NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.
As Malaysians begin to grow weary of the guessing game that is the election date, a more amusing charade is beginning to develop in the northern corner of our country. Of late, one particular state – in fact the second smallest one – seems to be grabbing the lion’s share of media attention.
The sudden obsession with Penang, as evidenced by the unrelenting headlines and the constant barrage of political proclamations on a multitude of Penang-related issues, would appear to speak of a concerted attempt to consolidate the entire federal machinery towards the goal of dismantling the current state government.
Yet interestingly enough, if one were to scrutinise between the lines of the numerous statements made by various Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders regarding Penang, one would begin to wonder whether the blue orchestra was performing in single harmony, or whether they were in fact being directed by numerous conductors playing to different beats.
It all started two months ago with the appointment of Teng Chang Yeow as the new Penang state BN chairman. Touted as a strong, credible figure that is able to galvanise a dispirited Penang BN into shape and to captain them to a comeback following their worst ever defeat, expectations ran high.
Soon after his appointment, Teng opened the offensive by announcing the BN’s grand blueprint to recapture Penang. This plan involved a slew of fanciful ideas such as establishing an international financial centre, an innovation park, an aquaculture hub as well as an international tourism hub. Capping off this litany of promises was a golden carrot in the form of a promise to return “free port” status to the island.
However, even before Teng’s free port idea had the chance to sink in, the BN hull began to crack.
Barely two weeks after Teng’s tour de force, a press conference was called under the BN banner featuring Penang Gerakan chief Datuk Dr Teng Hock Nan and Penang Umno bigwig cum Penang Port chairman Datuk Seri Hilmi Yahaya to announce that a free port may not be the best idea, after all.
Instead, it was proposed that a designated duty-free CIQ (customs, immigration and quarantine) zone should be built on the mainland. In fact, Hilmi, a former deputy chief minister of Penang, even went so far as to downplay the idea of a free port by stating that, “… it cannot be like before where the whole island would be duty-free.”
At a time when the BN badly needs to consolidate its machinery ahead of a crucial general election, the appearance of this purported “Team B” only serves to confuse the public. Two BN camps saying two different things? Who’s right and who’s wrong? That’s where Big Brother comes in.
Assuming we live in a world of logic, then it must follow that since Teng Chang Yeow is the anointed BN chief, that his view would represent the official party position. This is especially so when, at his own earlier press conference, Teng had himself confidently stressed: “When I raised the matter with the PM, he did say he will look into it positively.”
It would appear, however, that either Teng or the prime minister had suffered a bout of miscommunication. In the latest development, the prime minister had, through a parliamentary reply last week, stated that “bearing in mind that Penang has five free trade zones and that the free port concept is now non-existent, the issue of granting free port status to Penang no longer arises.”
It is not enough that Teng’s own colleagues disagree with him; it now appears that his own boss does not support him as well. But wait, it gets better. After all, no good drama is complete without a third party joining the fray.
As if the divergent stances on the free port agenda weren’t enough, the MCA – feeling a bit left out – has now thrown its hat into the crowded ring by supporting a plan to privatise the Penang Port to Umno-linked tycoon Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary.
Flexing his muscles as the chairman of the Penang Port commission, Datuk Seri Chua Soi Lek recently issued a derisive warning to the Penang state government. According to the MCA president, any attempt to derail or refusal to cooperate with the federal government’s plan to privatise the Penang Port would only be “sabotaging” what he asserts to be a move that would “improve the efficiency of the port”.
Of course, no decision in this country has weight unless the prime minister himself has backed it. Thus, Chua was quick to drop his boss’s name by claiming that it was a decision agreed to by the prime minister after he had “looked at the effect on the entire state before making a decision on the privatisation of Penang Port.”
Teng, however, does not appear to be convinced. Breaking ranks from the federal leadership, the Penang BN chief has instead chosen to echo the DAP leaders in the Penang state government by opposing the Penang Port privatisation plan. In his latest statement, Teng insists that he and his colleagues would urge the prime minister to reconsider.
The situation within Penang BN is getting more ridiculous by the day. On the one hand, a new state chief was chosen for his purported ability to “rejuvenate” the ailing coalition in order to “regain BN’s pride and dignity”. On the other, a group of renegade state BN leaders have, in their zeal to prove their relevance, ended up undermining the efforts of the former.
And to further complicate matters, you have an even more irrelevant leader trying to promote an idea that is immediately and vehemently opposed not only by the rival state government but also by the state BN chairman. This of course wouldn’t be half the problem it is if the prime minister didn’t also support it.
Two months ago, when Teng Chang Yeow boldly announced on his Facebook page that he was prepared to “fight policy to policy”, I think even he had no clue that he would end up battling not only his own colleagues but also his own boss.
Truly, with friends like these, Teng needs no enemies.