Sunday September 2, 2012
Doing battle over land deals
By JOCELINE TAN
Barisan Nasional politicians have been on the warpath over the way the Penang state government has been selling off land to private developers.
PENANG’S famous Esplanade has been quite a political hotspot ever since the Speaker’s Square was located there. It is the Pakatan Rakyat government’s gesture towards democracy and free speech in the state.
But things got a little too hot last weekend when a blue truck drove up to the spot and the occupants on board launched an instant ceramah criticising the state for selling off land to private developers.
It was the Barisan Nasional’s mobile war truck, a refurbished mini lorry that opens up into a small ceramah stage, equipped with sound system and projection screen. The mobile war truck idea came about after Barisan was denied the use of public community halls and fields for ceramah purposes by the Pakatan government. It immediately drew a small crowd of mostly curious onlookers.
But Speaker’s Square is said to be patrolled by loyal DAP supporters, who hang around the place, ready to heckle speakers who criticise their party. That was more or less what happened last Sunday. Jeers and boos erupted from several people when state Barisan Youth chief Oh Tong Keong, who is a superb Hokkien speaker, began his “Penang For Sale” talk.
“We know you were angry and decided to vote for them. But we must vote for a government that works hard, creates jobs, builds affordable houses, not a government that sells off the people’s land. Penang people like to shop during cheap sales, but Penang land is not for cheap sale. One day, Lim Guan Eng may even decide to sell off Komtar,” said Oh who is also Penang Gerakan Youth chief.
Oh and his Gerakan colleagues have been a thorn in the side of the Pakatan government over the sale of public land.
The most controversial transaction thus far has been Taman Manggis, a piece of land in the heart of George Town that the Barisan administration allocated for housing for the poor and which the Pakatan government has reportedly sold to a company to build a hotel and private medical centre.
Oh said it was “taking from the poor to give to the rich” and named Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng “land broker of the year”. Oh’s team also asked about a certain “Miss P” who owns the bungalow rented out to Lim and who apparently has links to the hotel and medical centre project.
Lim retaliated by slamming Oh as “brainless, childish, immoral, dirty and shameless” while also accusing him of dragging the owner of his rented residence into politics. But strangely enough, he did not deny the alleged connection of “Miss P” to the project.
The string of names shot Oh to some degree of fame and as he stood on top of the truck last weekend, he held up the Chinese language newspaper of the report.
“It’s okay, he can scold me, I don’t mind. It’s also okay that Guan Eng couldn’t build any low-cost houses. But it is not okay for him to take land from poor people to give to rich people,” he said, as some people clapped while the DAP supporters booed.
By then, one of the DAP guardians in the audience was using a loud hailer to shout down Oh. It was Malaysian-style democracy at work; people are all free speech but they only like it when the speaker is saying things that they want to hear.
Incidentally, there was a “war casualty”; the man with the loud hailer was so worked up over the war truck ceramah, he suffered chest pains and had to be hospitalised. However, he had several VIP visitors the next day in the form of Lim, state exco member Phee Boon Poh and assemblyman Ng Wei Aik and there were bouquets of flowers around his bed.
But the funniest part of the Barisan war truck incident was that Lim condemned it as an illegal assembly and threatened to use the illegal assembly law against them. This was coming from the man whose party used to condemn the illegal assembly legislation.
“If they do it again, I will inform the police and MPPP (Penang Island City Council) to take action,” Lim said.
There has been too much emphasis on glamour projects and too little on rakyat-type of projects. It was only after the Taman Manggis case exploded that the state government quickly said they would allocate a site for low-cost housing. Among all the DAP YBs, only Jelutong MP Jeff Ooi has spoken out and made a stand on housing for the poor.
After the 2008 victory, DAP strategists and advisers had the impression that Penangites were starved for development. The party’s developer friends had complained about Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon’s cautious approach on development and they thought the way into the hearts of Penangites would be through more development
Lim announced a barrage of mega projects which he thought would impress Penang folk but proposals like the undersea tunnel and super-highways have backfired. The protests against unchecked hillslope projects also came as a shock to his government.
Mega projects bring a lot of side effects and should not be rushed through without proper studies and planning. It is quite ironic that while people complained that Dr Koh did not bring more development, the complaint now is that Lim is too pro-development.
“People do not mind development but it also means more people and cars. Penangites want assurances about traffic and the environment. They want sustainable development,” said Datuk Richard Jong, the new deputy president of the Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
The Barisan side can understand why Lim is into mega projects – he wants to build his legacy and leave a visible mark. But they are puzzled why Lim is selling off plots of land belonging to the state and MPPP – from the sale of the 41ha Bayan Mutiara land to smaller lots in the city.
Lim could have saved himself a lot of trouble by being more upfront about the land sales. It is possible some of these smaller properties are sitting there not generating any income. Selling them would add to the state’s coffers and provide revenue to fund future projects.
Instead, he has claimed that he is doing it to “save money for the people”.
When the opposition queried him about the land sales, Lim demanded that they show proof of what they are saying – which is ridiculous because the onus is on Lim and his team, as public servants, to explain and defend their decisions.
All this has paved the way for his opponents to conclude that the state’s Freedom of Information Act and its CAT policy to promote competency, accountability and transparency are just for show.
Basically, Lim’s critics think it is wrong to sell off public land without a good reason. Land is a scarce commodity especially on the island and they think that it should be developed via joint-venture so that the property remains in public hands. Moreover, they claimed that some of these transactions were below market value.
Gerakan publicity chief Dr Thor Teong Ghee has been very critical of the Bayan Mutiara deal for several reasons. He said the land, which the previous government had intended for the new state government complex, was sold at below market value. Secondly, it was sold to a developer whom he claimed did not have a sound track record.
There has been no clear explanation about how the land is to be developed and Dr Thor’s fear is that instead of developing it, the new owner may break it in smaller parcels and resell at a hefty profit.
“Just imagine, it would be like Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu earmarking a huge tract of land to develop as the Free Trade Zone and selling it to one company to do as he likes,” he said.
Those on the Barisan side know what they are doing may not necessarily change people’s mind about the DAP but they say Lim has got away with too many baseless accusations. They are telling him not to simply blame or accuse the previous government. They say they are not going to take it lying down; they are fighting back.
For instance, when Lim wanted to appoint Datuk Patahiyah Ismail as MPPP president in 2009, it was pointed out that the Local Government Act 1976 states that the president has to also be a councillor but the 24 councillor posts were already filled.
When Penang Gerakan chairman Datuk Dr Teng Hock Nan, a former MPPP president, questioned the legality of Patahiyah’s appointment, Lim accused Dr Teng of being anti-woman and slammed him as “chou nan ren (bad man)”. Dr Teng had made a valid observation but Lim was then riding so high that he could say and do what he liked.
The hate and blame game was quite entertaining for some people in the first few years but after four years, even DAP people are growing uncomfortable about it. State exco member Chow Kon Yeow has told reporters that it is time to act like the government of the day and take responsibility.
Dr Koh’s administration was not perfect, it had weaknesses and mistakes but it was certainly not as terrible as Lim has painted it out to be.
Dr Koh was a real Penang-born gentleman, he did not shout at journalists or bar them from his press conferences. He did not simply call people liars and racists just because they questioned what he did.
He did not blame people when things went wrong nor did he claim credit for what he did not do and he has made a graceful exit. Journalists are beginning to appreciate Dr Koh for his finer points just as they are starting to see the real Lim.
Lim seems to have his back against the wall over the land sales especially on the Taman Manggis land case. It looks real bad for a government to sell land meant for the poor to build a hotel and private hospital. It is an emotive issue and it has refused to go away simply because the answers from the state have not been convincing at all.
Last week, when Lim was asked about it for the umpteenth time, he exploded and said it was all lies created by Teng Chang Yeow (Penang Barisan chief) and that Teng would sell off the whole of Penang if he became Chief Minister.
Two days later, Dr Thor returned fire – he said that Lim had sold the land, the sea and even the sky of Penang. The land referred to the land sales, the sea referred to Lim’s plans for an undersea tunnel and the sky referred to the increased building density that some developers are enjoying.
It is game on. There will be no elegant silence on both sides.