The late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu will be remembered as a leader who left his imprint on Penang during a time of turbulence and ferment in Malaysia’s post-independence years.
His experiment with multi-ethnic politics with Gerakan – in its initial years at least – fired the imagination of many Penangites and other Malaysians.
His economic policy of promoting export-oriented, foreign investor-driven development – the standard World Bank model in support of MNCs – gave birth to the electronics industry and the Free Trade Zone in Penang. It compensated somewhat for the loss of Penang’s duty-free status.
This blueprint helped him with his greatest achievement from a socio-economic perspective: creating jobs at a time when unemployment was running high at 16 per cent. Under his administration, the Penang Development Corporation, also built affordable housing – entire townships – on both the island and the mainland, providing homes for thousands of Penangites.
Chong Eu also was instrumental in putting Penang on the map through icons such as Komtar and Penang Bridge.
Unfortunately, many of these policies, visionary though they may have been seen at the time, appeared unsustainable in the longer term.
The lack of an integrated public transport system resulted in Penang becoming increasingly congested and even his pride, the Penang Bridge struggled to cope with the sheer volume of private motor vehicles. He was also helpless in seeing all but a small portion of the huge income derived from the bridge tolls going to private firms under Federal Government influence or control.
By allowing Gerakan to be co-opted into the Barisan Nasional, the multi-ethnic character of Gerakan was gradually eroded until it became dominated by a single ethnic group.
The recession in the mid-1980s and the current global financial crisis also exposed the vulnerability and serious limitations of the FDI and export-driven economic model in sustaining economic vibrancy and shielding the state from global shocks. The overwhelming focus on industrialisation, combined with the lack of priority given to agriculture (including vegetable farming) and fisheries, contributed to higher prices of essential foodstuff.
The economic model built using the draw-card of cheap labour to entice investors later meant that many Penangites struggled to cope with the rising cost of living. The much hoped for transfer of technology turned out to be only a trickle, as Penang grew increasingly trapped in a middle-income economy.
Komtar later grew run down and eventually many saw it as a sore thumb sticking out of of George Town’s unique built heritage. Some of the high-rise public housing built during Chong Eu’s time was poorly maintained. The mushrooming of beach hotels and hill-side condominiums ruined the natural charm of much of the northern coast line. The pollution of the sea and rivers, the loss of green spaces, and worsening traffic congestion took a toll on tourism while the overall quality of life in Penang appeared to deteriorate.
During his tenure under the BN, many of Penang’s top schools declined and talented Penangites joined other Malaysians in migrating to KL, Singapore and elsewhere in search of better opportunities.
As Umno began to call the shots in Penang, Gerakan eventually began to look like a BN appendage rather than its lynchpin in Penang. The Umno influence and unsustainable development trajectory continued even after Chong Eu stepped down from politics in 1990, culminating with the ill-conceived Penang Global City Centre project, which was stopped by a concerted campaign and ultimately by Gerakan’s whitewash in Penang in the 2008 general election.
So while Chong Eu may be credited with saving Penang from immediate economic doom in the 1970s, in the process leaving his imprint on the state, the unsustainability of some of his administration’s policies over the longer term means that his record will be viewed by some as chequered.