Jul 04, 2016

    Penang CM's judgment by public begins

    IT HAS been a spectacular fall from grace for Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, who rose to power on an awesome wave of popular support and who is known as "Tokong" among the Penang people.

    The Democratic Action Party (DAP) leader has claimed trial to two charges, one of which pertains to using his position to benefit his wife Betty Chew and himself in the rezoning of a piece of land belonging to a private company known as Magnificent Emblem in 2014.

    Another charge is related to his purchase of a bungalow from businesswoman Phang Li Koon a year later at below market value.

    Phang, a mysterious figure until thrust into the media spotlight, was charged with abetment in the property transaction.

    Gossip and speculation about the nature of the charges have been brewing among the cafe society. But everything should be clearer when hearing begins towards the end of the year.

    The DAP central executive committee has given Lim a ringing endorsement to stay on in his job on grounds that "there is no question of conflict of interest as Lim has no influence or control over the prosecution".

    It is only expected of DAP to stand by its top leader because if the top man falls, the party will become shaky.

    But it also means that DAP is unable to walk the talk.

    It is famous for asking others to step down over issues big and small but is unable to live up to the same principle when it involves one of its own.

    It will be hard for the party to judge others from now on.

    It has put DAP figures like Selangor chairman, Tony Pua, in an awkward situation. Shortly after the bungalow issue erupted, he had said there was no need for Lim to go on leave unless charges were brought against him.

    But legally speaking, the Chief Minister does not need to go on leave even with these kind of charges hanging over his head.

    According to a Selangor judicial figure, forcing him out would be pre-judging him.

    "But having said that, a politician's life is not only about legalities but also perception. He is representing a party that lectures others what to do. Can they still do that?" said the judicial figure.

    Moreover, the Chief Minister's focus, said the judicial figure, will now be divided between his case and running the state. There will be complications as the court case drags on.

    Lim may not have influence or control over the prosecution but as the Chief Minister, he has control over the civil servants who may be called to testify in his case.

    It will be awkward for potential witnesses who are his subordinates because not many people would be comfortable going to court to testify against their boss.

    His presence would also bring uncertainty to the state and investors do not like uncertainty.

    Still, it is his call and he has the full support of his party, including that of party doyen Chen Man Hin, whose reputation is impeccable.

    The charges against Lim are quite serious and it is only natural that he is doing what it takes to defend himself.

    Being chief minister will give him that much needed clout and back-up to face the complications ahead.

    Besides, there is talk of new charges in the works related to the Taman Manggis land and also involving a company with links to "Miss Phang", as she is known.

    But there is also another side to the story why DAP is reluctant to have an acting chief minister take over from Lim.

    His deputies are First Deputy Chief Minister Rashid Hasnon from Parti Keadilan Rak-yat and Second Deputy Chief Minister P. Ramasamy from DAP.

    Either one of them could act in Lim's place if he goes on leave. But the sentiment in this Chinese-dominated party is that senior state executive council member Chow Kon Yeow should be the acting chief minister.

    DAP would look terrible if Chow leapfrogs over the two deputies. It would reinforce only the perception that DAP is a Chinese chauvinist party.

    However, if either Mr Ra-shid or Dr Ramasamy takes over, the party's right-wing Chinese base would be badly affected. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, DAP probably thought it would be better for Lim to remain at the top.

    DAP leaders have slammed the charges as baseless and an attempt to topple a democratically elected leader. It is quite clear they intend to approach this as a political trial and to win over the court of public opinion.

    His supporters have tried to liken his dilemma to what Anwar Ibrahim went through in 1998. It is not the best of comparisons given that Mr Anwar was able to galvanise a whole generation of young Malays who flooded the streets in anger.

    What DAP may have failed to take note of was that many Chinese intelligentsia have been wary of Lim's leadership since the Mercedes-Benz episode.

    He had opted for a Mercedes S300L as his official car a mere three months after the state purchased a new fleet of Toyota Camry for the state leaders.

    The Chinese vernacular press that would have once defended him to the hilt was also visibly neutral. The thing is he does not have as many friends in the Chinese media as when he started out as chief minister.

    The Chinese vernacular media was instrumental in helping to propel DAP to power. They put Lim on a pedestal but now, eight years down the road, many of them have stories to tell about how they were treated by him and his staff and they are not pleasant stories.

    DAP is hopeful and confident that the court case will swing sympathy and support towards Lim and arrest the resurgence of support for Barisan.

    The court case proper has yet to start but the court of public opinion is already in session.