Tussle for Penang begins

Message in a T-shirt: MCA ended up with zero seats in Penang in 2008 but its recent mega dinner at the Han Chiang High School grounds suggests that the people are willing to listen to what the party has to say about the future.

The election campaign has as good as begun in Penang with both sides dangling mega projects ranging from an underground sea tunnel to a monorail system to win votes.

THE spacious grounds of Penang’s prestigious Han Chiang High School has once again become the stage for opposition politics. This was the place where DAP held a series of rallies in March 2008 that launched the party into power in Penang and sent the Barisan Nasional into the opposition wilderness.

The DAP is now riding high, it has the pick of all the government-owned halls and buildings in the state for its political activities and does not need to rent the school field anymore.

On Friday evening, DAP held a grand fund-raising dinner in Pisa, the sports arena built by the previous government.

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng is also giving Barisan a taste of the old medicine by denying it access to government facilities.

The tables have turned, the Barisan is now the underdog and the opposition, struggling to find venues for its political events. Barisan is now the one turning to Han Chiang for its big-scale activities.

Last week, the private Chinese school was the venue for MCA’s mega dinner that surprisingly managed to draw a full house of about 5,000 diners. The food was nothing to shout about but the speeches had lots of punch and flavour.

It is no fun being the opposition but after almost five years of Pakatan Rakyat rule, Barisan has lots of material to work on.

Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen who is also Penang MCA chairman said she was “still in shock” that the “Kancil carpark” at the foot of Penang Hill had to be demolished because it was so shoddily designed that only a Kancil car could use the ramps.

Dr Ng is still riled that the Chief Minister had blamed the RM5mil fiasco on her ministry until she dug out files to show that the project was designed and built by the Penang Development Corporation of which Lim is the chairman.

“The hill railway has broken down so many times. They blame the snake, blame the dog ... always blaming. Even the Penang Chingay – it has been a tourist attraction for decades but I was informed the event in Butterworth was cancelled because there was a fight,” she said.

Last month, some Chingay groups were unhappy that Danny Law, the state exco in charge of tourism, had called off the annual Chingay competition after claiming there were only three interested teams. The groups approached Oh Tong Keong, the State Barisan Youth chief who then sought out some private sponsors and managed to organise the event three weeks later with 16 teams taking part. It was a slap in the face for DAP’s Law.

The annual Dragon Boat Race was also scrapped last month after yet another drowning tragedy.

Penang’s tourism, Dr Ng pointed out, is now trailing its rival Malacca.

MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek told the crowd that “when I come to Penang, I have to talk about DAP or else I cannot sleep.” But some suspect he enjoys talking about PAS even more than about DAP. After all, he and DAP’s Karpal Singh hold the dubious honour of being the “joint No. 1 enemy” of PAS members.

Han Chiang is also the venue for the Barisan’s Chinese New Year open house next week. It is going to be big, the Prime Minister will be there and Penang Barisan chairman Teng Chang Yeow said they had no choice but to rent the school field.

Strategic location

But Teng is such a political animal and the talk is that he chose the venue for quite strategic reasons.

For many Penangites, the Han Chiang school field has come to symbolise where DAP rose to power and, by virtue of that, where Barisan fell to its knees. And as the Chinese saying goes, where you fall is where you will rise up again.

Their request to use the school field had to go through the school board. The board chairman used to be the millionaire developer Tan Sri Tan Kok Ping who is known to be very close to the Chief Minister. Tan has become quite a mover and shaker in Penang politics and some businessmen said he is responsible for the perception that the Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce is pro-DAP.

The election campaign has as good as begun for both sides.

Everyone agreed that the recent Thaipusam festivities in Penang was the most politicised ever. Politicians from both sides were out there mingling with the crowds but the political presence of the ruling party was everywhere. There were lots of Rocket symbols and banners of DAP leaders along the route as well as political pamphlets left on the windscreen of cars.

“They have a lot of money. I could see the pamphlets strewn all over the roadside,” said a Penang reporter.

The giant billboard depicting Lord Murugan alongside an equally large image of Lim and several other DAP leaders was a central talking point.

Sin Chew had a big article on it with the headline: “More Tokong than the Tokong”. The phrase came from a Hindu devotee who found the billboard to be over the top.

“Both sides want the Indian vote. They are the kingmaker in a few seats,” said a Penang-based Chinese newspaper editor.

Teng, who is also Gerakan secretary-general, gave what many thought was an over-optimistic interview to an online news portal last week. His tone was that Barisan is out to recapture Penang. He probably wants to boost the morale of his troops because no general would lead his troops into war telling them they are going to lose.

Teng has an uphill task. He is up against the most powerful Chinese politician in Penang today and the term “Tokong,” introduced by Penang Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Mansor Othman to describe his boss, has stuck.

Everywhere he goes in Penang, he is told that the Chinese are still with the DAP. It is not that they think Lim is doing a fantastic job; they can see that Lim is still talking like an opposition leader and he is more skilful at opposing than in administrating a state. But they have put him on a pedestal and they want to give him another term.

Those who follow Taiwan politics have likened him to Chen Shui Bian, a fierce oppositionist who was unable to discard his confrontational style even after becoming president of Taiwan.


Both sides suffer equally from over-optimism. For instance, a DAP strategist who claimed his party could garner up to 40% of Malay votes in certain seats was thought to be hallucinating.

The reality is that while DAP has up to a 70% grip on the Chinese vote, the Malays are still suspicious of the party. They do not see DAP speaking up for their welfare and economic concerns, much less their religion.

Lim’s Christmas Day message on the Bible issue probably resulted in sending more Malays running for the door. In hindsight, he had taken the proverbial one step forward and two steps backwards. Pakatan already had the Christian vote in their pocket but in pushing further on that front, he had cost his partners in PAS and PKR precious Malay votes.

DAP insiders admit they now have only about 22-25% of Malay support.

“If the general election is held now, they cannot have another clean sweep. The Indian votes have returned, Umno has recovered the Malay areas, leaving only the Chinese areas,” said a Penang lawyer.

Barisan’s dilemma is the reverse of that faced by Pakatan. It is fighting to maintain the 30% or so Chinese support that it has but unlike Pakatan, it has about 80% of the Malay vote.

Given that, DAP and Umno are set to hold on to what they have. The seats shaking like a leaf are largely those held by PKR.

Both sides have dangled mega projects before the Penang voters.

Last week, Lim unveiled infrastructure projects totalling a whopping RM7bil. They include an undersea tunnel linking Gurney Drive to the mainland and four other highway projects that will take the island and the sea around it into the age of super-highways. One observer described it as the “most ambitious road infrastructure project since Independence”.

Barisan has promised a monorail and transport plan, financial hub in Seberang Prai and the restoration of the free port. It also promised to address the burning issue of affordable housing and revive the tourism industry.

Both coalitions are also facing problems to replace old, tired faces with more winnable candidates.

Many Barisan faces who were swept out by the political tsunami still think they are winnable and want to contest again. Teng will have his hands full in trying to put forward a credible team.

Lim’s dilemma is even greater. He is an outsider who only arrived at the Penang scene in 2008. If he tells the old-timers in Penang to ride into the sunset, they will probably turn around and tell him that he is up there because of their long years of blood, sweat and tears. No one expects the incumbents to willingly surrender their seats to some parachute candidate with no track record in the party.

Moreover, the hunger to be a candidate is tremendous in Pakatan given that it is assured of being returned to power. For the DAP candidates especially, it is like buying a sure-win lottery. Only the saints among them will make way without a fight and there are no saints in politics.

Pakatan leaders are privately rather worried about the Barisan’s “3321 formula,” that projects Gerakan and MCA winning three state seats each, Umno winning an additional two seats and MIC one. Add that to the existing 11 seats that Umno currently has and there will be a hung assembly in Penang.

Teng and Lim are in a David versus Goliath situation. The underdog cannot be under estimated while the powerful incumbent cannot be over-confident. Teng has become a clear and present danger to Lim.

> Joceline can be reached at joceline@thestar.com.my

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Politics , penang , chang yeow , chingay , guan eng , han chaing


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