The Umno Factor in Penang Politics (Malaysiakini 5 Feb 2008)

Yeow Boon Kiat | Feb 5, 08 12:46pm

Umno is to be blamed for the present downturn in economy in Penang, charged DAP’s national E-campaign director and popular blogger Jeff Ooi.

He added that Umno’s hands were seen in many of the policy initiatives that have to come from the federal level to the state.

Ooi said that although the Penang state government led by Gerakan may have many economic plans to implement, but the foreign direct investment (FDI) flowing into the state was still being filtered by the powerful Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Umno has not been very supportive of the Gerakan in terms of allowing more value-added and state of the art companies to come to Penang,” he charged during a roundtable discussion organised by Malaysiakini last week.

The discussion, first in a series called Agendakini to be broadcast by, saw the participation of Ooi, Gerakan’s member of parliament for Jelutong Lee Kah Choon and independent political analyst Khoo Kay Peng to discuss on the general election.

The discussion was moderated by Malaysiakini’s CEO Premesh Chandran.

Elaborating further, Ooi cited several warning signs to show that Penang was being sidelined.

He added that the on-going Visit Malaysia 2007 was not benefiting the state in terms of tourist arrival. He also said that Penang’s industry export in 2007 were down by nine percent compared to 2006.

In his final analysis, Ooi, who is expected to contest in Penang’s Bukit Bendera parliamentary seat against Gerakan strongman Chia Kwang Chye, said that if the state wanted to maintain its status as the most progressive state in the country, it was imperative for Umno’s political dominance in the state to be reduced.

Pushing the multiracialism agenda
In response, Lee, who is the parliamentary secretary of the Health Ministry, rejected claims that Umno’s interference was being detrimental to the state government.

“We have to work together to implement what have been planned by the federal government. If Penang flourishes, we will be creating jobs for all Malaysians, especially for people from surrounding states,” he added.

Admitting that Penang was a hot state in the coming election, Lee said that he was aware of the possibility of Gerakan being squeezed in between Umno and the opposition to win the popularity vote.

He also conceded that there was a possibility of Gerakan losing its chief ministership in the state if they manage to win fewer seats than its partners in the ruling BN coalition. But he was not worried about that.

“I am personally not worried about losing the chief-ministership. The most important thing is to push the multiracialism agenda,” he said.

He however said that he was worried on the issues of polarisation in Penang.

“We will be doing a disservice to multiracialism in Penang if, say, Umno controls 13 to 15 seats, and many non-Malay constituencies fall into the opposition’s hand, then it will be a more serious polarisation,” he added.

But he predicted that the opposition was not going to make much inroad into Umno strongholds.

He said that it was important for the voters to retain the BN in the state so that the component parties could collaborate again to work out what has been planned and implemented by the federal government for the sake of development in Penang.

“If you have a ruling party that is not same as the federal side to rule the state, it will have a lot of bickering,” he stressed.

Opposition’s mistakes

Meanwhile, Khoo blamed the government policies, and not Umno’s intervention, for the plight of Penang’s economy.

“The government should really encourage the growth and development of the domestic sector. Stop all the wastage and put the money into real development,” he said.

“The total budget has gone up by 177 percent and operating expenses have increased 218 percent. If we see Malaysia as a company by any account, it’s not sustainable, that’s why we must have better policies intervened,” he added.

Commenting on the chances of the opposition in Penang, Khoo said that the opposition has been very ‘issue-centric’.

“They always say that things are wrong, but they never specifically tell the voters how things could be better, and this is why they are not going to win eventhough people are not happy with BN,” he analysed.

He added that the opposition should work beyond race and religion and focus on democratisation of Malaysia.

“Malaysia should think hard on its race-based politics because I don’t think it is sustainable in the future,” he added.

To wrap up the discussion, all three speakers were given a chance to address the voters directly.

To this, Lee called for the continued support for the BN while Ooi urged voters to make a change given that they have tasted the ‘devil’ of Umno dominance. Khoo, on the other hand, wanted the voters not to cast their ballot based on skin colour.

The importance of Penang

Penang is the only state in Peninsular Malaysia under BN rule which is not governed by Umno. It has been led by Gerakan since 1969.

Political analysts are saying that the dissatisfaction with the BN would see non-Malay voters swinging to the opposition in the coming polls.

The fear for Gerakan is that while Umno may be able to retain its Malay-based constituencies, Gerakan and MCA may suffer losses, leading the way for Umno to take over the state government.

In 2006, Umno started playing up the issue of Malay marginalisation in the state and had called for the rotating chief minister system to be implemented to reflect a better balance of power in Penang.

Opposition parties DAP and PKR are waiting in the sidelines, eager to capitalise on any fallout as a result on BN squabbling. DAP, in particular, feels that it could swing the power in the state to the opposition this time around.

There are 13 parliament and 40 state seats in Penang. BN controls eight parliament seats (Umno 4, Gerakan 3 and MCA 1) while DAP has four seats and PKR one in Permatang Pauh.

As for the all important state seats, Umno has 14 seats, Gerakan (13), MCA (9), MIC (2), PAS (1) and DAP (1).

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