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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Playing Survival Every Day


Almost three years after taking over the Penang government, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng is firmly in the seat. On New Year’s Eve, Lim spoke to HIMANSHU BHATT of his experiences as a selfconfessed “Survivor” and about the state government.

HOW was your relationship with former chief minister Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu after you assumed office?

Tun Lim said he felt it would be very challenging for me, as it was for him … I think he felt I was facing the same circumstances and conditions as he experienced when he won power in 1969.

He advised that it was important to take charge. And I agree that we have to take charge. Take charge not by compulsion, but by example and by persuasion. He felt that it was important that we must be fully in command, to be in control of all aspects of government. I told him that I don’t think that I am that capable. So I rely on my trusted comrades. For instance, he said I should also handle local government. I said I can’t cope. So I leave it to Chow (Kon Yeow).

Your political opponents have accused you of not being consultative, of being obdurate. They have even used the word “dictatorial”.

In a way that is a sort of back-handed compliment. They even try to portray me as a future DPM or PM. I have said many times – I have no higher ambitions. I think there are many people more qualified than me to be the prime minister.

I am happy where I am now as the CM, and I want to do the job as best I can. I don’t think I can do it alone. I need the collective effort of everyone, every person on the team. They are just trying to break up my team, but they won’t succeed.

I mean when I was away for a week, the government functioned. So it’s the system that works that matters. My councillors are also doing their job. The main thing is that the system overrides all. Once there is a system failure, it shows that your leadership, your management skills are questionable.

Nowadays when investors come, they not only look at you as a leader but at your team. You may be able to convince them personally, but can you convince them collectively? If you can’t convince them collectively, I don’t think they will put their money here.

When they come here, they do not just do a due diligence on you, they also do a due diligence on the team. I can say to them, you can call me anytime. But you know-lah they are also protocol-guided. They won’t just call anytime. They would prefer to call somebody lower down that they can talk to and interact with, that they can get things done with.

There have been challenging periods.

Every day is a challenge. Every day is a survival exercise. It’s like experiencing Survivor – you know the TV series – every day.

What do you reckon have been the biggest challenges in power?

Some of these civil servants, little Napoleonslah. Those under the state government’s watch we can deal with. Those under federal, we are powerless. I think that has been disconcerting.

Number two has been lack of funds to carry out our programmes. Number three is the lack of cooperation from certain ministers.

What are main challenges in federal-state relations? How do you see relations between the federal government and the Pakatan Rakyat states evolving in the next year or so?

I would say there are always federal leaders who are intent on having a workable, cordial relationship. But they are torpedoed and sometimes sabotaged by those who are gungho in warring with Pakatan states, regardless of national interests. So we are hopeful that cooler heads will prevail. Cooler, saner and more sober heads will prevail at the end of the day.

Because for Penang we are the second most important state. We provide nearly 30% of the country’s exports. We provide a substantial source of revenue. We contribute 70% of the medical tourism receipts in the country. And we are a major port, major tourist destination. And of course we are, I would say, the most dynamic E&E (electronics and electrical) cluster in the world.

So can you ignore Penang? If Penang loses, Malaysia loses. If Penang wins, Malaysia wins. So it is in the best interest of Malaysia that Penang succeeds. And that’s why it is shortsighted and counter-productive … if you want to victimise, punish or marginalise Penang. It is in everyone’s best interest that we work together for the benefit of Malaysians.

I mean whatever their (voter’s) choices, you have to respect them. This is democracy. If you want to punish the state government, you are also punishing the people for exercising their democratic choice of government. And that’s wrong. That is not only wrong, but it is immoral, unethical and downright evil. And we have contributed. All the tax receipts you take, we don’t get a single sen back. So far, we got only 3% of what we paid.

We saw the prime minister coming to officiate at the expansion of the Penang Airport. Interestingly enough, he said that the federal government is allocating funds for Penang to help make it a regional economic hub. How do you look upon that?

Of course, I welcome the suggestion. And we are still waiting for more details. So I think the devil is in the details. Unless this is forthcoming we are still waiting … And waiting, and waiting. (laughs).

I have been observing the war on information (between BN and PR).

We are not doing very well on that … I think we can do more.

You have been trying to penetrate the ground with your own publications. Is it reaching the masses?

It is. They get at least an explanation from the state government. Whether you agree with it or not, at least there is an explanation.

There are reports that the Penang Port’s privatisation has been decided. Are you disappointed that the Penang government’s formal bid to take over the port may not succeed?

I have written to the prime minister. Finally, of course, we have to respect the decision made, because they are the regulators. But as long as it complies with international best practices and transparency guidelines – by ensuring that you get the best price for the best quality, and that Penang Port would be able to be a truly international port, fully benchmarked against international best practices and be the premier port in the northern region – we will be able to live with it. That is our primary concern.

If it’s granted to Syed Mokhtar (Al-Bukhary), for instance, is it the best bid? Was there an open tender? If there was an open tender, was that the best bid, according to international norms and best practices? If it is so, we can live with it. Our concern is that it may not be so. Even though we may be disappointed by not succeeding, we will be able to live with it if it is the best bid. If the bid is better than ours, why not?

There were concerns about the impact privatisation would have on ticket prices of services like the ferry which is largely absorbed by Penang Port. How much would privatisation affect not just the shippers but Penangites who use the port facility?

According to international best practices, the interests of Penangites must also be taken into account. The iconic ferry service is identified with Penang, the heritage of Penang, the soul of Penang. It cannot be stopped. It cannot be taken away.

Any attempt to scale down or remove the ferry service will be opposed vigorously by the state government. We are even willing to take it off their hands, if they don’t want it. Give it to us, we’ll handle it.

What about relations among Pakatan partners in Penang?

I think they are good. Grassroots are even stronger.

There are concerns that the relationship between DAP and PAS, although working well, may not continue in the long-term, with divergent views on secularism and Islamic governance. How do you respond to this?

Those who say it won’t work in the long-term don’t want us to work in the short-term and medium-term. That is why they say it won’t work in the long-term. But so far it has worked, whether in Penang or in other states. And despite all the tensions and the pressures, we have continued to be bound together.

Even on the use of the word Allah, PAS has come out with a strong stand. Since it can be used in the Middle East, there is no monopoly on the word. It should continue to be allowed to be used by Christians in the Bible, as in Indonesia.

There have also been some remarks that you are “bending over backwards” in policies on Islamic issues, like giving extra allocations, in a way that even the previous government was not doing, for the sake of appeasing PAS and the Malay-Muslim masses.

What do you mean by “bending over backwards”? If you think that bending over backwards for justice, for integrity, for good governance, accountability, and doing what is right is immoral, then so be it.

We must not just do the right thing. We must do things right. So if there is a need and basis, we have to give necessary approvals. What’s wrong with it? And this can only be done if you have a strong budget. That’s where good governance comes in.

We are also giving money to Tamil schools, Chinese schools, mission schools. Are we saying we are denying them? No. We also build school for Azad (Tamil school on island). We also build Islamic schools.

In terms of the state’s finances, what are the biggest expenditures that you need to focus on this year?

Land acquisition will be the biggest expenditure. We are talking about affordable housing and future industrial development for both the island and mainland.

In terms of revenue?

Basically our land premium, quit rent. These are main sources of revenue.

Since the implementation of the open-tender exercise you can basically see the expenditure having become much more consolidated and tighter.

Leaner. Meaner … meaner in the sense that there is line-item accounting, justification for every sen spent. That’s why it’s meaner.

Leaner, meaner and cleaner … It will be leaner by cutting out the unnecessary frills. It will be meaner in that we want to ensure that every sen is accounted for.

You offer this material, you must provide that material. No substitute, unless it is justifiable, and then you must give some recompense. And cleaner in the sense that there is no hankypanky. You can see the results. We had budget surpluses for the last three years. I think no other state has that. Even though we projected deficits, so far we have revenues. Even this year (2010) we will have a small surplus. We were projecting a deficit of around RM80 million. But I think we’ll get a surplus. Lean, mean, clean accounting. LMC.

When it comes to making tough decisions, is there anyone that you consult or get advice from?

We consult all the relevant key personalities … Anwar (Ibrahim), my dad (Lim Kit Siang), Karpal (Singh). Definitely, we do consult. And they give their input.

You have a massive headache in Jelutong and other places, because of the massive eviction of residents on private land.

When you talk about the eviction exercises, they are not only the Malay kampung. Out of the eight villages affected in Jelutong, six are Chinese. That’s 75%. So it’s not a Malay issue, but you know lah how the press plays it up. They don’t see the 75%. They just see the 25% as being 100%. So it’s become racially-tinged. And that’s very sad.

What about the civil servants in the state? Do you think the Pakatan government has been able to garner sufficient loyalty?

That has been our greatest challenge, and will remain our greatest challenge. If you want to transform Penang to be an intelligent and international city, you have to reform the civil service. No two ways about it. You have to get the civil service to adopt international best practices, and adapt themselves to international benchmarks. Otherwise you will not succeed.

It’s a challenging process. We have to do our work daily. It’s a real grind. We grind it out every day. But I believe that the civil service is beginning to see our sincerity and our seriousness to bring better service to the people. To bring change, to improve the lives of the people, and to make a difference. When we say we travel economy, we mean it, for domestic flights … You want to show that you mean business. And then our anti-corruption measures are effective. You cut down waste, you cut down kickbacks.

And we are praised by Transparency International for CAT (Competency, Accountability, Transparency) governance. This is the highest accolade that any government can get.

I had made a comment last year that the state policies under the DAP-led government, particularly in terms of welfare, seem to be tinged with modernist-socialist elements. Am I on the mark?

(laughs) Social democratic inclinations-lah.

When DAP was established in 1967, the Setapak Declaration registered it as a Democratic Socialist entity.

Now we have changed it to Social Democracy … From “each according to his own” to “each according to his needs”. So while we recognise that growth cannot be balanced, development must be given for all. So there is no contradiction there. We can allow unbalanced growth, but we must ensure that the benefits of it must be distributed and reach everyone.

At the same time, when we talk about social democracy, it is basically a continuous reminder to us that while we must be optimistic in action we must be pessimistic in thought.

And I think that the safety-net factor, that we try to make sure everyone has a stake in the fruits of economic success, if any, I think that would at least give everybody an equal stake.

You are referring to the hardcore poverty alleviation scheme where the state tops up a family’s income to RM500 a month, and the Senior Citizens Appreciation Scheme.

We don’t have much money, but we can give RM100 to every senior citizen. It’s an anti-corruption dividend. I think that message struck. Because we are clean, we are able to give money to you … And you know the money we spent on upgrading public flats, despite them owing so much rental and maintenance fees.

You start off the New Year by celebrating the 54th anniversary of George Town as a city. The Queen of England had signed a charter in January 1957 but the Housing and Local Government Ministry insists that George Town is not a city. What do you hope to achieve by this commemoration?

I say call a spade a spade … We are trying to resuscitate, resurrect the original status of George Town as a city, the first city in Malaysia – something we should be proud of. And it’s given in a royal charter by the queen. So we should maintain that status.

After all, in the laws anything that is promulgated by the previous colonial government still remains in extant as it is. So why not George Town as it is? The integral aspect of declaring George Town as a city is to maintain its integrity. As a heritage city which is recognised by Unesco. I think that integrity is important.

You have said that Penang will keep its options open about dissolving the state assembly if Parliament dissolves early. What do you hope to achieve if you stretch until the maximum period (2013)?

The main thing is to make these aspirations operational. I think that would be the key aspect. That means that you deliver and implement. You talk about open tender, it’s in operation. You have seen the results but you have not really seen the flower of it. You have only seen the green shoots.

Because what we want to see in Malaysia and Penang is that every one must feel that they can be as good as they want to be. You should not tell people that they cannot be better because of the colour of their skin. Or they do not deserve equal rights because of the colour of their skin. Or that they are not really Malaysians in the full sense of the word because of the colour of their skin. Doesn’t make sense. And I find it most distressing that they can keep on telling children and adults, that you cannot be the best, that you cannot realise your potential, not because of anything else but because of your background. I think that is ridiculous. Is that the type of country that we want? Where these people who preach the message of hate, of division, of anger and resentment, where they succeed in telling our children that they cannot be as good as they want to be. Nonsense.

At the same time Malay kids are told that they need this help because they are not good enough. What type of message is that? You are giving them an inferiority complex. On the other hand you cannot be as good as you want to be because of the colour of your skin. Now that is really distressful. It’s not just sad, it’s outrageous.

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