It has been over a week since Lim Guan Eng was sworn in as Penang Chief Minister, but already he is discovering some of the serious challenges facing the new Penang state government.
He faces a daunting task. Planning approvals for major development projects in the past have been haphazard at best and irresponsible, dubious and shady at worst. The PGCC Campaign Group met Guan Eng this afternoon in the Bilik Gerakan (someone quipped that it should be renamed “Bilik DAP”) of the Chief Minister’s office in Komtar. After driving the final nails into the PGCC coffin, the activists from Penang’s main civil society groups said they would come up with a detailed proposal to turn the Turf Club land into a People’s Park within the next couple of months. Guan Eng joked that the developer’s bouquet of flowers had not influenced him in any way.
The activists also highlighted a whole range of planning and approval shortcomings that have left the island looking increasingly like a veritable concrete mess, plasted with huge billboards and plagued by poor enforcement. Among the examples cited were proposals for 40-storey tower blocks on the coastline of Tanjung Bungah and the massive Hunza development along Gurney Drive. The Campaign Group stressed that there should be no major development work until Local Plans are approved.
Land reclamation was another major issue. The activists pointed out that the previous adminstration had lost huge amounts of potential revenue by virtually handing over land reclamation projects to private developers to make lucrative profits while state coffers hardly benefited.
If land reclamation had been properly handled – there are 16,000 hectares of potential land that can be reclaimed – it could have generated enough revenue for the state to finance its operating and development expenditure for many years. Instead, IJM (along the Jelutong Expressway) and E&O (along Tanjong Tokong) appear to be the prime beneficiaries.
Land reclamation has also caused severe environmental problems – mud flats in Gurney Drive and siltation. Guan Eng pointed out that, thanks to siltation, the authorities may now have to spend federal funds (public money) to dredge the sea around the port area. Let’s not even talk about the damage it has caused to marine and coastal biodiversity.
The new Chief Minister said that Penang has to cope with tight financial constraints, with a budget deficit of RM35 million announced last year. Worse, there are several court cases coming up involving dubious land deals undertaken during the previous administration that have exposed the state to potential legal damages. In one such case involving a shady land deal in 2003, in which the legal officer acting for the state strangely conceded liability, the state government now could be exposed to RM30 million in damages. “I don’t know where I am going to find RM30 million,” said a worried Guan Eng, an accountant by training.
The Penang state government must institute a thorough investigation into how this could have happened.
I asked him about Penang’s financial reserves, and he said the state had about RM200-odd million in reserves. But, he added, the government would be reluctant to touch this as it would affect the state’s credit rating.
It is at times like this that we wish that land reclamation had been properly handled in the past. It could have been a major source of revenue for the state, provided of course that the environmental aspect had been thoroughly studied first.
The Chief Minister also confirmed that all files had been taken away from their offices. “Maybe they wanted you to start on a ‘clean slate’,” someone quipped.
As for the re-introduction of local government elections, Guan Eng said that Penang was the only state so far to have committed itself to restoring elected councils. But in view of the cost and logistics involved, he felt that local council elections should be best held to coincide with the next general election.
CCTV cameras to curb crime?
Guan Eng said that he had prioritised security as his main concern for the next few months. He appeared keen on installing more CCTV cameras in crime-prone areas as a preventive measure – a move which could cost RM20 million.
I hope Guan Eng will reconsider this as I do not think it will be money well spent.
For one thing, the effectiveness of CCTV cameras in crime prevention is questionable (although some may say its value lies in its deterrent effect).
Secondly, it could lead to a Big Brother society, where cameras watch the people’s every move. Before long, you will have cameras spying on you wherever you go – and there will always be a need for more and more cameras if we don’t attack the root (socio-economic) causes of the rising crime rate.
Thirdly, in view of the state’s budget difficulties, there are better ways to spend this money. In fact, the Penang state government should leave crime-fighting to the the police. (Are there serious problems in policing which the proposed IPCMC could help resolve?) The state government should instead look at the underlying reasons for the rise in crime. Is it due to social problems created by unemployment, the widening gap between the rich and poor, the alienation of the working class, the lack of skills training that would otherwise enable more people to seek gainful employment? (See a comment by Hamid Ibrahim below, in which he includes an article suggesting that the state of urban ecology is an important factor in explaining urban crime.)
Installing CCTVs was an idea mooted by the previous administration and the police. Even before the general election, there were already 31 CCTVs in the Penang town centre with plans for 31 more on the mainland and another 94 on Penang Island. The way I see it, the main beneficiary will probably be the camera and equipment suppliers. So watch out for their marketing sweet talk.
Guan Eng receives documents from the PGCC Campaign Group
That said, the PGCC Campaign Group’s meeting with the new Chief Minister has achieved its objective of alerting the new state leaders about some critical issues that need to be resolved.
Guan Eng appeared down-to-earth (“No need to address us as YB”), warm and sincere and keen to make a fresh start for Penang. He kept telling us, “This is your government; we want the people to feel part of the government” – stuff like that, which went down well. He recalled his consultation with Indian groups and how delighted and empowered they felt when they were allowed to speak in Tamil while someone translated for the chief minister. “I wasn’t even sure if they were scolding me!” he laughed.
The new state government thus far enjoys tremendous public support and goodwill, and many have volunteered their services to help fashion a new Penang for all. This administration will need all the help it can get.