Table talk with Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng: Comeback Kid defends his corner

By Cheong Suk-Wai, Senior Writer (from Straits Times)

PENANG’S fourth Chief Minister, Mr Lim Guan Eng, may be called The Comeback Kid not only for his perseverance during a rocky political career but also for his dry rejoinders to pesky reporters’ questions. ‘I never miss a beat,’ the 48-year-old likes to say.

He has been detained twice – in 1988 and 1998 – under Malaysia’s Internal Security Act and its Sedition and Printing Presses And Publications Act. One of his detentions was due to having been outspoken in defence of the grandmother of a girl who had been allegedly raped by a Malacca chief minister.

The Malacca-born, Monash-educated accountant worked in a bank before throwing himself into politics in 1986.

Married to fellow parliamentarian Betty Chew, they have four children. He is the elder son of Mr Lim Kit Siang, 68, the former long-time secretary-general of the largely non-Malay Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Mr Lim is truly a chip off the old block, from the slicked-back hair to his rapid-fire rat-a-tat-tat way of speaking. Still, the younger Lim, who has been the DAP’s secretary-general since 2004, says humbly: ‘I’m a shadow of (my father).’

In town on April 17 to address a think-tank conference here, Mr Lim spoke to The Straits Times about what it is like leading an opposition state government, his triumphs and woes, and his hopes for Malaysia:

With so little political stability in Malaysia today, how hard has it been for you to hang on to your investors, such as Intel?

Intel has not closed down.

Yes, but you had a big crisis recently when it wanted to lay off many workers.

What they said is that they just transferred (some) divisions across to Kulim, which is just on the border between Penang and Kedah. It’s only 1,000 workers affected.

But Kulim is not in Penang.

Yes, but it’s on the border. We still have 6,000 (Intel workers) in manufacturing. And they have expanded their main research (wing). So I think you should not miss the woods for the trees.

How far have you gone with your idea of competent, accountable and transparent governance?

We’ve made tremendous progress. We’ve implemented an open tender system through the Internet, so there’s no human contact (which breeds) corruption.

What of your civil service, which has been described as incompetent and uncooperative despite your best efforts.

Well, I admit it’s tough…The only way to (proceed) is to show commitment, leadership by example and fairness.

What’s your greatest achievement as chief minister to date?

One of my first tasks was to ask for a list of the hardcore poor. There were 324 families on it. But to ensure that there were no families left behind, we did an extensive survey and found 728 (hardcore poor) families. We have succeeded in raising (their incomes) to above RM500 (per family).

What did you do, exactly?

Just topped up the difference (between what they earn and the RM500 (S$207) benchmark).

But you’re not teaching them to fish.

There are two aspects to this: One is fish nets and the other is fish. How can you get people to fish when they don’t even have the strength to fish? To those who criticise me (by saying) that these measures are cruel (because) they teach people to be reliant, I ask them: Have you been poor? Can you work on an empty stomach? Please, lah.

What are your other big plans for Penang?

We have launched the Penang Wireless Initiative. We hope that in two years’ time…when you turn on your notebook, you can connect to the Internet any time, any place, anywhere. But only in Penang. Best of all, we’re giving it (for) free.

Why is free Wi-Fi such a priority?

It excites the Malays. Everybody is excited about education because it touches them, their children.

But they can’t even afford laptops.

We will buy them laptops.

That’s a lot of fish.

Why do you have to talk about giving each one a laptop? We don’t – we (provide computer terminals) in our community centres.

Doesn’t your hinterland include opposition-held Kedah?

No, no. I cannot extend so far. I can only look after my own. I cannot use resources from one state government to (help) another, you know. That is corruption.

Your government has been rocked by allegations of corruption by your former deputy chief minister…

The point is, would you find a person like him leaving BN if it was (similarly) affected?

But (the former deputy chief minister) didn’t want to leave at first.

But finally, he left, didn’t he?

There’s a difference between that and quitting immediately.

True. But that is his problem. The point is the matter was addressed by the government.

How powerless do you feel, having to defer to Pakatan Rakyat leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in selecting a new deputy chief minister?

I don’t find that deferring to him…That position is allotted to (Mr Anwar’s) Parti Keadilan Rakyat…and they have decided to choose only a Malay to hold the post now. Now, if I appoint somebody without the blessings of Mr Anwar, do you think that member would dare to accept? I’m not going to sacrifice long-term unity for short-termism.

But you may not have that long a term.

I have at least five years. That’s long enough for me to try and implement changes.

What, then, are your concerns about Malaysia’s future?

How did we get so very far behind (Singapore)? We are swimming in oil revenue. We are swimming in natural resources. What has Singapore got? (But) look at this little red dot now – whooo, it’s not little by any standards. Our best and brightest (are) flocking to Singapore.

What would you consider Penang’s unique selling propositions?

You’ve got to start (with) the reason Sir Francis Light chose Penang – for its scenic beauty and logistics. And throughout the years, our social harmony has resulted in (us being cited as a) Unesco World Heritage Site…Our vision is to transform Penang into an international location of choice for investors, destination of choice for tourists and a habitat of choice for those who desire sustainable living.

I walk around Penang a lot and I have to say its pavements are the pits. Why aren’t you fixing these?

Ah, so you see why we all bang our heads against the wall. I don’t deny that we face problems. We must address the three Cs problem – cleanliness, congestion and crime. This is what we have accumulated over 51 years. You can’t clear up overnight.

But you managed to tackle hardcore poverty in one year.

Yeah, but that was easy…You can clean up the beach, but can you educate people to stop throwing things (there)?

How do you live in your father’s shadow?

Very well…There’s no quarrel, contradiction or rivalry.

How do you settle differences between yourselves?
If we can bridge it, we bridge it. If not, we agree to disagree.

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