“What we had proposed to do is not there at all. This is not a consultative government. It is a one-way government. A one-man traffic. An autocratic government.”
That statement by S.M. Mohamed Idris, in describing the DAP-led state government on Thursday, is still ringing in my ears. The 90-year-old Mohamed is as recognisable in Malaysia as any celebrity or politician. For more than four decades now, he has been the man behind the Consumers Association of Penang, a household name.
He had wanted Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s administration to scrap the highly-ambitious RM27 billion Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) project. He said that it was pointless for the state to go ahead with the project, especially the undersea tunnel plan, as the scheme was merely to project the image of a leader as a great builder. This was not necessary as the people would be burdened at the end of the day.
The PTMP entails building the undersea tunnel, three highways, a light rail transit system and monorail, among others.
In recent years, civil society organisations, similar to CAP, have been critical of the state government’s development policies. Instead of taking it in its stride, there have been instances where the state government ran down these NGOs and individuals. Even their own lawmakers were not spared when they had differing views on policies.
For example, last month, a group of 15 civil society organisations had asked the authorities not to rush into signing the PTMP agreement, stressing that greater transparency, accountability and genuine engagement with the public was needed before signing. They had argued that the PTMP lacked vision, was trapped in 20th century technology and approach in planning, was very car-centric, and proposed obsolescent solutions to the state’s transport problems.
Instead of engaging with the respected leaders of the organisations, the state asked them to prove their claims that it was rushing into signing the PTMP.
Then, there is the public vilification of civil society city councillor Dr Lim Mah Hui, with terms like “hero of lies.”
This followed a dialogue between the chief minister and Penang Forum representatives where Mah Hui raised the subject of illegal parking and towing of cars, and lack of enforcement by the Penang Island City Council. Without taking into account Mah Hui’s explanation, there were personal attacks against him, an individual held in high regard. He is a professor who has taught in universities here and the United States. He was also an international banker. Why was Mah Hui not allowed to highlight the issue? Why should he come under such intense abuse? Is he just a rubber stamp?
Even Mohamed and CAP were not spared. In an open letter sent to him in March 2013, this administration accused one of the most consistent NGOs in the country of being selective in its criticisms, and aligned to the Barisan Nasional.
The DAP-led government had called on the people to be wary of “hostile and dangerous NGOs that were now adopting BN’s line to oppose the undersea tunnel and highway projects.”
In his reply, Mohamed told the CM that he was wrong in alleging that CAP did not object to the land reclamation carried out by the previous administration. He also said it was irresponsible and unethical of the CM to accuse CAP of being selective in its criticisms and of being aligned to BN.
“We can understand that you are under pressure with elections coming closer but you must be careful with your comments and not make wild allegations. This is what marks a statesman from a quarrelsome politician,” he said in the letter.
These are just a few examples; there are countless more.
Penang has among the highest concentrations of NGOs in the country, and they are extremely vocal. The state government should know by now that their voices should not be snubbed as it is said that they, too, can influence the election results.
The people are beginning to wonder if the DAP-led government is becoming more arrogant. Penangites, especially, are wondering if they really have no say it this very “Ubah government” they voted into power since 2008.
History has shown that people power is able to make or break a government, more so in Penang where every chief minister has been kicked out.
Former US president George W. Bush’s doctrine — “You are either with us or against us” — is no longer relevant.
Penangites are watching Lim and his administration very closely. It will be an understatement to say that their patience is running thin. After eight years, this administration should, at the very least, eat humble pie and be gracious of any constructive criticism of it.
Audrey Dermawan is NST's Penang bureau chief. She enjoys the sun, the sea and the sand, from which she draws her inspiration