PENANG FORUM – QUINTESSENTIAL CIVIL SOCIETY

PENANG FORUM – QUINTESSENTIAL CIVIL SOCIETY
Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser 18 August 2016

Someone commented recently that Malaysian civil society is dead because she noticed that ever since 2008, NGO activists have either been co-opted by the alternative coalition into their parties, their think tanks or were actively working in tandem with these political parties by being selective in their criticisms of the political parties.

Well, Penang Forum, the NGO coalition of which SUARAM Penang is proudly a member, is proving to be the exception. They have risen to the occasion not only to critique the Penang State Government’s Transport Master Plan (TMP) but to present a cheaper and environmentally preferable alternative for the people of Penang. Their concern for the negative impact on George Town’s world heritage site caused by the TMP involved their proactive action to write to Unesco requesting for an advisory mission and impact assessment on the proposed TMP:

“The issue is the impact the TMO project – which features a major light rail transit (LRT) and monorail transport hub at Sia Boey, along the old Pragin Canal, – would have on George Town’s heritage (site)…

“We are extremely concerned that the construction of LRT and monorail stations in a tertiary zone (zone bordering a buffer zone) of the Unesco-listed George Town will pose risk to its outstanding universal value status.”

NGOs are sentinels NOT lapdogs

For their efforts, Penang Forum has been under vitriolic attack by Penang state DAP leaders for being “backstabbers”.  Judging by the recent caution by the Chief Minister to Penang NGOs “not to bite the hand that feeds them”, it seems that the Penang state leaders are not aware of the role of civil society…

Civil society organizations exist to promote and protect democracy. Their contribution to economic development, political awareness and societal advancement has been acknowledged and supported in the international arena. NGOs play the mediating role between the individual and the state by articulating citizens’ interests and demands. They owe allegiance only to truth, social justice, democracy and the human rights of the people. Perhaps other NGOs in Malaysia would like to express their opinions on this unjustifiable attack on Penang Forum.

Negative impact on heritage sites

I have written about the scandal of Kuala Lumpur city planners and heritage protectors allowing the construction of the concrete monorail monstrosity to obstruct the views of the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, the Chen Ancestral Shrine, the Guan Yin temple and other Kuala Lumpur heritage sites. The Guan Yin temple was built in 1888, the Chen Ancestral Temple in 1896 and the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall in 1934. There are other heritage sites along the monorail route which are likewise needlessly obscured from view.

Likewise, Penang Forum has urged the state leaders to work together with the National Heritage Department, Unesco and civil society in solving the issue of whether the Transport Master Plan (TMP) will have a negative impact on George Town world heritage site. Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and the project managers have insisted that the construction of the transport hub is not within the heritage site. To this, Penang Forum has rebutted:

 “If they are so confident, then why are they upset about Penang Forum writing to Unesco asking for a mission to determine the impact of TMP on the heritage site?

“They should welcome it and let it be evaluated so that there is no wrong (done)!”

Khoo Salma of Penang Forum has further warned that if the state signs and commits to implementing the TMP before Unesco finds out that the project endangers the world heritage site, the state might have to compensate the developer for breach of contract. Then again, Penang rate payers will be the losers:

“This is a similar case to the Penang Island City Council having to compensate RM20 million to Boustead Holdings Bhd for requiring it to lower the building height to 18 metres after approval was given for a taller building at the site,” Khoo Salma said.

To close this with the infamous words of a Penang DAP leader, the Penang state government should “stop behaving like crybabies”.

PENANG SHOULD AVOID UNSIGHTLY MONORAIL

PENANG SHOULD AVOID UNSIGHTLY MONORAIL
Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser 26 April 2016

Penang NGOs should be commended for alerting us and especially denizens of Penang about the dire consequences of the multi-billion transport master plan (PTMP) and demanding more consultation and transparency in this project that will affect the lives and landscape of this pearly isle. The NGOs lamented that priority in the plan is given to private vehicles when the purpose of an integrated public transport system in a modern city should be to reduce, not encourage, private vehicle usage.

Apart from its cost which is estimated at RM40 billion presently and the consequences of the reclamation plans, undersea tunnel and highways on traffic on the island, Penang should avoid the unsightly monorail system we have in Kuala Lumpur.

Protect urban landscape from unsightly monorail infrastructure

I still cannot understand how the Kuala Lumpur city planners, heritage protectors and even the Malaysian Chinese community could have allowed the construction of the concrete monorail monstrosity to obstruct the views of the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, the Chen Ancestral Shrine, the Guan Yin temple and the entrance to Petaling Street. These are some of Kuala Lumpur’s oldest heritage sites which should have been protected from being obscured by the unsightly monorail infrastructure. The Guan Yin temple was built in 1888, the Chen Ancestral Temple in 1896 and the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall in 1934. There are other heritage sites along the monorail route which are likewise needlessly obscured from view.

It will only be a matter of time before the City Council will allow even more unsightly billboards to be plastered all over these concrete monstrosities in an attempt to raise revenue.

Although a bit late in the day, Penang has the advantage of being able to avoid the mistakes made by other city planners. It is worth noting that the less imposing steel infrastructure that supported the Sydney monorail system was dismantled in 2014. When it was finally taken down, Sydney denizens were relieved that the unsightly eyesore of the monorail was removed and their urban landscape reclaimed.

Introduce an efficient & affordable tram system

Having just returned from a most pleasant trip to Melbourne, I was impressed by the charming and seamless tram system in the city – a free circuit round the city centre and an affordable tram service radiating from the city outwards to the suburbs.

Penang used to have a tram system in the early 20th century and so did the other former Straits Settlement Singapore. I believe the old tram rails have been preserved so there is no reason for the PTMP to limit the tram system to the Unesco world heritage site in order to cater to the larger Penang commuters.

THE CM’S IRRESPONSIBLE BLAME FRAME

THE CM’S IRRESPONSIBLE BLAME FRAME
Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser, 22 March 2016

More than twenty years ago, when the CM of Penang was an aspiring DAP leader under the watchful eyes of his father, his stance in public was invariably that of a squabbling adversary. Headlines in the party newspaper at the time would emblazon acerbic accusations such as “KENG YAIK YOU ARE A LIAR!” to the approval of fawning devotees.

Despite his many years of political experience and the fact that he is now safely ensconced as Penang’s Chief Minister, we still witness the same cockerel stance and irresponsible blaming attitude. Through the years many personalities have been targeted as “liars” by the CM. Here I will confine my observations to just three recent episodes:
(i) the CM calling a councillor a liar for pointing out the tardiness of municipal officers;

(ii) the CM’s personal challenge to a valid query by a Member of Parliament who had raised questions of suspected irregularities in the purchase of the CM’s house, and

(iii) the CM’s repeated public excoriation of the leader of the Malay-based Islamic party using the same irresponsible label.

The Penang CM would do well to live up to the claims of a democrat as suggested by his party name. As someone in a responsible position from which he is seen to be leading the state into a better future, he ought to have outgrown the blame frame mentality. Whenever any issues arise it would be more useful if he asks instead, “What happened? What are our solutions?” and proceed to account for any improprieties.

1. CM calls Councillor Liar 7 Times in 1 statement

Highly respected Penang Island city councilor Dr Lim Mah Hui, who was accused of lying by Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng over the towing of cars, has asked Lim and the 12 councillors mainly from the DAP who maligned him to apologise to him publicly without any prejudice to his right to legal recourse. Dr Lim said Guan Eng issued a highly defamatory public statement on March 12 accusing him of being a “hero with lies” and “lying” no fewer than seven times. Dr Lim said:

“These accusations went against the very principles of CAT that the state government claims to espouse. Instead we see incompetence in accountability and a flagrant injustice to me personally and as an MBPP councillor.”

As if he did not know the role of a city councilor, the combative CM had also challenged Dr Lim to “take over and oversee” the towing of cars in the council. Dr Lim of course declined and said his role as a councillor is to advise and it was the job of the city council’s personnel to enforce the council’s regulations.

2. CM challenges MP over dodgy bungalow purchase

Tasek Gelugor MP Datuk Shabudin Yahaya Shabudin had made a typically DAP-style revelation in Parliament recently that the bungalow that the CM bought, on 10,161 sq ft (943.98 sq metres) of land, on Oct 25 last year for RM2.8mil was actually worth between RM6mil and RM6.5mil on the market. Furthermore, the previous houseowner was linked to the company which had won the bid in the sale of a piece of land at Taman Manggis.

In response, Lim threw a challenge to Shabudin the next day for a one on one meeting at his office in Komtar and when the latter declined, he expressed disappointment with the Tasek Gelugor MP for not show up, saying:
“Datuk Shabudin had the opportunity to seek clarification over his allegation in Parliament. His absence was unbecoming of a leader who has thrown malicious accusations against me.”

As if it was a vindication of his accountability, the CM and his wife then took a group of journalists for a tour of his bungalow to show them that the property was not comparable to Khir Toyo’s mansion nor did it have a swimming pool!

And in shocking display of pretended ignorance, the CM claimed that he did not know the market value of the bungalow he bought last year for RM2.8 million. Speaking to reporters invited to view his house, he said he was not a property agent. For a CM who has to know the property value of reclamation land and property development throughout Penang island to claim he does not know the property value of his own house on the market, that is truly incredible! I dare say, if we take a survey, practically every house owner in Malaysia, including those who are not highly educated, will say they know the market value of the house they own…

3. CM calls PAS Leader a Liar Again and Again

The third and perhaps the most consequential target of the CM’s attacks is the leader of the Malay-based Islamic party, Ustaz Hadi Awang. The DAP CM has called the PAS leader a liar so many times over Hudud, TPPA, the Kajang Move… we have lost count.

Considering the DAP claims that it is trying to reach out to the Malay community in order to dilute its image as a Chinese-based party, I honestly cannot understand how their CM does not think that his persistent attacks on the PAS paramount leader is downright rude and only serves to mobilise PAS’ Malay supporters against the DAP.

Does the DAP really think the damage to the DAP’s image from such outbursts against the PAS spiritual leader is outweighed by their few token Malays in the DAP leadership? Even if the Penang CM can be excused for his immaturity, surely his father who has been in politics ever since the Tunku’s era should know such Malaysian reality and the mentality of the Malay voters. Noticing the absence of PAS supporters at the recent Bersih 4 rally, it would be foolish to simply assume that PAS supporters are inconsequential and only important in the rural constituencies.

Accountable, responsible & democratic leaders
Leaders who claim to aspire to “the Malaysian dream” are expected to practice what they preach and to behave responsibly. Nothing less than transparent, principled, democratic behaviour will do. And what does such democratic behaviour in meetings look like and sound like?

Well for a start, it is inclusive, everybody has the right to be heard and collectively agree on the rules by which dialogue takes place and how decisions will be made. There will be respectful exchanges in which feedback about the issues and facts is given without fear or favour. Of course if the collective rules are broken there is a basis for next steps, and even then responsible leaders do not resort to personal attack.

We hope the Penang CM will spare us any further blame frames and personal attacks and set an example with accountable, responsible and democratic action that Malaysians expect.