The Pakatan Harapan-led Penang government is powerful with little opposition, literally.
There are only three Opposition members in the state assembly, whose performances can only be termed as decent at best so far.
Two of them – Umno’s Nor Hafizah Othman (Permatang Berangan) and PAS’ Mohd Yusni Mat Piah (Penaga) –- are new faces while Umno’s Muhamad Yusoff Mohd Noor is the incumbent for Sungai Dua.
After witnessing the state assembly proceedings last year, I sorely miss the experience of Umno’s seasoned politicians.
The coming state assembly meeting this month would be lively with heated debates if former Pulau Betong assemblyman Datuk Dr Muhammad Farid Saad and former Teluk Bahang assemblyman Datuk Shah Headen Ayoob Hussain Shah were still around.
Former Opposition Leader Datuk Jahara Hamid or ex-Bertam assemblyman Shariful Azhar Othman would have kept Pakatan Harapan exco members on their toes.
I expect two massive projects to dominate the debates, which start this Friday.
The first will be Penang South Reclamation (PSR), which has received the blessings of the National Physical Planning Council with 18 points of advice.
The project is aimed at reclaiming three islands off the south of Penang island to generate funds for the RM46bil Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP).
Another project will be the Pan Island Link 1 (PIL 1), which the Department of Environment (DoE) had given the Environment Impact Assessment approval with 56 conditions.
This 19.5km highway, a component of the PTMP, will connect Gurney Drive to Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway near Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone.
Since the announcement of the two projects, the backlash from civil society and non-governmental organisations had been swift.
But I must commend Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow for weathering the storm quite well.
With the Opposition being perceived as weak, it’s time the Pakatan backbenchers stepped up by raising questions on PSR and PIL 1, or other subjects like affordable housing, flood mitigation projects, tourism and many others.
They must press the Chief Minister and state exco members for answers, as I believe many people are either being or will be affected by these projects.
In the last assembly meeting, I watched Kebun Bunga assemblyman Jason Ong question the need for the planned undersea tunnel when there are already two bridges and the ferry service.
Despite being given a dressing down by state exco member Phee Boon Poh, Ong’s courage was admirable.
This is the kind of debate which must happen at the assembly, where government backbenchers must have their voices heard and continuously fight for their constituents.
They must not just go with the flow, simply become a ‘Yes’ man and heap praises and accolades on the government of the day.
But don’t get me wrong as I am a strong believer of the need to toe party lines. I believe partisan politics should prevail and every member of a coalition should vote with the party if a motion is tabled.
One must accept the fact that he was elected because of the party, and make sure he does not break away when a motion is tabled by voting with the Opposition or abstaining from voting.
Chow, in an interview with The Star, once said that in a healthy democracy, when there is a weak Opposition, backbenchers play a more active role in scrutinising government policy.
He said a new check-and-balance in the ruling coalition could emerge to play this role of checking the government on the use of public funds and policy.
It’s been almost a year since the Yang Berhormat were elected into the office.
The backbenchers should be vocal and seek answers from the state government on election promises which have not been fulfilled.
It’s time the august House was used for an effective and meaningful discourse on issues that affect the public.
Assemblymen should perform responsibly and make a stand on issues for the sake of their constituents.
Two former assemblymen – Yap Soo Huey and Teh Yee Cheu – come to mind in this aspect.
I can see Machang Bubok assemblyman Lee Khai Loon in the same mould as well.