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Saturday December 8, 2012

Tough issue hits home in Penang

Affordable housing in Penang has become the Achilles Heel of the DAP-led government and the Prime Minister will be aiming his arrow for that particular spot when he arrives in Penang today.

PENANG people are known to get worked up over unusual things. A well-known NGO in Penang has been going about hugging some trees that have to make way for Penang’s burgeoning traffic.

It was quite sweet to see S.M. Mohamed Idris, the president of the Consumers Association of Penang, with his arms wrapped around a tree trunk.

But the hottest issue for most Penang folk today is affordable housing. It is not a new issue. It has been there since Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon was the Chief Minister and it was probably one of the reasons that pushed Penang voters to change the government.

The temperature is rising because the shortage of affordable housing remains a major headache for Pen­ang people.

Affordable housing has become the Achilles Heel of the DAP-led government in the state.

Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s visit to Penang today is seen as an arrow aimed at this Achilles Heel.

The Prime Minister’s visit is preceded by Perumahan Rakyat 1Malaysia (PR1MA), announcing that some 80,000 affordable homes are to be built in 50 cities and towns over the next three years. The fact that Najib is launching the initiative in Penang is a sign that his coalition wants to respond to the needs of the Penang people and that he has not given up on winning their support. Penangites will get the first shot at registering for the units.

It looks like affordable housing is set to become a big election issue in Penang. Pakatan Rakyat politicians claimed they have built thousands of low-cost houses while their Barisan Nasional opponents think the claims are more fictitious than real.

“I’m a Penangite and in the last four years, I have not come across any state low-cost housing scheme. Honestly, if there are any, I would know because I keep a lookout for such things and I am sure it would have appeared in the media. But it is only talked about at DAP ceramah and everyone has a different figure,” said Penang Gerakan vice-chairman Wong Mun Hoe.

The figures bandied about by various personalities in the state government have ranged from 300 units of low-cost houses to an astonishing 14,702 units built since 2008.

According to Mun Hoe, the 300 units mentioned was probably right because the project in the Bayan Lepas area had begun under the Barisan Nasional administration and was completed two years ago.

But Mun Hoe is quite mystified about claims that more than 14,000 of affordable housing have been built in the state.

The figure came from state Housing, Urban and Town Planning Committee chairman Wong Hon Wai who cited the issuance of 14,702 CFs or certificates of fitness for low-cost and low medium-cost houses since 2008 as proof that the state had provided ample affordable housing.

Hon Wai’s remarks were the latest addition to what has been a trail of confusing statements about the state government’s record on low-cost housing. Different people from the state government have come up with different figures.

It all began when the Auditor-General’s Report of 2011 stated that the Penang Government had not built a single low-cost house from 2008 to 2010.

The report also praised the state for its good financial situation which sort of put the state government in a fix because they could not deny the reprimand while accepting the pat on the back.

But the Auditor-General’s Report started a flurry of reactions from the Penang Government and that was when all sorts of figures started rolling out.

Shortly after that report, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng said that a total 11,000 low-cost homes had been built in the state.

His political secretary Zairil Khir Johari followed up with a different but equally impressive figure.

The Barisan side were looking at each other in askance.

These people used to be the government and they know what is involved in building low-cost houses.

The figures thrown out were simply too incredible.

Earlier this week, MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek asked where all these thousands of state low-cost houses were located.

Like many others, he is beginning to think it is all hot air.

The figures are getting bigger but the houses seem to be invisible.

“If all these houses had really been built, do you think we would be here asking questions?” Mun Hoe asked.

It was against this backdrop that the Taman Manggis issue, where land meant for low-cost housing was sold to a company to build a hotel and private hospital, became so controversial. Taman Manggis is a tiny plot of land and using it for another purpose would not have raised eyebrows if the state had been doing its part in providing low-cost homes.

“First, they have not been building low-cost houses. Then, they sell land meant for the poor to the private sector.

“After we made noise, they said land had been set aside in Jalan S.P. Chelliah for low-cost housing. It sounded like a knee-jerk reaction,” said Wong.

There have also been announcements that thousands of units of affordable housing will be built in Batu Kawan on the Seberang Prai side.

But that had also raised questions about whether all the rich folk will be living on the island while the poor end up on the mainland.

The Penang Government has been put on the defensive over the issue of affordable housing and PR1MA’s big launch today will only add to the pressure.

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