NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.
One particular political commentator has been on a writing binge lately, revealing in the process an inexplicable fixation with what I must assume to be his current pet obsession — the DAP-led Penang state government.
Reading the string of articles that he has churned out recently, I have to admit to feeling both amused and bemused. Amused because of his often incongruous arguments and feeble attempts to claim the moral high ground, and bemused because for the life of me, I cannot imagine how someone as learned and well-read as he is could be at times so myopic and borderline obsessive.
In his latest piece, he has attempted a rather cheeky juxtaposition of the DAP with Tony Blair’s New Labour. Of course, if he is referring to the “Third Way” reconciliation of right-wing economics with left-wing social policies adopted by the nascent Blairite movement in the late nineties, then I shall take it as a compliment. After all, it was on those grounds that the party managed to appeal itself to “middle England”, and thenceforth catapulting to three successive general election victories.
However, I doubt that he is making a positive reference. Instead, I rather suspect that he may in fact be trying to suggest that the DAP has in some way sacrificed its ideological principles, selling them as it were, to the “corporate capitalists” that he so verily scorns. Let us attempt to deconstruct his arguments.
Firstly, he makes a drawn-out attempt to frame the Bayan Mutiara land sale within an ideological context, contriving it as the ultimate barometer of the DAP’s commitment to what he calls its “democratic socialist” ideals.
I must make a strong correction here. In case our commentator has forgotten, the party has, under its current leadership, made an official shift towards social democracy. Though this may sound like mere semantics, there is in a fact fine line that differentiates between the two; the former being inherently socialist with an innate aversion to the capitalist mode of production, while the latter seeks to tame or reform the capitalist system to ameliorate its injustices. One is revolutionary at heart, while the other is pragmatically reformist.
In any case, let us assume for sake of argument, that they are the same. Our commentator’s argument is constructed thus: that there appears to be an acute incompatibility with, on the one hand, the DAP’s ideological principles, and, on the other, how the Penang state government is run.
Using the Bayan Mutiara case to prove his point, he questions the sale of the 102.6 acre plot of land for RM1.07 billion or RM240 psf (which he also states is RM40 psf above the market price). He writes, “Who is the state government helping to unlock the value for? Is it for the state, the capitalists or the average people?” He goes on to add that unlocking the land value will result in undue speculation, before asking, “Is this a fair deal to average Penangites?”
Now, I would first like to point out that the sale price of RM240 psf is in fact RM40 psf above the reserve price and not the market price, which was far lower. One must bear in mind not only the immense size of the land involved, but also the fact that more than one third of the land is non-existent and requires reclamation at the developer’s expense. This means that the sale price was, by anyone’s imaginations, a tremendous profit for the state.
Our commentator asks who really benefits from this transaction, before listing three seemingly mutually exclusive parties — the state, the capitalists, the people. The short answer is that everyone does. By its sale, the land has in effect been converted into a common denominator that is shared by all concerned, including the people, with the clearest example being the resultant RM500 million affordable housing fund. Does this not fall perfectly in line with an ideological position premised upon exacting social justice out of the capitalist system?
Now, our commentator does rightly point out the effects of property speculation and its impact on the price of housing. Everyone knows this, including the state, and it is precisely because the state knows this that the affordable housing fund was set up. For those who may be unfamiliar, the problem with the housing market in Penang is that there is a considerable lack of supply in the medium-cost range, due to the fact that high land prices make building medium-cost homes unattractive. Low-cost homes, on the other hand, are provided as part of every development’s preconditions. In other words, the housing gap for middle-income Penangites has arisen out of what is essentially a market failure, thus requiring the state to intervene. The Bayan Mutiara land sale, therefore, can be seen as a creative solution by the state, bearing in mind its severe limitations in raising revenue.
If I may also highlight here, the RM500 million fund is meant to cater to housing needs for the entire state, the Island included. The proposed affordable housing development in Batu Kawan on the mainland is in fact a pilot project. Our commentator’s attempts to suggest the contrary is mischievous, but I accept that he may have been misinformed.
As a side step, our commentator also denounced the state’s proposed four major road infrastructure projects as regressive, and insists that resources should instead be channelled into public transportation. He says this despite the fact that he of all people should know that the state has as much power and jurisdiction over public transportation as it does over taxation or education. In other words, none whatsoever.
It is not a question of having limited choices, but a lack of. While the state cannot control bus routes or even compel the use of meters in taxis, it can however provide an efficient road network in order to remove cars from severely congested local roads, thus not only alleviating traffic but also increasing the efficacy of existing and future public transportation. After all, buses use roads too.
Finally, our commentator expresses concern about the DAP’s desire to embrace the market and promote commercialism to the benefit of the rich and the expense of the needy. I really don’t feel that any explanation is needed to debunk this argument. For the last four years, the Penang state government has embarked on a host of programmes targeted at the most vulnerable groups: the hard-core poor, single mothers, the disabled, schoolchildren, senior citizens and even diabetes patients. Perhaps it may not appear so to some, but I can’t think of clearer evidence of an ideological commitment to distributive justice and social welfare.
We now return full circle to our commentator’s original premise, that the DAP is following in the footsteps of New Labour. While this is certainly no truism, I don’t see any point in arguing against it. After all, it was New Labour who enacted a string of social reforms, including the establishment of the national minimum wage and a tax system overhaul, which rescued millions of Britons from the clutches of poverty. Of course, one may point out that it didn’t end all that well — Iraq, financial scandals and public apathy eventually saw them crumble. But that is merely called a political cycle.
And since we’re on the topic of New Labour, I feel it may be appropriate to end by quoting a line from their seminal 1996 manifesto, which reads, “New Labour is a party of ideas and ideals but not of outdated ideology. What counts is what works.”