New challenges, new perspective for Guan Eng

The Star | CERITALAH | Monday March 31, 2008

From being a political activist and a former ISA detainee, Penang’s new Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng is digesting the reality that he now leads the state. Will he be able to retain the idealism, passion and integrity that has sustained his career and popularity thus far?

WHEN Penang’s generally very conservative voters choose to switch camps, the results can be enduring.

Gerakan’s Lim Chong Eu first seized hold of the island state back in 1969. Just under 39 years later, his heirs have seen their comeuppance at the hands of a DAP-led coalition.

As we digest the results, it’s worth considering whether this defeat will be a mere blip – a one-term aberration – in Barisan Nasional’s grip of Penang or a fundamental shift in local politics?

Much will depend on the leadership of Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng – political activist and former ISA detainee.

Can the DAP secretary-general make the transition from the street to the boardroom? And in doing so will he be able to retain the idealism, passion and integrity that has sustained his career and popularity thus far?

How successful will he be at managing his all-important relations with his coalition partners and reaching out to the Malay community? As Guan Eng himself says: “Do we imagine the world to suit our policies or do we arrange our policies to suit reality?”

In person, Lim Guan Eng is a human dynamo. He rushes into the room, greets you by name and shakes your hand vigorously. However, as we settle down and begin to talk I begin to get a more nuanced impression.

In front of me is a man, well-read and thoughtful who is still coming to terms with the scale of his party’s victories and life’s extraordinary ironies. In this respect the newly sworn-in Chief Minister’s personal journey (as with Anwar Ibrahim) has been dramatic in the extreme.

“I was a former criminal squatting in a cell. I had lost everything. I’d been convicted and I’d had all my benefits withdrawn. And now here I am after only my first contest and I’m the Chief Minister. I will never forget where I come from. After all, you never know, I may go ‘in’ again. My life has been fraught with trials and tribulations.”

Indeed in the new post-March 8 Malaysia, imprisonment has become “a” – if not “the” – badge of honour.

As he talked about the past, I noticed that his wife, Betty Chew (a state assemblyman from Malacca), who’d joined in our discussion, had looked down as if unwilling to relive the bitter memories.

Contrary to what many may think, I feel that Guan Eng is a man who is learning to weigh his words more carefully.

As we discuss the NEP, his arguments are finely honed and statesman-like. Clearly he and his Penang-based team of MPs – Jeff Ooi, the ebullient blogger, and Liew Chin Tong, election strategist – have done a lot of thinking. The preparation shows but that’s as I would expect, given the seriousness of the issue at hand.

“It is important that this issue should not divide us. We must recognise the sensitivities involved and be respectful of the historical developments behind the policy.”

He stresses firmly, “our standpoint is about fighting corruption. Moreover, I will be engaging on the issue directly as Chief Minister. I know the Malay community’s concerns. I feel confident that even if harsh words are used that I can reach out.”

Nonetheless, the challenges ahead are enormous. How will the state’s predominantly Malay civil service respond to the new (and extremely youthful) leadership? Will the proffered olive branch to Putrajaya be reciprocated? Even though much still hangs in the balance, he states firmly:

“(Datuk Seri) Abdullah (Ahmad) Badawi is my Prime Minister and I am his Chief Minister. Whilst there is no doubt that the relationship with the Federal Government will be different, we will take the PM at his word. The GLCs have been here to see me. We want to do business. Penang is too important to fail. To let Penang fail is to let Malaysia fail.”

“Moreover we don’t want to give the impression that making money is dirty. We understand the concerns of the businessmen. We can speak their language. We need three ‘wins’: business must make money, the Government must generate revenue and the people must benefit.”

Guan Eng clearly has the intelligence and maturity to be a very capable Chief Minister. At the same time, he understands that his stint in office will be painfully short if he fails to deliver.

Still coalition politics was very ‘draining’ – remains an imponderable.

After my interview, I headed off to a PKR celebratory dinner hosted by the state’s party head (and newly-elected Bayan Baru MP) Datuk Zahrain Hashim – from the prominent Penang Malay Hashim clan.

Zahrain – a former Umno strongman and Anwar Ibrahim loyalist – was upbeat but realistic: “I can call Guan Eng and we can talk. He’s very accommodating. I don’t think it’s difficult to do better than Barisan. They neglected the people. Look around you – we have the trust of the people now and they are happy with the state government.”

“The Opposition, at this point he paused as if still in awe of the fact that Barisan had indeed been reduced to little more than the phrase – ‘the Opposition’, “they bring up the NEP and racial issues – these are bankrupt issues. People don’t want to go back there. They want to go forward. I think it’ll be difficult for Barisan to take back Penang.”

These are early days as yet but already it’s clear that Lim Guan Eng is ready to assume his greatest challenge – the administration and revival of Penang.

If he can succeed, Penang may well remain with DAP for many years to come.