What’s brewing for Penang?
CHIEF Minister Lim Guan Eng is aware that expectations are high for his newly-elected administration in governing Penang. He has had his share of headlines, sometimes for the wrong reasons, but he is determined to get on with the job.
In this special Cafe Latte Chat, the first one-on-one discussion since this series was started last December, he shares his thoughts with The Star’s Group Chief Editor Datuk Wong Chun Wai while responding to selected e-mail questions sent in by readers.
In just two days, The Star was overwhelmed with over 500 e-mails for the new Chief Minister. The questions came not only from Penangites but from all over the country, as well as a good number from Malaysians abroad.
Although the number was high, the questions posed were roughly along the same lines. Some were concerned about local issues like traffic congestion and even street names. Many, however, wanted the Chief Minister to bring the shine back to Penang, asking him to clean up the beaches, restore the free port status, and focus on tourism.
There were also questions on how to attract foreign direct investment and lure Penangites home to serve the state. A popular question was how the state would deal with the Federal Government.
ADMINISTRATION Without any experience working in the state or Federal Cabinet, how do you expect to run the state? Arlene
Lim: When we talk about experience, I always say that I don't have experience in corruption and misappropriation of funds. So it is with that attitude – that if we are honest and have a sense of integrity, we have the ability and capability to do it. Of course it is a learning curve but if based on good principles, values and governance, I think we can benefit the state and get things done.
How will you ensure that Penang will be better than when it was previously under the Barisan Nasional especially in carrying out projects like the monorail and Second Penang Bridge? Unnamed
Lim: Number one is that there will be no “sweetheart deals”. We want everything to be above board. We want public interest to be paramount. If there is any hanky panky going on, we will immediately identify and take action. The fact is that this government is built on integrity. Don't try to get your way around through sweetheart deals and don't expect handouts. We are doing everything clean, everything above board and what we want is your service and your ability to deliver.
We support all federal projects like the monorail and Second Penang Bridge but we are suggesting using money from Petronas so that we don't have to bear such a high cost. Look at the Sungai Nyior toll plaza. Just because you convert it from a “federal road” to “highway”, you charge a toll. That is ridiculous. How can there be four traffic lights at four intersections? So that is why when we talk about federal projects it must be about the people. Basically, I am saying that profits should not be privatised.
How would you handle the delicate balance between the need for development and economic growth of Penang, the Federal Government and DAP objectives? Keith Saw (Melbourne, Australia)
Lim: This is a symbiotic relationship. You cannot fulfil the equity aspect without growth. You have to have growth to deal with the equity requirements. Just like a ship. If a ship wants to turn, it cannot do so immediately, it must move forward first and then turn. So when you talk about the equity aspect, you must grow first, then you can move. We must grow together and I believe we can have shared prosperity.
Since you may face many difficulties in getting financial resources to develop Penang, would you consider going out to the community residing abroad, namely in China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan to get their support to invest in Penang? WM Mak
Lim: I do not want to talk about the Chinese, Indian or Malay diasporas. What we are talking about is the Penang diaspora. We should not just look at one country or a particular group. We will be more resilient if we do not limit ourselves.
There is talk about bringing Penangites home. How do you propose to do that? And what are the areas where you feel they can contribute? Jelutong Boy
Lim: They can invest in the state or adopt old buildings. Even if you adopt a small wing it will be good. Help make Penang a place where tourists want to come. Tourists are interested in greenery like the Botanic Gardens. This should be enhanced but needs heavy investment so the only way is to draw foreign investment.
I am a Penangite currently studying in the UK. I would like to find out what is the way forward for Penang? What will be the emphasis? Jason Goh Wei Hsiung (Newcastle Upon Tyne)
Lim: The aim is to make Penang dynamic again. We have said that many times in our campaign. We are not just talking about physical development but we are also making sure that the people's needs are being taken care of. We want a kinder, caring government that listens to complaints. We must make sure that basic services are provided for. We have taken the lead in democracy and must continue to do so in socio-economic justice and equal economic opportunity so when we talk about development, it must benefit Penangites and not just a few people.
I am a Malaysian residing in Bahrain – the hub of financial movements in the Gulf Region and Middle East. I have been promoting bilateral links between the business community of Malaysia and the Middle East. Before the general election, we established the Malaysia Gulf Co-operation Countries Business Council and were promoting Malaysia as the preferred location for investment and business manufacturing operations. However, the key investment locations like Perak, Selangor and Penang have fallen to the Opposition. How strongly will the government of Penang and Selangor assist potential investors and provide positive assistance through the Ministry of International Trade and Industry? B. Norman Nathan (Secretary-general, Malaysia Gulf Co-operation Countries Business Council)
Lim: If they are a proven outfit that can draw in quality business, we will lend support. We have no qualms. We want quality investment. Our main priority is for Penang to prosper but we want quality investment that lets us move up the value chain and makes us a premier tourist destination. For that we need infrastructure and hotels that are up to mark. We need high standards and the Penang state government will take the lead together with the private sector.
POLITICS You have been on the other side for quite sometime. What is the difference, being on the powerful side now? Mohamad Khairulnizam Bakeri (Universiti Teknologi Mara Malaysia)
Lim: Of course, it's an eye-opening experience; the fact that the destiny and fate of 1.5 million Penangites are on my shoulders. You feel it heavily. At night you cannot sleep. You think about the many things you haven't done and need to do.
But at the same time it is easier to get information and hopefully, the information is correct. I want to ensure that public interest is protected.
For example, planning approvals. I want to introduce in the state exco meeting that planning approvals also be required for non-Muslim places of worship.
Is there a formalised blueprint on the new state government's pledge to help bumiputras in Penang so that they are not marginalised? Ahmad Faizal Abdul Aziz (Gelugor, Penang)
Lim: When you talk about helping Penangites, you cannot just limit it to one community. It is not just the bumiputras who have been left out. The non-Malays have also been left out. We should help every Penangite in need. We should be colour-blind and if the Malays are the ones marginalised, there is no question about our commitment to helping them. Also, bear in mind that we were not the ones to marginalise the Malays. So if they say that the Malays are marginalised, are they saying that they marginalised the Malays? I am not going to play the racial game. I don’t want to compartmentalise and say that I only want to help Chinese, Indians or Malays. We want to help all Malaysians in need.
One of the major reasons the people rejected the previous government was because of the lavish lifestyle of the leaders. Can you eliminate this and focus on being down-to-earth leaders? Rizal H Ruslan (Tasek Gelugor, Penang)
Lim: Let me give you an example. For safety reasons, I was requested to move into the chief minister's official residence. The CPO said that my personal safety was his top priority.
I was making plans to do so but then I found out – typical Malaysian problem – bumbung bocor. But they just did the renovations. It will cost RM300,000 to repair but I did not want to come into my first term and spend so much money, so I am staying at my dad's place temporarily.
This is the message I want to convey – we do not want to splurge unnecessarily except for the office where you need the latest equipment.
Land alienation is another big problem. We want to make it public and do it on an auction basis. That way we can get the highest price.
The past practices were riddled with corruption and cronyism. The only way to get rid of this is through transparency and open tender and public disclosure. If we have it on the Internet, everyone in the country will have access to it.
We cannot completely eliminate abuse but we can reduce it. I believe that everyone in Penang will support it. Some people question why the same faces are always getting it but with transparency, at least even if they don't get it, they will be satisfied.
Do you think the DAP-PKR-PAS coalition will measure up and deliver in five years or less? Chooi Kah Mun (Bayan Lepas, Penang)
Lim: We have no choice; otherwise, we will be thrown out. So we have to measure up. We have to meet the expectations of the people but we hope that the people will give us the opportunity. We are under tremendous pressure from the Federal Government and certain parties that want us to fail. We cannot fail. That is not an option.
Since the rakyat has given the opportunity for the Opposition to rule five states, will the DAP, PKR and PAS change its name to Barisan Rakyat? Kelvin Chan
Lim: That is definitely on the table. We would prefer that the state governments we form with the support of all the three parties would be a push towards creating a framework for cooperation but that is still a long way down the line. Let us allow the state governments to function before we talk about the future. This is something that is definitely on the table although it wasn't in the past. This is something even the people realise. As long as some fundamental issues like freedom of religion, Islamic state, or hudud laws are not principle struggles of PAS and they want to talk about democracy, that is a positive step.
Can you comment on the fairness of mainstream media? Ng Mok Huat
Lim: Let me give you an example: A newspaper asked me what I was going to do. I said we would still go ahead with the open tender. What was reported was that Guan Eng would continue to go against the NEP. This is completely false reporting.
We have complained to Bernama and they apologised. They take responsibility and hopefully will improve on this. What we want is factual reporting. This newspaper, however, is still caught in a time warp. They are in the dinosaur age.
Can you comment on calls to boycott the mainstream media because of unfair reporting? Ng Mok Huat
Lim: I don't boycott newspapers.
What is the state government's commitment to preserving the heritage buildings in the state? Lim Sue Lin (Penangite in Kuala Lumpur)
Lim: What we are committed to is that in the planning process, we will not give blanket approval. But refurbishment and restoration is expensive. I am willing to go abroad not only to get investment but also to get funds for restoration but we must sort out the legal aspects.
If we cannot sort out these legal problems, we must see whether we can get the owners to restore the buildings.
If they cannot afford it, they should give us a lease or sell it to the government or international bodies who are interested in conservation. The question is whether this government is interested in development or conservation.
The public parking lots are full of unwanted rusty vehicles – mostly cars with flat tyres in the Sungai Dua, Gelugor and Relau areas. These have become an eyesore in Penang. Thomas Wong
Lim: We have to get enforcement officers to do it. If we can sell it to the besi karat people, we can make quite a lot of money. We will get the council to act on it.
Parking fees are not standardised and are too high in Penang. Some use meters and some issue tickets. Parking fees even stretch through 10pm during Sunday/public holidays. This system only applies in Penang. Ng Mok Huat
Lim: This also happens in other states, even in Kuala Lumpur. We haven't made an analysis but I was made to understand that this was because some areas have high demand.
Sometimes standardisation may not be possible but we will do a study. The more important issue is simply issuing summonses. That is why we cancelled all those parking summonses. I am sure many reporters were very happy because they have been victims where they pay but are still issued summonses because the number was written wrongly. We have asked MPPP to improve. We must have a review with common guidelines implemented. We don't want to create chaos unless it is creative chaos.
What are the plans to improve Komtar to its previous state? Khoo Keng Cheang (Tanjung Bunga, Penang)
Lim: The previous administration wanted this to be the shining crown of the Pearl of the Orient but as you can see, Komtar is run down and might probably be outshone by the Penang Times Square.
We have asked the PDC to come up with a plan to redevelop Komtar and probably we will have some input but Komtar is important to rejuvenate George Town. You cannot expect Penang to prosper without George Town prospering. Komtar must shine again but it must not be at the expense of the local traders. It must be a win-win situation. Our main offices are also here and we do not want to move. We should just set up branches of administration.
TOURISM What's your plan to improve Penang tourism, to the next level? William Cheah
Lim: I was meeting with Matta the other day and we were looking at macro plans. There are certain aspects that we can improve. We need more tourist attractions.
Whether aquarium or aqua tourism projects, we will consider. We want to develop more tourism attractions not so that private companies can profit but to enhance and make the places easier for people to enjoy. For example Bukit Bendera – we must improve access. Fundamental problems like cleanliness, traffic congestion and inaccessibility, and creating basic infrastructure must be addressed.
You talk about inviting tourists but you must also focus on inbound tourists. We do not understand why Penang is treated like a stepchild. We are not included in the main itinerary for tourists when the three main destinations in Peninsular Malaysia are Kuala Lumpur-Genting, Langkawi and Malacca. What about Penang, which was supposed to be the Pearl of the Orient?
We hope that with Unesco listing, we can attract more people to come here. Penang has her own natural brand name. We must build on that because this will also benefit the neighbouring states as well as Malaysia.
Penang airport is very dirty, giving tourists a bad impression. Thomas Wong (visitor to Penang)
Lim: Sometimes I also find that it is not up to mark but this is beyond my control because it does not come under my purview.
I was recently talking to Datuk Syed Mohd Aidid – he is an Umno man but he gets things done. When the Penang Port was under him, the ferry system was making money; so why not find people who are able to make money for Penang run the show again?
Now they are making losses. But I can't do anything because it is under federal.
What I am saying is appoint the right people for the job. The main criteria are that they are honest, and have a track record of getting things done.
ENVIRONMENT What are the top environmental priorities that your state government will address this year?
Yeo Bee Hong (Kota Kinabalu, Sabah)
Lim: We have to deal with cleanliness. It is a fundamental environmental issue. There is a long-term need to see how we can make Sungai Pinang and Sungai Juru not the dirtiest rivers in Malaysia and South-East Asia. These are considered level-five toxic.
One of my assemblymen plunged into one of these rivers and came out with swollen feet even though he only immersed himself for 15 minutes – you can imagine the toxic levels. It is not an open sewer – it is a toxic dump. Cleanliness and cleaning up – how can we achieve this? We definitely cannot do it in a year – no way – but we need to make some improvements to the cleanliness of these two rivers.
Gurney Drive needs your immediate attention. Could you please let us know if you have any plans to clean up Gurney Drive? Tan Phaik Chee (Persiaran Gurney, Penang)
Lim: I think this has to do with the land reclamation projects like PORR. Now the only way out is to reclaim Gurney Drive. The water current and contour changes with the tide so that is the danger of messing around with nature. Nature always has a way of getting back. So when you talk about the dirty water and the physical changes along Gurney Drive, it is not something we can change. The whole character has changed.
What we can do is to think of other methods like reclaiming an island outside to prevent silt from coming in.
We have to see the impact of the Tanjung Tokong reclamation first. We have planning approval powers so we will ask the developers to look into this. As Chief Minister of Penang, I invite you to clean up the beach of Batu Ferringhi. Anthony Fowke (Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia)
Lim: That we will try to do but I have been informed by the municipal council president that they do conduct regular checks and the beach is quite good. So to those who have complaints, please let us know or call the council. If they do not act, we will act.
Penang tap water contains too much chlorine. Thomas Wong (visitor to Penang)
Lim: The quality is not as good as before and we need to have a check with the PBA to see how we can improve. Five to 10 years ago, it was much better and I find that sad.
How would you make Penang a safer place to live where residents do not have to worry about crimes just like in the 70s and 80s. Koay LK (Jelutong Road, Penang)
Lim: We are putting in more CCTVs but the most effective way would be to increase police patrols and cut down red tape and abuses. We need more personnel.
I feel that patrolling is more effective than having more police stations. Some police stations only have one girl taking down reports at midnight. She is in danger because people can just come in and hurt her.
That's why I am saying that we need more police personnel. Instead of patrolling the streets, the police are doing administrative work. We will continue to press for this at the federal level.