Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Marking a year at Penang’s helm

The man who used to be called SG (secretary-general) and now CM (chief minister) but actually only wants to be known as Guan Eng spoke to The Star on his family, his famous father and the challenges of his new role as a government leader.

ONE year after DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng landed the top job in Penang, he is still trying to get the hang of it.

He is still adjusting to changes, juggling his position between being an MP and state assemblyman as well as managing a team of executive councillors to run the state.

“It has been tough for my family but I marvel at their courage and determination to adjust. It’s definitely not easy,” Lim said.

Despite his busy schedule, Lim takes time off for himself to have his hawkers’ meals, especially the all-time Penang favourite, char koay teow.

“I have even conducted meetings in hawker centres while having such meals,” he said.

But what he really misses these days are reading and watching his favourite football team, Manchester United in action.

Doting dad: Lim kicking the ball around with his youngest son Ethan at his official residence Seri Teratai as his wife Durian Daun (Malacca) Assemblyman Betty Chew looks on.

On being Chief Minister

It has changed my life but I am still the same person because I know where I came from. I’ve gone through the bitterness and pain. When I was languishing in prison, I always encouraged myself that this too shall pass. Even at your lowest ebb, always remember that this will pass if you persevere. Even when you peak, that too will pass, so take it with a sense of equanimity.

What is important when it comes to leadership is that you have to lead a strong team. You can be the best person but if you cannot forge a team of brilliant individuals to work as a team, you are a failure.

Being chief minister is the priority. I have my assistants to help me in my state constituency and if necessary, I’ll go down myself to keep close tabs on the ground.

Of course, I have to discharge my duties as MP and secretary-general but it’s a question of balancing. What’s important is to keep the ship on even keel.

I told my members when I was first elected as secretary-general where I want to bring them. My objective is not to make DAP the largest opposition party. My aim was to make us a full partner in power. I never expected that to happen within a few years but now that we have done that, being chief minister must be the priority because we have always said we wanted to be in power.

The most important thing is to provide the leadership and carry out the transformation of Penang.

An invaluable lesson

I’ve learnt in this one year is to have faith and trust in the people. A government can only be as good as the people and Penangites are good that is why we must trust them.

I cannot give the people everything they want but at least I can assure them that there is no corruption. Everything is for public benefit. We save money so we can use it to wipe out hardcore poverty. We are even-handed when we take action.

Faith, hope and love

These are not just words. These are values to me. I believe a government should have a soul. We are not cold calculating machines. A government can have a soul by having these values.

We want the people to have faith that the government is here to help, not harm you.

For too long, the government has been seen as a necessary evil. We want to be seen as a necessary good.

It sounds corny but love helps you get through the day. No matter how tired I am, when I go back and see my children, it gives me that “ooomph”.

In society, if there is no love, there cannot be national unity, if there is no caring society, there is no compassion.”

Tun Lim Chong Eu a leadership benchmark

I’ve met him several times. What the former Penang Chief Minister said will remain private but he has always been positive and encouraging.

We view him as a benchmark because he is one of the best leaders in the country. A decisive leadership, having a vision of where you want to take Penang to and never forgetting that the people are your masters – these are things from Tun’s administration that can be applied to this government.

I’ll never be embarrassed to seek his advice. I’m willing to meet anyone who can help Penang. I’m not a person who sticks to protocol. I don’t have a big ego. That’s why I even offered to meet Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon despite my obvious feelings about him.

Kit Siang’s son

Anyone would be proud to have Lim Kit Siang as a father but it is always difficult to grow under a banyan tree. Its big shade may be very cooling and comforting yet it can also stunt your achievements because it may not be seen as your own effort.

Any failure is magnified. It’s difficult. I was a young boy when he was detained under the Internal Security Act. At that age, you think your father is a bad person because only bad people are arrested by the police so it was an immense struggle for me to convince myself otherwise.

I remember my classmates jeering at me in school, saying my father was a bad guy. I could only kneel and cry – not because of the jeering but because I thought what was said was true and I could not defend him.

I never told my mother because I didn’t want her to be sad. I had caught her crying at night when my father was detained. It was then that I realised in this life, there is so much injustice and when you try to right the wrongs, you are punished.

I am inspired by his sacrifice and determination, ideals and principles.

But finally it’s my own faith and belief that has pulled me through. When I was in prison, who my father was didn’t matter. When I was in prison, my family was there to hold hands during the tough times. My children understand but in a way its not fair to them.

His relationship with the media

I’m a small town guy still getting used to the cameras and bright lights. Previously, we never had that. Nobody cared. We were lucky to get one reporter to cover our events and even then, we were not sure whether they would see print it or not.

The hurdles

It’s been a year now but there are still some obstructions. The Opposition is trying to derail and obstruct our programmes like the cancellation of summonses, putting up bilingual signboards and their unwillingness to come clean on land scams.

Some government officials are also not supportive of this government. I have reprimanded a few senior and mid-rank officials but those who deserve a second chance will be given it. Those who need to be transferred will face it soon.

We gave them a year to get used to the change and if they still cannot, they have to leave. I can work with anybody as long as they can accept that this government expects orders to be complied with.

We can’t expect Barisan to support us all the time but on measures which are critical and which are common to all political parties like wiping out poverty, they must work together with us. In areas which you claim is part of your agenda, why are you trying to undermine our efforts?

There are instances where we offer our hand, like when we invited the state Opposition Leader to speak at a government function against Israel in Gaza.

We also created the role of Opposition Leader. This is an indication that we can work with the Opposition if they are constructive.

DAP governance and the new premier

People’s hopes and expectations are a big pressure. Whether we like it or not, Penang will be a model of DAP governance. If we do well here, people can see that the DAP can govern well.

Thirty percent of the country’s exports are from Penang and 30% of foreign tourist arrivals are also from here.

We must impress on the Federal Government that they cannot allow Penang to fail because of political vindictiveness. They will become losers too. Let’s all be winners.

So far, we have a fruitful relationship where I’ve managed to get things done and hopefully I can get more ministers to come around. Penang’s interest is so closely intertwined with Malaysia’s interest.

I have spoken to Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak at impromptu meetings outside Parliament. So far, discussions have been positive.

Our relationship with the Federal Govern- ment is touchy at times but we must stick to the big picture which is national interest.

I am happy that at least the Second Penang Bridge is proceeding at full speed and the court house is completed. The Tourism Ministry’s Zoom project was also held here.

It is not that I want to wax lyrical on the potential and attractiveness of Penang but we have a natural advantage and brand appeal. Let’s leverage on this. That is why Penang must be made an international city.

We are pushing for free WiFi because Internet connection is considered a requirement like water and electricity. We want to introduce international benchmarks to solve problems of cleanliness, crime and congestion.

The Opposition mentality

You must look at the role I am playing here. I am the government here but at Federal level, I am the Opposition. When I ask for something for Penang, I ask nicely and humbly. But if refused, what do you expect me to do? Lie down and cry? That is not our style.

If you do not agree, I will pursue the matter forcefully because Penangites pay taxes and want to see a justifiable return. We are still learning but in one year, there are changes you can see, touch and feel. Look at Komtar now. We have revived it. We have put up multi-lingual signboards, attracted record investments and put in free WiFi. There may be some delay (in certain projects) but we are trying to make the administration leaner and faster.

CAT governance

We are Malaysia’s first Competency, Accounta- bility and Transparency (CAT) government and we are proud of it. The Oppo- sition keeps saying that we have failed, such as in the eradication of hardcore poverty programme. But it is not even the end of March yet.

Whether we achieve or not, at least we are trying to do what they never dared to. Even if there is a delay, it will be only be by one or two months but I am quadrupling my efforts to make sure it happens by the end of this month.

Most hardcore poor families are in the Opposition’s constituencies but they are not keen on helping us.

Last year, we got RM10.2bil in investments, double the amount in 2007. This is a record achievement. How can this be the effort of the previous administration?

The hardest part is closing the deal. Insurance agents will tell you that. The fact that we convinced them is evidence enough to show their confidence in us.

We have also managed to collect debts owed to the state which were not collected for years.

I will be announcing a few tourism projects soon but generally speaking, we have to source for private finance initiatives and public-private partnerships if we can’t get funding from the federal government.

The team

I have told my exco to improve on their communication skills and to be more accessible and friendly to the media. They have to come out and explain the rationale of actions. This is a learning curve.

There are weaknesses but we will take the necessary steps to remedy them. If any of our exco members fail, it is considered not just an individual failure.

This is a team effort. We try to lift everybody together but if in the end, if there is still somebody left behind, we won’t wait until next general election to make any adjustments.

When it is crucial for the state’s development, changes can be made especially in portfolios. We will do what’s necessary. Our objective is to scale international benchmarks.

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