This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 1 - 7, 2016.
Shortly after the federal government unveiled the revised Budget 2016 last Thursday, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng called a press conference at his Komtar office and criticised Putrajaya for not abolishing the 6% Goods and Services Tax, which he claims is an added burden for the man in the street.
In fact, Lim, who has been in office for eight years, holds press conferen-
ces almost daily to voice critical views against the federal government besides the state’s affairs such as the worsening traffic congestion on the island.
Being the secretary-general of opposition party DAP, Lim apparently could never agree with the federal ruling coalition in many ways. Ironically, he needs the federal government’s blessing for his proposed RM27 billion Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) — the second largest infrastructure project in Malaysian history.
The massive transport plan is seen as a reservoir of infrastructure works for local and foreign companies in the next 15 years, at least. Already the state government has appointed SRS Consortium, consisting of Gamuda Bhd, Ideal Property Development Sdn Bhd and Loh Phoy Yen Holdings Sdn Bhd, to be the project delivery partner (PDP).
On top of that, Consortium Zenith BUCG Sdn Bhd was awarded a RM6.3 billion contract to build the undersea tunnel linking the island and the mainland, plus three intraisland expressways.
Lim is getting impatient and cannot wait any longer for the federal government to start the light rail transit (LRT) project that the latter has promised. Hence, he decided to implement PTMP in the hope that it will ease the traffic congestion.
“Have you been to Penang during the holidays? It (traffic congestion) was bad. You are in KL, so by KL standards, probably you are used to it. But Penangites are not used to it ... we are choking to death and we refuse to be choked to death,” the Johor-born chief minister tells The Edge in an interview.
Successfully implementing PTMP, which involves having LRT and monorail systems, building an undersea tunnel and reclaiming up to 4,500 acres of land, would be an important milestone in Lim’s political career and it would speak well for DAP.
On the flip side, it is a tough test for Lim, who is already getting the bitter taste, being criticised for not doing the right things.
Few will dispute the urgent need to improve the traffic infrastructure of Penang — one of the country’s foreign direct investment destinations and a tourist haven. But one point of contention is the massive land reclamation in the southern part of Penang island.
In fact, Lim granted the interview with The Edge so that he could explain the necessity for the land reclamation.
This newspaper has raised the question whether the Penang government has explored other alternatives before deciding on reclaiming land and selling it to finance PTMP. Also, The Edge has noted that the federal government should work with the state on the transport plan for the benefit of the people there.
“I am actually willing to take your advice. What are the options to finance it? We can’t take a bank loan. State governments are not allowed to borrow money and we cannot issue bonds, so the only thing we have is land,” says Lim.
“The main thing I would like to stress here is that we have no other financing models. If I can issue bonds, I will issue bonds. If I can borrow money from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and China’s One Belt, One Road programme, I will do it, but I can’t, because any loans that the state government takes has to be approved by the federal government.”
To finance the RM27 billion public infrastructure, it will involve reclaiming up to 4,500 acres of land for the state government to sell.
This upset the fishermen who earn their hard living fishing off the southern part of the island as well as some non-governmental organisations and environmentalists.
The state government is in the midst of working out a compensation scheme for some 900 fishermen. For the environmentalists, Lim may have to do much to convince them that land reclamation will not harm Mother Earth.
Lim takes pride in the fact that Penang has the highest recycling rate in the country, at 32%, compared with the national average of only 10%, and the state was the first to implement the no-free-plastic-bag policy at supermarkets. Also, he says, the state government’s projects will always take into consideration environmental safeguards. Having done these, Lim has probably gained eco-conscious voters’ support.
“The land reclamation was not done properly [previously]. They went through the seabed, they dug out the sand from the seabed and that has [bad] consequences. This one, we will make sure it is done properly because we do not have any private interest in the land reclamation project itself,” says Lim.
“Most of the land reclamation concessions issued, there are private interests involving political leaders themselves. Here, we don’t have private interests, so we make sure that it is done properly, fulfilling the environmental safeguards. We are clean!”
According to him, Putrajaya has promised a few times to build and finance the LRT system on Penang island.
“They (federal government) promised us three times ... I’m not talking about Pak Lah (Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi). Pak Lah promised, but, of course, before he could implement it, he left. (Datuk Seri) Najib (Razak) promised three times and he made promises only for them to be broken,” says Lim, who never minces his words when commenting on the federal government.
In view of the long wait, which appears to be never-ending, the chief minister is adopting a different approach, hoping to speed up the process. One of the many things that the PDP needs to do is to obtain the approval of the federal government on PTMP. Among the three members of SRS Consortium, Gamuda is a regular winner of federal government contracts.
“Yes, because when we tried they refused to even reply to our letters, so we thought it might be easier to go through the private sector as companies have ways [to go about it], which we do not have,” says Lim, when asked if it is Gamuda’s duty to get Putrajaya’s nod for PTMP.
Never before, Lim has faced such strong resistance since he became a politician. He acknowledges that PTMP is not an easy project.
“When we first came up with the plan, we knew that it is going to be very challenging because we are trying to solve a problem for future generations, and the most difficult part of governance is doing something for the generation unborn because they have no votes,” says Lim.
“We are willing to trade our popularity for a future for the next generation. Unlike other concession projects, we are not stealing their future, we are securing their future, and that should be done now because we should not allow others to steal our children’s future.”
Some quarters, however, opine that perhaps not getting the federal government’s approval could be a blessing in disguise for Lim. The opposition and resistance so far could be just the tip of the iceberg, bluntly put.
In Penang, setting up telecommunication infrastructure in a residential area could be an uphill task for telecommunication companies as such structures are not allowed on top of high-rise residential properties and the state is supportive of that for environmental reasons.
Just imagine the amount of resistance Lim would face if an LRT track or an expressway needs to criss-cross the island.