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 had led the election campaign in the state.
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 claimed 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 for Penang to regain its lustre and lead again.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
Q: What are your administration’s achievements since coming into power? (Kenneth Khoo, Penang)
A: 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 for 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 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.
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.
Q: 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)
A: 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.
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 tourists – we must have products from the native communities – a few items from the Chinese, Indian and Malay community each. For example – nutmeg, coffee, pottery and traditional biscuits – these can help generate income and promote Penang.
Q: Your policy to convert leasehold land to freehold may be popular among the people but won’t it hamper future development by the state government? (Cheah, Kuala Lumpur)
A: 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.
Q: What do you hope to achieve with CAT (competency, accountability, transparency) policy? (Mohd Anwar, Penang)
A: 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 said 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 in the US 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.
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 work for their own benefit – not our own benefit.
But in regard 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. –
Q: Your exco members are required to declare their assets but this has yet to be done. (Cheng Heng Tan)
A: 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.
Q: How does the state plan to lessen the burden of the people in light of the price increases? (Clement Chiang)
A: 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 all right 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?
Back to Penang – we don’t have much money but we want to show that we remember the people and 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.
Q: How do you plan on tackling the traffic congestion problem in the state? (Nyak Cheek)
A: It is not only the traffic congestion, we have to deal with the three Cs – congestion, cleanliness and crime.
We are looking at reintroducing the “Central Area Transportation” buses 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.
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.
Q: Does your flying economy class really work in terms of a significant and practical cost-saving measure? (Selvi, Bagan Ajam)
A: 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 could do it in the past, why not now? You are using the people’s money, you should treat it as your own.
Q: The Perak Mentri Besar and DAP leader got their Datukship very fast after assuming power. What is your stand on this as you yourself will be recommending titles. (Jeff Cheah, Penang)
A: I will not be accepting or awarding myself titles. As for the Perak Mentri Besar’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.
Q: During the elections, 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 Syariah laws. You have come out to say that it is never going to happen in Penang. Can you elaborate on that? (Simon)
A: It is a non-issue. PAS Penang has not even raised that issue. Even talk about wanting to ban the 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.
Q: Do you think a single term is enough for you to fulfil all your promises in the manifesto? (A. Hishamuddin A. Bakar)
A: Even two terms is not enough.
Q: How do you address the problems of Malays being marginalised in the development of the state? (Mohd Azlan Abdul Majid)
A: 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.
On the state’s financial situation
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 gets 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 negri Pulau Pinang.
We will assess any development plans and hear views and suggestions but they 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.
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 and commitment towards a certain objective, we can prevail – most important thing is the team around us.
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 women). I don’t want to offend them because alcohol breath is not that pleasant – tak manis. 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. 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 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 was thinking of choosing that site after the elections but finally after meeting us, it decided not only to come to Penang but also to increase its 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.
So as I said, when you talk about these efforts, it is the combined efforts of all people from Penang.