In Penang, Malaysia's ruling coalition resigned to being 'strong opposition' to Chinese-majority DAP

In Penang, Malaysia's ruling coalition resigned to being 'strong opposition' to Chinese-majority DAP

Penang is one of three Malaysian states currently held by opposition parties, with Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng credited for transforming the state into a tourism and economic hub. But as he faces graft allegations related to the purchase of his home, Mr Lim has put in place a succession plan if he is not able to contest the elections.

GEORGE TOWN: Known for its sandy beaches and heritage buildings, Penang today is a global tourist destination and manufacturing hub.

But according to Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, this was not always the case.

"There's a great difference between the past and the present,” he told Channel NewsAsia in an interview. “Penang was considered a dirty state - and people called it Penang Darul Sampah (Penang the Trash State).

"Now it's cleaner. These are the changes you can see, feel and touch."

Lim believes the changes do not stop there and it is thanks, in large part, to the opposition capturing Penang in 2008, and again in 2013, after decades of Barisan Nasional (BN) rule.

His Democratic Action Party (DAP) swept the majority of state seats both times - and they intend to ride on their successes to win Penang once more when Malaysians go to the polls for its 14th general election on May 9.

"Look at our financial performance," said Lim. "We record annual surpluses every year, unlike the federal government's yearly losses. 

"And most remarkable of all, our debts have gone down by 90 per cent - the largest drop among all states. We are the state with the lowest debts."

Penang, like the opposition coalition's only other state, Selangor, is being touted as an example of what Pakatan Harapan could do for Malaysia, if it formed the federal government.

The ruling BN had blamed its losses across the country in previous elections to a swing of ethnic Chinese voters toward the opposition.

In Penang, however, the size of the Chinese population is on par with the nation's ethnic majority, the Malays. The DAP, a largely Chinese party, had also wrested the state from another Chinese-dominated party, Gerakan, which is part of the BN coalition.

Lim, the Muslim-majority nation's only non-Muslim chief minister, said in his state - voters chose the opposition on merit.

"The Malay population is able to discern right from wrong," he said. "We shouldn't be talking about race or religion, but who can do good for the people".

Lim Guan Eng speaks to CNA
Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng speaks to Channel NewsAsia's Sumisha Naidu. 

BN seems resigned to the fact that for now, at least, Penangites still largely believe the opposition are the ones delivering this “good”.

"There's no point in us again adopting a strategy of trying to take back the government - which we know is rather impossible at this point in time," BN’s Penang chief Teng Chang Yeow told Channel NewsAsia.

"We'd rather become a voice for the people in the state assembly; stopping or altering policies, amending policies that the people are angry with at this point in time."

He added: "We know there'll be questions why there are calls by leaders at national level for us to retake Penang.

“We just can't go to our missionaries and say we're not going to win but we're going to war. We still have to tell them, we're going to win."


Despite BN's goal to be a strong opposition rather than forming government, the popular chief minister subscribes to the belief that there are no guarantees in politics. For him, this rings especially true.

Lim is facing a corruption trial that could send him to jail and bar him from politics for five years.

The case has been postponed to allow him to prepare for the general election - but he believes the charges are a bid to take down the DAP in Penang.

Still, he said, all good governments must have a succession plan. In Penang’s case, the DAP's state party chairman, Chow Kon Yeow, is poised to take over from Lim should the latter be convicted.

"We have presented it to the state convention and it was accepted and also presented it to the public and it’s widely accepted," he said.

"I think this won't be a problem because we work as a team; this is not an individual effort. Our successes - and whatever we have achieved – has been done through team effort."

There have been other corruption investigations opened into Penang state government projects, however, which BN believes could eventually be its undoing despite DAP's insistence that it is a cleaner government than its predecessors.

"There are many issues that we've raised that show a lack of accountability, a lack of competency and a lack of transparency," said BN’s Teng.

"We've been asking for agreements they’ve signed with developers for projects under their so-called Freedom of Information Act. Out of the 20 applications we made, 19 were rejected.”

The BN has also been pushing a narrative nationwide that the DAP is anti-Malay and anti-Muslim - arguments likely to be pedalled in the Malay-majority areas of Penang too.

Lim, however, has faith in his constituents.

"I sense that I'm bullied just because I'm a Malaysian who is not a Malay or a Muslim. Even Malays feel I'm bullied because of that," he said.

"By trying to pick on me just because I'm not a Muslim or a Malay will allow people to judge us by our performance. And at the end of the day, people will choose a government that can deliver.”

Source: CNA/rw