IT is rare to see the current and former chief ministers of Penang together but there they were, sharing the same stage at a heritage event at one of the most historical sites in George Town.
But going by the expressions on their faces, they seemed less than thrilled unlike the host of the occasion, Zhang Wei Lu, who was seated between them.
Zhang, a wealthy and good-looking businessman and currently chairman of the Penang Chinese Clans Association, looked buoyant and confident even though he is embroiled in a brewing dispute with the state government. His composure was all the more remarkable given the news reports in the Chinese vernacular press about his personal life just days earlier.
At the heart of Zhang’s dispute with the state government is a heritage property in George Town known as “50, Love Lane” which is historically connected to the Ghee Hin secret society in the 1800s.
The trustees who oversaw the property have died, leaving behind a backlog of unpaid property charges that resulted in the property being forfeited by the state.
The association has been trying for years to redeem the property but things took on an accelerated tone after Zhang came into the picture and discussions with the state government became strained along the way. The ties were also marred by disputes over state allocations for the association’s cultural events.
Things came to a head last week at the association’s annual heritage festival.
The Chinese clans and guilds have long been a part of local politics in Penang and politicians tend to dance around them because of their perceived clout over the community.
Over the years, it has been the practice for the chief minister of the day to attend but relations with the state government had grown so awkward this year that Zhang’s invitations to the state exco drew a blank. Only one state exco said he would be there.
As a result, the association turned to former chief minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon to launch its event.
Dr Koh was said to be quite reluctant because he had made a clinical cut with all things political after retiring from politics. His status on Facebook is listed as “Writer” and he has been working on his memoirs.
It is understood that Dr Koh only agreed to attend after Zhang told him that Lim Guan Eng would not be able to make it. Dr Koh is not the confrontational type and he was not interested in getting into a conflict.
But according to Zhang, a day before the event, he was informed that Lim would be attending. It was too late to change the arrangements and that was how Zhang found himself sandwiched between the sitting and former chief ministers.
That was when things took a rather political turn. Zhang made what some thought was a rather political speech. He praised Dr Koh for his contributions to the state and thanked him and the former state government for laying the foundation for George Town’s Heritage City status.
There is a Chinese saying, jie dao sha ren (borrow a knife to slay someone), and those watching on could see that Zhang was using Dr Koh to hit out at the state government.
It was a significant moment because members of the former state government had been treated like the proverbial black sheep since 2008 and Dr Koh had been like some kind of invisible man in Penang where he lives.
“It was the first time a big Chinese association had openly acknowledged and thanked Dr Koh for his contributions,” said Gerakan politician Dr Thor Teong Ghee.
Zhang also used the occasion to hit out at politicians for their “dirty politics” and for attacking him on personal matters.
He was referring to Chinese press reports quoting some DAP politicians who had dug into Zhang’s academic background.
The Chinese media often refers to him as “Dr Zhang” but checks by the DAP side showed that he did not complete his medical studies in Taiwan and they also questioned reports that he had furthered his studies in the Philippines.
There was also an awkward protocol moment which some thought was disrespectful to the Chief Minister. Normally, the highest ranking guest speaks last but Dr Koh was the final speaker.
The former and current chief ministers are as different as night and day and it was reflected in their respective speeches.
Lim was his usual combative self. He elaborated on his achievements for Penang and at one point, he sort of challenged Dr Koh to contest the general election and let the people decide on who they wanted.
But he did indicate that the state government would abide by the law on the “50, Love Lane” issue and he urged the association to consult their lawyers to find a solution.
Dr Koh played the gentleman politician. He said Penang’s Heritage City status was a long and challenging effort that would not have been possible without the input of his state exco members and the backing of the federal authorities.
“It is also the success of the people, of the different races, so we have to preserve it for the future generations,” he said.
The issue of “50, Love Lane” has become more complicated now that it has strayed into political waters.
Jelutong MP Jeff Ooi, who has a weekly column in the Penang-based Kwong Wah Yit Poh newspaper, had written on the issue: “Politicians and office-bearers come and go but the assets of the community are forever. We have to think of the long-term interests of the community. We have our expiry date and his (Zhang) expiry date is May next year.”
It was a signal to Zhang that his term as association chairman will end in May and he should not delay the legal process if he wants to be part of the solution.
Is the “50, Love Lane” issue a sign of the shifting tides in Penang Chinese politics?