Ripple effect of undersea tunnel on Penang govt

File pix of Penang undersea tunnel project.

THE Penang government's undersea tunnel project had courted controversy right from the start.

The undersea tunnel was the biggest and most ambitious project in Penang since the iconic Penang Bridge, and drew a broad range of reactions.

But few had expected it to come to this – to see Lim Guan Eng, the man behind the vision, facing graft charges in court.

Moreover, the case involving the former finance minister and Penang chief minister is happening even before the ripples over the conviction of former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak for 1MDB-related charges have subsided.

The aftershocks of the March political earthquake that brought down the Pakatan Harapan government have also stopped.

The year 2020 will be known for the devastating effects of Covid-19 – but in Malaysia, it is also the year of high-profile corruption trials.

Trials involving Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor and Umno president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi are ongoing.

Lim, who is also DAP secretary-general, claims the charge against him is politically-motivated and aimed at tarnishing his reputation as an Opposition MP.

He got a huge boost from Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who seemed to agree that Lim was a victim of politics.

"There will be some impact on DAP. The party will have to roll out the political rhetoric to hold onto its base," said former MP and Jelutong DAP deputy chairman Jeff Ooi.

Ooi said DAP, on its official Facebook account, has taken the line that there was no gratification involved, the project was done through an open tender and not a single sen was paid.

"That will be the mantra, a plea for sympathy – but will people buy it?" asked Ooi.

Opinion out there is divided and highly partisan, going by social media chatter.

However, it is not difficult to do fact checking. Commentators have pointed out that the tunnel project was awarded via a Request for Proposal or RFP which does not amount to an open tender and that the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) had not closed the case as claimed.

Lim's legal woes will also have repercussions on the Penang government now led by Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow.

Chow's administration was in the news after MACC officers showed up at the state government's Komtar office a week ago.

The MACC had called on several of his state exco members regarding the undersea tunnel project and reports say two politicians who were state exco members during Lim's tenure may face charges.

However, Deputy Chief Minister Dr P. Ramasamy said there was no interview or raid as claimed when MACC were at Komtar.

"I was not even there. I was told they (MACC officers) only looked around my office, they didn't take any files," said Dr Ramasamy.

Chow, a likeable personality with few enemies, seems to be handling the stress rather well. Some say it is because he has a stress-busting hobby – he has shared pictures of himself tending to the vegetable plot in his official residence.

But more court charges loom in the coming week. The sense is that the MACC net this time around will spread wide and deep with the arrest of Lim's lawyer wife Betty Chew as well Phang Li Koon, the businesswoman implicated in the purchase of the Lims' bungalow home.

Lim is the first leader since Tun Lim Chong Eu to go for big vision projects and the undersea tunnel proposal did capture public imagination from the get go.

Some were thrilled with the idea, some were sceptical and there were also those who simply did not want it. But few dared to oppose it because DAP was quite untouchable then.

A Penang businessman remembered sitting in a coffeeshop after the 2008 General Election, when the man at the next table noticed that he was reading an article about an Umno politician and started ranting about the party – that was how emotional the mood was in Penang back then.

But much has changed, especially after Pakatan's stint in Putrajaya.

The Malay vote has swung the other way and nowadays, one can hear people in coffeeshops bashing politicians on both sides of the political divide.

"The approval rating is not what it used to be. Chinese opinion about DAP has shifted but they still see Pakatan as the lesser of two evils," said Ooi.

Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia's Datuk Arif Shah Omar Shah, who is fluent in Mandarin and Hokkien and moves easily among the Chinese in Seberang Jaya where he lives, admits it will take a lot to shake the Chinese attachment to DAP.

The Chinese there, he said, have this way of thinking: "Teng lang kor teng lang" which in Hokkien means "Chinese should look out for each other".

The state government, said Arif, has not met their expectations but they feel comfortable with Chow at the helm.

Besides, many Chinese in Penang think it is important that the Chief Minister post remains in Chinese hands.

It is important for Pakatan to know that the Chinese base is intact as DAP focuses on saving their leader.

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