It is essentially a battle – with the next general election in mind – over the performance of the Pakatan Rakyat state government and its frosty relationship with the federal government.
Guan Eng wants the people, especially the Penangites, to show that he has been unfairly treated by a civil servant who shows little respect for him and yet has the backing of the federal government.
The Barisan Nasional, on the other hand, wants to impress upon the public that Guan Eng has not been able to rule the state smoothly and that with the DAP running the show, such regular political turbulence would not benefit the people.
Under the previous Gerakan-led state government, there were no such hiccups with Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon maintaining friendly ties with both the federal government and the civil service.
But it is not as easy as it seems. In Penang, Guan Eng is still strong even two years after sweeping into power.
Public opinion is with him on the issue. Generally, the sentiment is that Nik Ali has gone overboard by calling the CM biadap (disrespectful) and dayus (coward).
DAP supporters are questioning how a civil servant could show up at an Umno press conference, distribute prepared press statements to reporters and fire salvos at the CM.
The feeling is that Nik Ali has breached the General Orders and yet has the backing of the civil service and Cabinet, thus creating a dangerous precedent.
Nik Ali’s supporters, however, have countered that Guan Eng is to be blamed as he had been picking on Nik Ali for the past two years on the latter’s purported roles in three projects – the arches in Botanical Garden, the Penang Hill funicular train service and the alleged sand mining in Balik Pulau.
Nik Ali’s backers have also accused the CM of calling him incompetent, useless, unprofessional, a coward, and asked for his sacking.
The CM, they said, could have fired at the civil service or even the Barisan – as politicians often do – instead of aiming at an individual. This line of action, they said, was also unprecedented.
Understanding the pulse of Penangites well, Gerakan and the MCA have taken a much softer line. Both parties have asked Guan Eng to resolve the issue with Nik Ali rather than become involved in a verbal boxing ring and have it turn into a political controversy.
One soft point being played to the maximum is that at the launch of the Penang Hill funicular service, the CM was not even allocated a seat.
Umno has, however, produced a photograph of Guan Eng being seated at the function.
The two Chinese-based parties must have been astute enough to realise that whacking Guan Eng would not gain them political mileage. Penangites are known to be anti-establishment and they have kicked out three Chief Ministers in the country’s history.
Dr Koh, who is the Gerakan president, said the better way would be to handle federal civil servants professionally.
He said his predecessor Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu encountered similar problems when Gerakan was in the opposition – before joining the Barisan.
He said Dr Lim chose to tackle the issues at closed-door meetings or questioned the officers concerned in private or took up the matter with the federal agency concerned.
Penang MCA adviser Datuk Koay Kah Huah has asked Guan Eng and Nik Ali to get on with the job, pointing out that the squabbling would not benefit Penangites.
The Barisan leaders at the federal level, however, must have taken a broader view of the controversy. Umno leaders have taken advantage of the issue to press home the point that this is what happens if you have an opposition-led state.
The Cabinet backed Nik Ali, pointing out that the officer had been blamed for matters that were not even within his jurisdiction, and that Guan Eng had acted unfairly to score political points, knowing well that bashing a civil servant would be a popular move.
They probably also have in mind the huge votes coming from the civil service and that it made political sense to back Nik Ali.
There are a million civil servants in Malaysia, one of the largest in the world.
The reality is that no government can function if civil servants, whether at state or federal level, do not cooperate with political leaders.
Selangor Mentri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim was more sensible, going around to meet the state’s top civil servants personally to ensure he does not run into a storm which he may not win.
As civil servants, they may be expected to be civil and servants to the nation but they can certainly wreak havoc in the running of their administration. After all, political leaders come and go but the civil servants remain.
Guan Eng must have surely watched the popular ‘80s British satirical political sitcom Yes Minister to appreciate how civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby – who was actually holding the powers – manipulated Administrative Minister James Hacker. If he hasn’t, he had better do so now.
But in the end, Guan Eng may have gained enough political sympathies from Penangites but Nik Ali, as he has been told, would still remain in Penang.
The two can either swallow their egos, sit down and thrash things out or have a go at each other again in another round. Let’s face it: it will be a stalemate as they are stuck with each other.