On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

The battle for Penang shapes up


DATUK Seri Chia Kwang Chye always make it a point to ask his host, whenever he is invited to a function in Kuala Lumpur, what they really mean when the dress code is stated as “smart casual”. 

“I ask them whether smart casual Penang-style or KL-style. In KL, they expect you to put on a jacket with no tie when the dress code states smart casual but in Penang, casual means short-sleeved shirt or even just a T-shirt,” he said recently, adding that he preferred the much simpler lifestyle on the island. 

The Deputy Information Minister, who is regarded as a possible candidate to be the next Chief Minister, is well aware of the expectations of Penangites. 

The islanders expect their representatives to be humble, simple, outspoken, hardworking and be on call almost 24 hours for them. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that politicians in Penang, especially in Chinese-predominant areas, are the hardest working politicians in the country. 

Pengkalan Kota state assemblyman Lee Hack Teik travels around in his working-class constituency on his motorcycle. Once an anti-establishment area, the area, located within the inner city, has become the stronghold of the MCA. 

His voters call him up for everything – from a leaking roof to writing a letter to a government department. But no task is too small for this bespectacled rotund leader. 

Komtar state assemblyman Datuk Lim Gim Soon is not known to be an intellectual and neither does he pretend to be one. But he has built a solid reputation for his efficient services. He has a sub-service centre, mostly in coffeeshops, in almost every street in his constituency. 

It’s the same with Bagan Jermal state assemblyman Ooi Chuan Aik, dubbed the Michael Chong of Penang, who could end up defending his seat against Bagan DAP Member of Parliament Lim Hock Seng, who is speculated to be giving way for party secretary-general Lim Guan Eng to lead the battle in Penang. 

Hock Seng, a contractor, has a record that can match those of the MCA – he drives his own excavator to fill up potholes and makes sure he is among the pallbearers at funerals. His critics say he is living on his past reputation but in Penang, where legend seems to thrive, these tales have helped him. 

While the DAP is not hiding its ambition in Penang this elections, the party has stopped short of declaring its wish to capture the state as it had done previously. 

There is a painful past – in 1995, the DAP declared it was ready for power, asking the voters to “Try Five Years,” playing on the sentiments that Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon was a weak politician, who was submissive to Umno. 

The DAP asked the voters to support DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang as the “Chief Minister With Power”, with huge cut-outs of Robocop, a popular movie then of a robotic character, to project Kit Siang as the protector of the weak. But the Barisan hit back with “Die Five Years”, saying Robocop was a killing machine. 

Huge crowds attended the DAP ceramahs but when the ballots were counted, Dr Koh easily defeated Kit Siang in Tanjung Bungah by 7,487 votes. The thunderous support for Kit Siang’s rhetoric turned out to be deceptive, proving how unpredictable Penangites could be, and how their constant criticism of government policies did not necessarily translate into votes. 

Kit Siang, who is almost certain to defend his Ipoh Timur seat, started his foray into Penang in 1986 when he wrested the Tanjung parliamentary seat from Dr Koh by 4,690 votes. Besides winning the Kampung Kolam state seat, he also helped the party win nine other state seats in the Tanjung One battle. 

By 1990, the DAP launched its Tanjung Two campaign with the DAP strongman knocking off the then Chief Minister Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu in Padang Kota by 706 votes. Kit Siang retained his Tanjung parliamentary seat by a majority of 17,479 votes. That was not all, the DAP won 14 seats, denying Barisan its two-thirds majority.  

It was just three seats short of forming the next state government. 

The harsh outcome of the DAP’s Tanjung Three bid for power in 1995 was that it only managed to win one state seat despite the huge resources channelled into the campaign. 

Fast forward 2008 – it is 13 years since the debacle. Younger people have taken over the DAP leadership and those who were involved in the 1995 polls have learnt the bitterness of their mistakes. 

This time around, no one is making big claims. In fact, no one, including Guan Eng, wants to talk about where he is contesting. 

Even Dr Koh seems to be extra secretive these days. In an ironic manner, he asked the press why they wanted to know if he was moving to a parliamentary seat. Tan Sri, it’s our job to ask. The voters want to know. 

There is also a difference to the 1995 fight. This time, the DAP is depending on the Parti Keadilan Rakyat to deliver the Malay votes and possibly one or two state seats, as farfetched as it may sound.  

After all, this is the Prime Minister’s home state and the mainland is where most of the Malay voters are located. 

The DAP is hoping the anti-establishment sentiment will swing in their favour and, by not talking about winning, the votes may just tip in their favour. 

In a state where voters want to have the best of both worlds – keeping the Barisan and the Opposition – the DAP is hoping for a bonus. But it’s still early days and Penangites are likely to keep the opposing sides in suspense. Until the ballot boxes are opened, no one can predict the outcome.  

And certainly, no one can take the Penang voters casually when it comes to voting. That would be the smartest thing to do for any candidate hoping to stand in the island state.