Sunday April 29, 2012
Cracking the ‘eggs’ in Penang
By JOCELINE TAN
Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng wants voters to deliver ‘telur’ or eggs to his opponents in the general election. But the Barisan Nasional is now out to ‘break the eggs’ and become a credible Opposition in Penang.
UMNO politician Datuk Zainal Abidin Othman’s status as an “eligible widower” is apparently about to come to an end.
Friends of the former Nibong Tebal MP had pressed him to remarry after his wife Datin Shazarina Shamsuddin died of cancer two years ago. They have tried to introduce him to suitable ladies – some even sent photographs – but his heart and mind have been too full of politics.
“I’ll have to decide soon; my friends think it’s not good to be alone,” said the Penang Umno chief.
The tipping point was not the loneliness but when his youngest child told him he had to stand on a chair in class because he did not have a textbook he was supposed to have. That was when Zainal realised he needed a partner and his children a mother. He said he is looking for someone who is, in his words, sejuk mata memandang (able to make him feel relaxed and calm after a hectic day), although his friends joke that politics will be Zainal’s “first wife” at least until the general election is over.
Politics in Penang is about to get hotter even though the heat is unlikely to melt Pakatan Rakyat’s hold on the State.
After more than four years in the wilderness, the Barisan Nasional side has been humbled and is resigned to the fact that it will be the opposition for another term.
“We have made mistakes, we are not perfect but we are trying to be better. We are asking the people to give some seats to the Opposition,” said Zainal.
Both Gerakan and MCA ended up with zero seats in 2008 and this time around, their aim, as Gerakan politician Dr Thor Teong Gee put it, is to phua khong, a Hokkien phrase for “break the zero”.
The phua khong slogan was, quite ironically, inspired by none other than Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng. Guan Eng had, with his usual bravado, declared at a DAP dinner that Penang voters should give the Barisan telur or egg, meaning, zero seats.
“We want to be a constructive Opposition, to fight and speak out,” said Dr Thor, a medical doctor who lost to DAP’s Jeff Ooi in Jelutong in 2008.
The battle line is clearly drawn but going by the rumbling on the ground, Pakatan may lose its two-thirds majority. Barisan has 11 State seats against Pakatan’s 29. It needs only three more seats to break the two-thirds stranglehold and it will be a huge psychological boost if it succeeds.
“The general feeling is that we can hold on to the State but there are vulnerable seats that need attention,” said Penang DAP chairman and State exco member Chow Kon Yeow.
Guan Eng is still hugely popular among his Chinese base and can do no wrong in their eyes. He remains their street-fighting hero. The State Government’s Buletin Mutiara, which is distributed free to many households, is filled with photographs of him grinning broadly, attending dinners, inspecting project sites and carrying babies.
His feel-good policies of cash payments to senior citizens and newborns have gone down extremely well with ordinary people. But more than four years down the road, he is not as untouchable as when he swept into power.
The non-stop Umno-bashing and that infamous habit of blaming Umno for everything that goes wrong has made even non-Malays uncomfortable. DAP’s relations with the bulk of Malays in Penang has not improved and if the Indian Muslims here actually bothered to read the racist and insulting remarks that DAP cybertroopers make about mamaks, they would run off in all directions.
There are also murmurings among the business and industrial community about Guan Eng’s style of decision-making and his tendency towards political speeches even at non-political events. He stunned some of his own party people during a Deepavali event last year when he started attacking the Barisan in his speech. Some of the Indians present thought a more reconciliatory speech would have gone down better for the festive celebration.
At one Phor Thor dinner during his second year as Chief Minister, Guan Eng made a politically-charged speech saying that MCA stood for “Money Collecting Agency” and Mahu Cari Angpow.
The Hungry Ghost or Phor Thor month is an important festival in Penang where politicians of all stripes come together to raise funds for Chinese schools. But Guan Eng is not from Penang and he was unaware that politicians avoid partisan politics during Phor Thor and talk instead about cultural issues.
David Chua, the Bagan MCA Youth chief, was so riled up he walked up to the VVIP table and said angrily to those seated there: “What kind of CM is this? No manners.”
“The CM has strong views; he is an action-oriented person. Like the rest of us, he is new to government. We are trying to work as a team,” said Chow.
The controversial Bayan Mutiara land deal has also raised questions among the thinking class. The layman cannot be bothered with the intricacies of the deal but the thinking class has read Penang-born intellectual Khoo Kay Peng’s article on Bayan Mutiara and he made more sense to them than Guan Eng’s circular explanation.
“I love Penang, my views are sincere but the cybertroopers went crazy and called me all kinds of names,” said Khoo.
People like Khoo and a number of the key NGOs that Penang is so famous for are no longer looking at the Pakatan set-up through rose-tinted glasses. Guan Eng had been on their side during his opposition days but it is a different story now that he is on top. They do not understand his new-found inclination for mega projects and are starting to dispute his “Government knows best” style.
Another local milestone was Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon’s confirmed exit from Penang politics which, according to Penang Gerakan vice-chairman Wong Mun Hoe, has switched up the pressure on Guan Eng because Dr Koh is no longer there as a punching bag.
The Gerakan people are quite incensed that the DAP has tried to compare Guan Eng to Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu.
“They attacked Chong Eu for decades, now they say Guan Eng is the next Chong Eu. It’s a joke. Chong Eu is a Penang-born giant. He had vision, he believed in uniting people and carried himself with dignity,” said Wong.
The political situation in Penang has been simmering. The Barisan side has gone through hell and back and, if it is any consolation, all is not well in the Pakatan paradise either.
The tsunami swept in calibre as well as trash or what Ooi, the Jelutong MP, refers to as “tsunami YBs”. Some, like Jelutong MP Ooi, adapted quickly. He speaks the sing-song Penang Hokkien and made a name for himself fighting on housing issues in his constituency.
Ooi is an Internet-savvy activist but admitted that the mainstream media is still the preferred way to reach the everyday masses. As a result, he has two columns – translated from English – in Guangming Daily, Penang’s most popular Chinese vernacular paper.
But other YBs have fumbled, several have flopped and there is unhappiness on the ground about their poor delivery. One of the “tsunami YBs” was apparently a party worker who used to hang around Lim Kit Siang’s house in Penang, running errands for the family and even washing the family car. No one thought he had a chance when the family rewarded his devotion and put him up as a candidate.
But he won and that was when they found out he does not speak Bahasa Malaysia and could not even conduct a meeting. His education background is rarely mentioned because it is alleged that he only completed Form 3.
Among the exco members, only Chow and Sungai Puyu assemblyman Phee Boon Poh seem to know what they are up there for. Pakatan insiders refer to one of the junior exco members as a “political shipwreck” and one of the two Deputy Chief Ministers as a “lame duck”. They question what the exco members for tourism and housing have been doing because tourism promotion has been below par and the State has no low-cost housing programme to speak of.
The irony is that the Chinese in Penang are probably going to overlook all these because they are not done with punishing Umno.
“I was attracted to their promises to Penang but what they do is different from what they say. They cannot stand people who ask too many questions,” said lawyer Lim Boo Chang who quit PKR after a public fallout over the controversial sPICE development project.
The inability of PKR and PAS to hold on to the Malay vote has diminished its standing in the eyes of DAP leaders. Most of the soft seats are currently held by PKR and they include Machang Bubuk, Bukit Tengah, Sungai Bakap, Batu Uban and Batu Maung.
The inside talk is that Datuk Dr Mansor Ismail may be replaced as Deputy Chief Minister after the election because he dares to stand up to the Chief Minister. Guan Eng is said to prefer Batu Maung assemblyman Malik Kassim who is more agreeable and whom detractors call “Lim Malik”.
Then there is what one Penang journalist calls the Tosai-Capati tussle between Deputy Chief Minister Dr P. Ramasamy and DAP chairman Karpal Singh. Guan Eng pronounced that the fight was over but some have likened it to a Bollywood movie that is still playing to a full house.
Talk of PAS deputy president Mohamad Sabu getting a seat in Penang has also fizzled out. Apparently, he cannot find a safe Malay seat which says a lot about the Malay sentiment in Penang. Even Guan Eng’s blue-eyed boy Zairil Khir Johari is likely to be fielded in a Chinese majority seat rather than be tested in a Malay seat.
Umno big names like Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop are winnable candidates and they are being pressed to defend their seats in Kepala Batas and Tasik Gelugor. Zainal aka Nibong Tebal’s most eligible widower was reportedly offered the Kepala Batas seat which is whiter than Nibong Tebal where he lost in 2008.
But Zainal said: “Win or lose, I will face the voters in Nibong Tebal.”
People like to talk politics in Penang, and a lot of the conversation revolves around Guan Eng. They are still willing to give him another chance but they are also starting to ask questions.
“It’s going to be a tough election. But we are starting from Ground Zero, we are the underdog this time. The pressure is on them,” said Wong.