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Sunday March 7, 2010

Guan Eng rides the tiger

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s hold on the Chinese in Penang is still quite complete but he should not take Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s direct approach to the community too lightly.

THE bombshell that Tun Dr Lim Keng Yaik dropped on Gerakan two days before the Chinese New Year spoilt the mood for many of his party people in Penang.

It was one of those unkindest cuts of all – a blow at the lowest point of the party’s history and during an auspicious date for the Chinese.

Fearsome year ahead: According to the Chinese zodiac, Guan Eng (left), who is born in the Year of the Ox, has to pick his fights and show restraint in the Year of the Tiger. He should also watch out for the impact of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s policies and political moves on the national stage.

“It is unfair to us. He should not demoralise us at a time when we are struggling to get back on our feet,” said Gerakan secretary-general Teng Chang Yeow.

In an interview with a business daily, Keng Yaik, who retired as president of Gerakan in 2007, declared that Gerakan had lost Penang forever.

Then, rubbing salt into the wound, he expressed doubts that his hand-picked successor Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon had what it takes to lead the party to recovery.

“There are many ways to read his statement but at the grassroots level, they are straightforward, they don’t read between the lines. They feel hurt and confused,” said Khaw Veon Szu, executive director of the party think-tank Sedar.

Some in the party were hopping mad, others resigned to the truth in his remark.

Keng Yaik was behaving in his usual cowboy fashion but he was merely stating what people have been saying on the ground, that Penang will be under Pakatan Rakyat control for the next decade or so.

Until PKR began fraying around the edges, some Barisan Nasional politicians had almost given up hope of ever coming back to power in Penang.

“It’s difficult to get up from Ground Zero, said Bagan MCA Youth chief David Chua.

The older Barisan politicians, especially, saw history repeating itself except that instead of Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, it was now Lim Guan Eng at the helm.

Ooi: ‘Allowing Teoh’s newborn son to carry his surname has softened hearts’

It is little wonder then that Gerakan’s Teng sometimes jokes to friends that there are, “too many Lims, that’s why we are in a limbo.”

Given the scenario painted by Keng Yaik, Guan Eng should be feeling pretty comfortable about the future. But he is not.

The 49-year-old Chief Minister is feeling the burden of being in power. His rise to power was sudden and it has been a sharp learning curve for him.

Now that he is entering his second year in power, he cannot continue to ride on the strength of running down the previous government. Penang people voted for them not only because they were fed-up of the previous government, but also because they want a government that could deliver.

“They should stop passing the buck,” said MCA’s Chua.

Large billboards showing Bayan Baru MP Datuk Seri Zahrain Hashim and other Pakatan leaders happily conveying Chinese New Year greetings still adorn the giant roundabout in Bayan Lepas, Penang. Things no longer seem as happy and someone had sprayed an angry, red “X” over Zahrain’s smiling face.

PKR in Penang has been rocked by the resignations of first Zahrain, then former deputy chief minister Fairus Khairuddin who joined Umno and, more recently, Nibong Tebal MP Tan Tee Beng.

It has been a hot, noisy and very politicised Chinese New Year for Guan Eng. After a fairly smooth-sailing couple of years, it is now crunch time for Guan Eng’s government.

He has made a number of populist moves such as handing out cash aide to the hard-core poor and senior citizens.

He has been shaken by rising Malay sentiments but Penangites point out that he is not a subservient Chief Minister whereas his predecessor was seen as being under the thumb of Umno.

In fact, some in the business community find him too hard-headed in that he refuses to bend the rules. Their Hokkien nickname for him is “Tee Teng Ying” (iron nails Ying), a pun on the Chinese pronunciation of his name, Lin Guan Ying.

Said Gerakan’s Khaw: “I believe there are people out there who have not given up on Gerakan. But they wanted something different and they want to give (Guan Eng) a chance. For now at least, if you attack him, you become the target.”

New lines of attack

Guan Eng also has little baggage, he is seen as a clean politician which is why his opponents, unable to attack him on corruption, have resorted to more communal lines of attack.

Party insiders say his administration is preparing to unveil its development plan for Penang which will define what they intend to do and where they want to take the state.

However, the Barisan side has finally begun to get their act together after a period of blaming each other and adjusting to the reality of being the opposition.

Khaw: ‘People have not given up on Gerakan but they want to give Guan Eng a chance’

Confidence has returned to Umno, thanks largely to their party’s national leadership. Since taking over as Umno president a year ago, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Najib has injected direction and purpose back into his party.

Guan Eng’s worry, and also that of other states with a large Chinese voter base, would be the impact of Najib’s policies and approach on the national stage.

The Prime Minister has been reaching out to the Chinese in a strategic and methodological way. Last Sunday Najib made his second visit to Sin Chew Daily, a powerful opinion shaper that is read by the Chinese elite and middle class.

He had gone there last year, two days before he was sworn in as Prime Minister. This time, he brought along his wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor.

He looked very “ong” (lucky) in a red shirt with a Sarawak motif (the billionaire owner of Sin Chew is after all from Sarawak) and tossed yee sang with the paper’s top guns.

No Prime Minister has ever visited any Chinese newspaper company, and it was a big deal for Sin Chew and those looking on.

It is evident Najib wants to engage with the community through the Chinese vernacular press. Moreover, endorsement from a newspaper like Sin Chew carries weight with the Chinese community, and which politician would not want that?

Najib has also indicated that the Government is studying the possibility of recognising the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) in Chinese secondary schools.

Students in Chinese secondary schools have to sit for two sets of examinations – the UEC as well the Government’s STPM. The UEC is recognised by a number of tertiary institutions overseas but not by the Malaysian government. As such, the students also take the STPM so that they can qualify for local universities.

The Chinese education movement, Dong Jiao Zong, has been trying for years to get the Government to recognise the UEC so that the students do not have to take two sets of exams.

“This is big. If it happens, it will have a major impact on the Chinese,” said Bayan Baru MCA vice-chairman Ooi Chuan Aik

Penang has the largest Chinese middle class population after the Klang Valley.

Issues that affect the way they vote have extended beyond ricebowl issues and Chinese education to a wider spectrum.

Political issues

For example, said Ooi, the Teoh Beng Hock tragedy angered them like no other issue but the Government’s compassion in allowing his newborn son to carry his surname has softened hearts. On the other hand, the Defence Ministry’s missing jet engines was the butt of derision from the living room to the coffeeshop.

The economy will always be important to this group of people who depend on the private sector for a living.

But the next general election, said academic Prof James Chin, will be fought on political issues.

“The economy will not be the main factor but it will be important in the sense that it will affect the way people perceive political and social issues,” said Chin.

It has never been easy dealing with the Chinese middle class, what more, in Penang where people are known to have an independent streak. On top of that, there is the growing Malay disgruntlement on the Penang ground.

Guan Eng will have to deal with all these complex issues in order for Keng Yaik’s ominous prediction to ring true.

Otherwise, Keng Yaik would willingly be proven wrong.

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