Penang's new chief walks an ethnic tightrope

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 March, 2008, 12:00am

The archetypal ethnic-Chinese politician in Malaysia has always been a defender of all things Chinese - culture, Chinese-vernacular education, business - against real or imagined encroachment by a Muslim-led government.

The new chief minister of Penang, Lim Guan Eng, 47, fits the bill perfectly.

On any given day in the past two decades he would be literally on the streets, fighting to preserve a Chinese shrine or school or the right to perform a lion dance. This has been the case since Mr Lim entered politics as a precocious 26-year-old in 1986, two years after graduating as an accountant from Australia's Monash University.

His days as a street-fighting opposition agitator, however, suddenly ended last week when he was catapulted to the 38th floor of the Komtar Building, Penang's seat of power. Penang is the richest and most developed state in Malaysia, and the only one with a Chinese majority population.

It is a dramatic turnaround for Mr Lim. The success was made possible not only by his ethnic-Chinese backers but by droves of Malays, angered by rising prices and alienated by the former government.

'I never expected such a dramatic change of fortune, not even in my wildest dreams,' said the bespectacled, youthful-looking Mr Lim, who led the Democratic Action Party to power in the state this month. 'We were readying ourselves to form a strong opposition - but ended up forming the government.

'I am still dazed and still coming to terms with the change.'

Mr Lim's every move is being scrutinised closely in this country where race is still a dominant influence on political discourse.

Already he has sparked a furore by announcing that he will abolish affirmative-action policies put in place in 1970 to help Malays catch up with Chinese who dominate the national economy.

Mr Lim had campaigned on such a pledge, winning the support of poorer Malays who have benefited little from a system that allowed well-connected Malays to secure lucrative government contracts.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi himself issued a warning to Mr Lim not to 'play with fire' by dismantling the system.

Mr Lim has since clarified that his intention was to help all those in need, including Malays, but some Malay leaders continue to organise protests against him in Penang and elsewhere.

Mr Lim's supporters put the controversy down to his inexperience in government.

'He has been in Chinese opposition politics for too long. Now he has got to think like a government, a government for all the people,' said political analyst Raja Petra Kamaruddin. 'Now he has got to be calm and be focused on delivering.'

The job is made more difficult because Penang, one of the world's hubs for the manufacturing of computers and silicon chips, is on the decline economically. New investment is drying up and companies such as Motorola are moving shop to China.

Mr Lim, who is married with three grown children, will have a difficult time living up to the achievements of his predecessor, Koh Tsu Koon, who transformed Penang from a sleepy-hollow state into an economic powerhouse.

Critics point out that Mr Lim has previously managed nothing bigger than his small, faction-ridden party.

'He has never done business, nor managed a company, nor even a government agency. Can he now manage a whole state government?' asked C. W. Mak, a retired engineer, in a letter to The Star daily on Monday.

Mr Lim had long been groomed to take over from his father, Lim Kit Siang, now 67, the 'Mr Opposition' of Malaysian politics since 1969. But the road was far from smooth.

The younger Mr Lim was jailed for 18 months in 1998 for 'publishing false news' after an acrimonious encounter with a leader of the ruling United Malays National Organisation, who had been accused of sexual misconduct. Mr Lim championed a Malay girl involved in the allegations.

He completed his sentence but was disqualified from holding political office for two general elections thereafter.

It was only his election last week that finally confirmed him as the leading ethnic-Chinese politician in the country.

But his previous image as a 'one-man band' who championed Chinese culture and rights is returning to haunt him.

Economist Khoo Kay Peng said the ability of Mr Lim and his team to oppose 'is indisputable - but to govern there is a need for a mindset change'.

It is a question on everyone's mind, including that of the man himself.

'We have to measure up. We have to meet the expectations of the voters,' Mr Lim said.

'On one hand we have to deliver, on the other we face tremendous pressure from the federal government that wants us to fail. We cannot fail. That is not an option.'

Mr Lim said the new job was part of a process of transformation. He recognises that as a young lawmaker he overreached - and ended up in prison as a result.

'Prison is inhuman but it teaches you to reflect, it prepares you for a bigger role if you don't let it get to you,' he said.

Is the new job getting to him?

'I feel the weight of the job on my shoulders. Sometimes I can't sleep at night,' he said.

'I constantly worry about what I have not done for the day.'