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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Ignore NGOs at your peril

LAST Saturday, at a private meeting in the chief minister’s office, the Pakatan Rakyat government of Penang was handed a stack of working papers by a motley gathering of NGOs. The reports, drawn up by independent working groups, were made as part of a "People’s Forum", a community-based initiative of as many interest groups as one could imagine popping up in Penang, a former "crown jewel" of Gerakan.

The 10 reports – covering issues like traffic, the environment, heritage, arts, labour, poverty, women’s issues and disabled people – were the culmination of long-drawn consultations that involved more than a hundred individuals from the various NGOs.

Packed with detailed action plans, the reports were effectively blueprints of what the people themselves want Penang to be. Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng received them with his usual sparkling smile, expressing keen interest to look at the plans and recommendations.

There was, however, a slight irony in the situation. Over the months after assuming office, Lim’s government had started to feel the stern stuff that Penang NGOs are made of. The first hit was felt when the NGOs cried foul at not being allocated the number of seats in the local municipal councils as the Pakatan had announced before.

It was but a precursor for more to come. A steady stream of opposition greeted the administration which, to its credit, had vouched for a more transparent and accountable government.

From complaints of inaction against what are seen as rogue monster development projects to grievances about its sluggishness in implementing conservation policies for George Town’s Unesco heritage site, the state has had to face a stream of criticisms; even as it manoeuvres and negotiates through the complex web that is part of politics and governance.

In what is perhaps the most exasperating instance, the administration was caught by surprise when it was first confronted by protests against plans to develop free public Wi-Fi access across the state. Then about a month ago, activists in Tanjung Bungah, fed up with hillslope development projects there, went loudly up in arms, clanging pots and pans, decrying the government for its perceived slothfulness in rectifying the crisis.

And now in the latest case, there are simmering questions about how the state could announce a cable car project on Penang Hill without any residents’ bodies or environmental groups being consulted.

Make no mistake; Lim’s administration has been quite approachable, even as it heaves with tremendous expectations the electorate has placed on its shoulders. But there is talk that in the urgency to demonstrate an investor-friendly face, Lim has become too reliant and chummy with private business concerns. This is a tough matter for Lim to tackle; for the state needs investor support, especially as it feels the squeeze on funds from the Barisan Nasional federal government amid a nerve-wracking financial crisis.

But, for the most part, the NGOs here are genuinely driven by a sincere passion. It is a passion that stems from an intensely parochial sensitivity for Penang that is perhaps best understood by those who have lived here. "There is a lot of expertise in the community," said one local activist. "And we are just more than willing to help … Why isn’t the state consulting us more?"

Anyone taking power in Penang would do well to note this passion that drives the NGOs. It was the fury of the NGOs that stopped the over-ambitious Penang Hill development project in 1990, and sent legendary chief minister Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu crashing in the general election that year. It was that same fervour that effectively forced the hand of the former state government under Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon to reject the mammoth RM25 billion Penang Global City Centre project planned in the heart of the island.

Koh and his administration had for years faced the acerbic brunt of the NGOs. For the most part, he took it with his chin up.

For Penang is a bastion of the NGOs. If it was "people power" that swept Pakatan to rule, then it must come with a quivering tinge of significance that a "People’s Forum" should drop on Lim’s table a stack of documents – just as Pakatan prepares to commemorate its first full year in power.

If anything, the People’s Forum must have come as a polite nudge, a gentle reminder, to the government of the day of who exactly put it in power.


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