format so that we can do our bit to reduce traffic congestions. These are all under federal authority but we are working towards it.
We are looking at reintroducing the “Central Area Transportation” (CAT) busses to make the city more accessible.
More importantly, the federal government has promised us the monorail and we have to work around it.
When it comes to cleanliness – Penang hawkers themselves are among the main problems and I will come down hard on them at the risk of being unpopular because tourists will only come back when the state is clean again.
On the crime rate, it is heartening to note that for the first five months of the year, it dropped by over 2% compared to last year. Penang is number 10 in the country in terms of crime rise and in terms of solving cases, we are number one in the country at 52%.
However, this is not enough. We need to have a “Safe Penang” – we have to do much more. We have the plans and we will announce these in the coming weeks.
What are the things you want to do but have failed to either because of the structure or the fact that it is impossible? (Ahmad Idris, Butterworth
Make the Penang airport and ports more dynamic. It is under the NCER but the government should try and secure direct flights from India, Korea, Dubai and Japan and increase flights from Medan, Jakarta. These are important destinations for Penang.
Does your flying economy class really work in terms of a significant and practical cost-saving measure? (Selvi, Bagan Ajam
It is very tiring and I get a migraine but we must send a message that we must save and the only way to do it is leadership by example. If I can do it in the past, why not now? You are using the people’s money, you should treat it as your own.
How are you planning on improving the state’s financial performance? (Wong, Penang
First is to increase revenue. Two is to cut cost and three is to add value – how do we do that? You must have good governance and get the civil servants to work with you. Get them to work hard, work smart and work clean.
The Perak Menteri Besar and DAP leader got their titles very fast after assuming power. I am curious how you what is your stand on this as you yourself will be recommending titles. (Jeff Cheah, Penang
I will not be accepting or awarding myself titles. As for the Menteri Besar of Perak’s title, it was decided by the Sultan, so that’s in a different context and I think they can explain themselves. I am only responsible for my own state and will not be accepting any titles.
During the election, PAS did not mention anything about an Islamic state because they wanted the non-Muslim votes but now as we approach the 100 days, the PAS Youth chief has started talking about implementing the Syariah laws. You have come out to say that it is never going to happen in Penang. Can you elaborate on that? (Simon
It is a non-issue. PAS Penang has not even raised that issues. Even talk about wanting to ban the Magnum 4D outlets – it is not going to happen. You want me to reduce the number of draws maybe because you may find that there are too many draws but close down? No way! These are just voices on the margin. I think we should ignore them.
Do you think a single term is enough for you to fulfil all your promises in the manifesto? (A. Hishamuddin A. Bakar
Even two terms is not enough.
How to you address the problems of Malays being marginalised in the development of the state? (Mohd Azlan Abdul Majid
One of the first things I did when I came into power was to increase the allowances of religious teachers by RM600 a year.
But let’s not talk of race. We want equal opportunities for all. Once we start talking about race, we fall into Umno’s political trap.
Instead, let’s focus on national unity and globalisation. In the past, we spoke of geo-politics but now we talk about globalisation, competitiveness, human interaction and your competency. These are what we should be talking about because we don’t want to be Jaguh Kampung. We want to stand up together and make Penang an international city.
Earlier, Lim gave an hour-long interview with members of the local media. Here’s what he had to say.
On still having the Opposition mentality and seeking cheap publicity
Is publicity for the federal government not cheap publicity? What does one consider cheap publicity? I think the question is whether the publicity is beneficial to the rakyat. If I were to announce everything I do, I would need 20 press conferences in a day – then you can say I am seeking cheap publicity.
On the state’s financial situation Well, we have some money because we implemented some cost cutting measures. But our financial situation is much better than before but still if we work on the basis of a RM35mil deficit, we should be able to reduce that.
In government accounting there is no provision for contingent liabilities - there is a substantial sum because of excesses and scandals. And these contingent liabilities will make your financial reports and estimates go haywire.
I do not know the extent of the contingent liabilities. As I had mentioned, one land scam can cost you tens and tens of millions of ringgit, I’m not talking about 10 or 20, I’m talking about much more than that. That is where it gives rise to concerns.
We can manage on our own but without the federal government funding promised, it will make things tougher but like I said, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. We have to find a way. Life finds a way and Penangites will find a way.
We are sure that the federal government is mature and will respect the decision of the voters. As I have said before, I respect Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as my prime minister just as I hope that he will respect me as his chief minister being anak negeri Pulau Pinang. And I think on that basis, he wants Penang to develop, he doesn’t want to see Penang go backward when he is from Penang just because of the decision of the voters - I don’t think he wants that to happen.
I believe he will respect the wishes of the voters and work together with the state government to ensure development, progress, prosperity shared by all.
On his achievements
We are thrifty in our expenses. Barisan Nasional criticised me for taking economy class (and seeking publicity) but I didn’t ask the reporters to come – I was exposed in a blog and the press picked it up.
It happened that the person who saw me was Ning Baizura – maybe because it was Ning that it attracted attention. This is just my small way of saving. Treat the government’s money like your own money. Be thrifty.
We will assess any development plans and hear views and suggestions but must be sustainable eco-development but at the moment none. I may not agree with your views but I will listen.
Same like PGCC – I won’t say that I reject you outright so that you won’t even bother to submit your plans – no - submit and let us decide, approve and vet it on its merits.
On mega infrastructure projects
Those promised to us like the monorail, we are still awaiting word from the federal government. The Penang Outer Ring Road (PORR) is up in the air because the compensation demanded by the company is too high even for the federal government to stomach.
I think PORR for the moment doesn’t seem to be on the table. What we want is a project that will alleviate traffic congestion at a minimal cost to Penang. PORR is contentious because we do not know about the costs and all that.
But the monorail is a project financed by the federal government and I don’t think it is wise to reject a project funded by them. That is why we are willing to wait for them to deliver the project to us. When I say finance, I mean fully borne by them, you understand that right.
On alleged land scams during previous administration
There is an investigation headed by my deputy and he will submit this report to the exco on July 1. The problem is that the ACA has conducted initial investigations and found no evidence.
We want to see if there is evidence or not. We are not happy with the findings. After all, the ACA can make mistakes – even investigations into the judiciary was re-opened after being instructed by AG.
We want to see if we find new evidence to reopen the investigations. Even to get the initial investigations going we found obstacles. We want to say that the previous government cannot just wash its hands of the responsibility.
If the ACA does not reopen the case, we will let everybody know but it will take time because this thing is still being dealt with in court.
His thoughts on being CM
Nothing is ever as easy as we think. Being a mother or a father is the same. That is life. As long as we have the perseverance commitment towards a certain objective, we can prevail – most important thing is the team around us.
On working with the Pakatan States I think we are all too busy in our own states – we just share stories of what we went through but I don’t foresee any difficulties – no time to even sit and talk where are the common areas we can work towards.
But we were the first state to adopt the Northern Corridor Implementation Authority (NCIA) to implement the Northern Corridor Economic Region (NCER) so this is a sign of cooperation. It also reflects our willingness to work with the federal government.
On how his life has changed
It is easier to ask you all (the media) to come to my press conference and nowadays, I don’t have much opportunity to have social drinking because it makes me tired and since I deal a lot with civil servants (many are ladies).
I don’t want to offend them because alcohol breath is not that pleasant – tak manis (not sweet). I have stopped drinking since March 8.
But I am not a heavy drinker so it doesn’t really matter. Nowadays I am dull and boring company. No time for football and no time for golf also. I heard the US Open is very exciting. Sometimes social drinking is nice just to interact with people. My working hours are the same – 24/7.
On his family
Do I miss my wife? She misses me (laughs). I see my children only when I come back. When I get home they are sleeping, when I leave, they are still sleeping.
On reconciling irregularities approved by the previous administration
When you talk about irregularities, Hunza (the developer) has actually sent their submissions to the appeal board but they withdrew their suit and complaint, so no irregularities are proven. They also did not lodge a police report.
I can only review a case when there is evidence of mala fide (bad faith). But how do I prove mala fide when the complainant withdrew his submission on his own accord.
The other thing you have to consider - PGCC- the zoning thing - you make decisions like that where there is no mala fide, there will be huge costs involved. Under the law, to pay expectations of profit is huge - you want to put that at risk?
The legal question when you talk about a land scam, you talk about expectations of profits, you are talking about tens and tens of millions of ringgit one case - which is still in court.
When you make decisions, much as you like to do things, we are also bound by the legal framework we operate under. Let’s say we want to review any project, you can prove any mala fide, good. But if you can’t, I just listen to you, who will bear the cost finally? The people of Penang and I have a responsibility to them.
In the Kampung Buah Pala case where the land is still occupied and the units for the proposed development sold, we have formed a committee to look into the question to see whether we can actually prove mala fide. This issue is also in court.
And this has given rise to worries from those who bought but we want to make sure legal issues are resolved. If it is all hanging in the air, it is no good for anyone. But I think we should be coming to a conclusion in the next few months.
We do not want to approve, sanction or approve, or endorse something where there is fraud, mala fide or corruption. The question is to prove these corrupt practices first.
On reviving George Town
We have certain projects lined up to bring back life to the inner city. This is part of tourism. MICE, eco-tourism, heritage. If we can get projects to come in we can do it – let us unveil slowly.
Look at our land reforms – let the effects show. Let its economic value show. My main focus is to build the necessary infrastructure and allow the private sector to drive the economy subject to certain regulations which ensure social needs are provided for.
On local government elections
We are subject to federal laws, much as we would like to do so. We can only push for the necessarily amendments at federal level. But we have given our commitment to push for it at the latest, the next general election. If we do that on our own it will cost a lot of money.
On the NGOs’ high expectations
These high expectations are something we have to deal with. We also have high expectations but we have to be realistic - we work within the perimeters because when we come in, the civil service also has to adjust to us.
When you talk about reducing red tape, ensuring accountability and transparency, the implementers are the civil servants. We have to guide and lead them and make sure that they also have the same spirit and culture. It is not that they do not want but they are not used to it.
Of course there are some bad hats, bad eggs in the basket - but that is normal in any organisation. The real challenge is to root them out. This is a process of transition, adjustment, accommodation - so that we can go together as one team to forge ahead.
On whether the ongoing feud between the previous and new administration has affected investment
So far it has not been affected. People are still showing interest. What is important is that we show our commitment and sincerity towards delivery. I think we have shown to them that we can deliver. One of the companies that came was actually looking at another site in Malaysia, and were thinking of choosing that site after the elections but finally after meeting us, they decided not only to come to Penang but also to increase their investment by 50%.
That says a lot. If foreign investors are making us their choice destination, local investors should also have the same confidence by investing in Penang.
We are not denying that other people have contributed but closing the deal is not easy. For those who have done business, closing the deal is often the hardest part.
Just like when you talk about getting the lady of your dreams to say yes - it’s not easy at all. So as I said, when you talk about these efforts, it is the combined efforts of all people from Penang.
On living up to the expectations of the people of Penang
That is very subjective. We try to live up to their expectations. We are still sempoi (simple) saja. We still lead a simple lifestyle.