Vince Tan pens a tribute to Lim Guan Eng and his memorable political career thus far.
March 8, 2008 was a proud moment in Penang’s history. It was the day the people of Penang kicked out the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN) from its decades-long rule in the state. Former Chief Minister, Tan Sri Koh Tsu Koon, his party, Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (GERAKAN), and his allies in the coalition saw their way out office. There were even rumours going around saying that Tan Sri Koh and his cohorts went to the State Administration building on the 24th floor of KOMTAR to clear out classified documents so that they wouldn’t be discovered by the authorities. This is substantiated by the fact that the newly-elected State Government, led by the Democratic Action Party (DAP) claimed to have inherited an empty office with many important documents missing when they entered office. I was 17 years old back then, in Form 5 at St Xavier’s Institution, Penang. The newly-appointed Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng gave Penang hope when she needed it the most. People celebrated with screams of joy when they found out that a political tsunami had occurred in Penang. Lim Guan Eng promised to lead a government which is competent, accountable and transparent (CAT) to govern Penang. Five years has come and gone, and we can see the remarkable achievements made by this former convict and failed accountant for Penang. This is why I am writing this article – to rebut what his political enemies and those who envy his success who want to belittle him have said of him. Lim Guan Eng is not a “tokong”, but he is indeed a hero. We do not worship human beings as God and we do not want to start doing that today.
Lim Guan Eng, a prisoner of conscience, was once held behind bars for 18 months on charges under the Sedition Act and the Printing Press and Publication Act (PPPA) for defending a Malay girl who was subjected to statutory rape by the former Chief Minister of Malacca, Tan Sri Rahim Thamby Chik. Lim Guan Eng and the DAP advocated for the young girl on the wishes of her grandmother, who had sought his help after previously looking for assistance and being rejected from other United Malay National Organization (UMNO) politicians who didn’t dare to raise the issue. Lim Guan Eng held series of dinners and speeches to create public awareness of the issue and to gather support from the public. He was sentenced to 18 months’ jail after exhausting all forms of appeal in his legal defence. He appealed to the highest level possible at the Federal Court but failed to quash his conviction, thus booking himself a ticket for an 18-month stay at Kajang Prison. His father, Lim Kit Siang recalled how he had to drive very fast to Kajang in the mornings during his visits, just so Guan Eng can avoid the squatting with his hands behind his back as their names are called. Imagine the feelings of a father who has to endure his son suffering that sort of humiliation.
“Justice must not only be done, but seen to been done”. The story of Guan Eng’s suffering is petty but cruel. His request for a mattress to sleep on due to his health conditions such as back pain was denied. He was later diagnosed with low bone density and a hairline gap at his fifth lumbar. He would wake up every one or two hours in the night from troubled sleep. His pain was so intense at times that he was immobilised temporary. It definitely wasn’t easy for his family at all. Guan Eng’s contact with his own children was blocked by a glass window with just a noisy telephone to communicate. His wife, Betty Chew had to take care of his children, doing everything a strong woman and mother would do – just like Guan Eng’s very own mother who had to see her husband and son in prison back during the Ops Lalang days in 1987. What did a hero like Guan Eng do to deserve that kind of treatment? Yet he mentioned in a forum on Statutory Rape at Wawasan Open University in Penang a few months back, that if given the chance to do it all over again, he would do the same.
Upon his release, he was barred from standing in an election to public office for five years. Hoever, Guan Eng still helped out the DAP and campaigned for them in the 2004 General Elections. He even suffered a shock defeat in his campaign for re-election to the Malacca DAP Committee together with his wife in 2005. Some speculated that there was a conspiracy against him and his wife. It did not take too long for justice to be served, when he finally got his chance to stand for elections in the 2008 General Elections. He contested for the Air Putih state seat in Penang, as well as the Bagan Parliamentary seat.
Little was known to me back then of a man named Lim Guan Eng, except for the facts that Karpal Singh and Lim Kit Siang were fielding their own children in this General Election – probably to mark their own plans for retirement – and that Guan Eng was the son of Lim Kit Siang. The highlight of March 8, 2008 for me was reading MalaysiaKini when the unofficial news came out, declaring that Lim Guan Eng’s party had won the state of Penang, sweeping all the seats they contested. So was turning on the TV and seeing Lim Guan Eng together with his comrades from DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), having a press conference announcing that the DAP would be forming a coalition government alongside with PKR. From the prison to KOMTAR – what else lay ahead for the newly-elected Chief Minister of Penang?
Lim Guan Eng made a bold move when he announced that he would run the state free of the New Economic Policy (NEP)and implement an open tender policy where companies would have to file an open tender for state projects, rather than the old way of awarding such projects to cronies as done by the previous BN government did. This was met with strong opposition by pro-UMNO groups who took to the streets after Friday prayers and marched to KOMTAR as a sign of protest against Guan Eng’s administration. This was followed by many similar protests every Friday outside KOMTAR, until it became a norm. Guan Eng often received funny gifts such as a chocolate cake to represent his black heart, and was even given a coffin one time, complete with a funeral ceremony outside his house. These are the types of constant harassment faced by the newly-formed Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition back then, which consisted of the DAP, PKR and Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
Despite all these challenges, Penang’s performance saw a drastic change when investments increased attracting RM 12.2 billion (2010) and RM 9.1 billion (2011) to the state. The PR government managed to turn around the financial status of the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP), from almost going into bankruptcy into making profit. Such a turnaround could only be administered by a competent, accountable and transparent government. CAT governance became a slogan and concept of the DAP-led government of Penang. This saw an increase in the performance of many government sectors as well as an increase in revenue. More job opportunities were created, and most significantly, Georgetown has come back to life. Georgetown was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2007, and without the PR administration, Georgetown would not have continued to become a main tourist attraction in Asia, nor would it have been recognised as the most liveable city in Malaysia in 2011 and 2012.
“Apa lagi Cina mahu?” was the question posed by Utusan Malaysia after the results of the 13th General Elections. What the Chinese want is very simple: namely good governance without corruption, good education for their next generation, and an equal opportunity to earn a living in Malaysia. It was the inability of BN to give this to the rakyat which saw many talented Malaysians leaving the country. thus causing brain drain. Many Malaysians have migrated to countries such as Singapore, the United Kingdom, the United States and New Zealand in the hopes of a better life. Lim Guan Eng’s administration gave hope to many Malaysians abroad to come home to Penang and serve Penang. I have a few friends who have come back to Malaysia — particularly Penang — since 2008, some working with the State Government under Guan Eng and some even becoming elected representatives in Penang.
We Penangites don’t know what we can give Lim Guan Eng in return for his years of service, but I’d like to begin with a simple thank you. It seems fitting that as a citizen of this country and a proud Penangite, because you made Penang worthy of pride, that I give you my upmost respect and full support as you continue to govern Penang. To those who might not agree with what I have written here, I would like to quote a saying often cited by Guan Eng himself:
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark, the real tragedy of life is when a man is afraid of the light.”
We must not be the man who is afraid of hearing the truth when the truth is self-evident. I am sure every right-minded Malaysian knows what Lim Guan Eng has done and is still doing for the people of Penang, and for the rest of Malaysia.
 Shannon Teoh, ‘You can be like Penang too, Guan Eng tells Malaysia”, April 1st, 2012, http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/you-too-can-be-like-penang-guan-eng-tells-malaysia/
Note: Due to advice from the original writer of this piece, we have amended this passage: ‘Georgetown was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2007, and without the PR administration, Georgetown would not have continued to become a main tourist attraction in Asia, nor would it have been recognised as the most liveable city in Malaysia in 2011 and 2012.’ It was originally published as: ‘Georgetown was even awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2007,and was also recognised as the most liveable city in Malaysia in 2011 and 2012.’