GEORGE TOWN, May 19 — I have been asked when I will be bidding farewell to Penang when I assume my new post as Malaysian Finance Minister in Putrajaya. I will not be doing so, simply because I will not be leaving Penang. How can you leave Penang when Penang will always be my home and my family’s sanctuary?
I have said that you can take me out of Penang, but you cannot take Penang out of me. The obvious reason is that we are all proud to be Penangites, Saya anak negeri Penang, “Wah si Penang lang”. We are proud at what Penang has been able to achieve since Penangites took the courageous step to vote for change and replace the BN state government with Pakatan in the heady days of the first political tsunami of March 8, 2008.
Many international analysts reporting my appointment as Finance Minister by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, described me as little-known internationally, but widely acknowledged as successfully turning around Penang into a vibrant industrial and tourist destination. Some even cheekily reported that Tun appointed a person he had had jailed twice as Finance Minister!
There is no doubt that Penang was in a state of decline when we first took over in 2008. Penang was rundown, dirty, sleepy, even seedy and like a ghost town in some parts of town. Nothing was exciting then in Penang, the state finances needed repair with state government debts then more than 100 per cent of our annual budget.
The whole Pakatan state government team set out to transform Penang both literally and figuratively by cleaning up the state and our finances. We fixed our target to be the most liveable city in Malaysia that is clean, green, safe and healthy. We wanted Penang to be the best financially-managed state in the country.
By and large, Penang succeeded. From being the dirtiest state in the country, we are now one of the cleanest cities, not only in Malaysia, but also in Asean. We are also the most liveable city with dedicated bicycle lanes across the state encompassing spiral bridges, tunnels and flyovers that is the envy of the nation. Also a green state with the highest recycling rate of 38 per cent and the only state in Malaysia not to cut down a single square inch of our permanent forest reserves.
Adopting CAT administration of competency, accountability and transparency, Penang is now acknowledged by the Auditor-General’s Report as the best financially-managed state with annual budget surpluses every year since 2008. Over the last 10 years, Penang’s asset reserves have been doubled to RM1.83 billion.
Most remarkable of all is the success in paring down our state debts by 90 per cent to RM65 million. Open competitive tenders has allowed the state government to save up to 45 per cent of our expenditures, attracting praise from Transparency International, a first for any government in Malaysia.
It is this sterling financial performance that has convinced CIMB Bhd to grant Penang Development Corporation (PDC), owned fully by the state government, a RM1.5 billion loan just before the 14th general elections, the largest in Penang’s history and the largest given to any state government in Malaysia!
These financial successes have allowed Penang to work towards an entrepreneurial and welfare state through the 4P partnership of the Public sector, Private sector, People and Professionals. Investments have gone up by 90 per cent and tourism more than doubled until the Penang International Airport is way over capacity. Building infrastructure is accompanied by building up human talent, especially investments in STEM education and Industry 4.0 in the digital economy.
There is also a rejuvenation in arts, culture and heritage allowing Penang to make its mark as a cultural city filled with foreign resident artists and world-class international events such as the Penang International Food Festival, George Town Literary Festival and the George Town Festival. As a world-class heritage city, Penang has also attracted the involvement of Aga Khan Trust for Culture to enhance our Unesco World Heritage City status.
These successes have injected self-confidence and optimism in Penang and amongst Penangites. That Penang can be a platform where you can enjoy equal opportunities to succeed and with honest hard work, make your dreams and your children’s dreams come true.
Principally because of this, the state government has been confidently telling our children, “Grow up quickly, Penang is waiting for you!”.
Can these hopes be sustained? Yes, we can. The final critical success factor in any state or organisation is succession planning. The Penang state government has earlier worked out an orderly succession to allow Sdr Chow Kon Yeow to succeed me. Chow has worked closely with me during these last 10 years and shared many of our joys and frustrations and he knows what it takes to continue and take Penang’s successes to the next level.
I have been frequently asked whether or not I not have some regrets leaving the safe abode of Penang for the uncertain terrors of Putrajaya, especially for such a heavy Ministry like the Finance Ministry? Of course I do. But we can not be forever stuck in our comfort zones. We need to venture out especially when it comes to contributing to change our nation for the better.
The state of the nation’s finances needs urgent repair, much more than Penang needed in 2008, before our financial health can be fully restored. Yes, I may not have as much experience as the previous Finance Minister. But we believe we can do better because we do not have experience in corrupt practices and stealing RM2.6 billion into our personal bank accounts. Initially, we may be finding our way in the dark but with the people’s support we can dance in the light. With honest hard work, Malaysia can still be salvaged.
We love our home because we love our country. We love Penang because we love Malaysia. We must unite our people regardless of race, religion or background around good values and a central narrative that binds us all together — a Malaysia that is prosperous, fair, free, just, democratic, honest, respects human dignity, upholds rule of law and belongs not to only the few but to all of us.
From this day onwards, let us not be divided by asking not who we are, but what we are, where the content of our character counts. We are all Malaysians!
Let us strive mightily together for our country that can hold its head up high and take our rightful place amongst great nations with honour and respect. We are proud to be Malaysians!
And to proudly tell our children, “Grow up quickly, Malaysia awaits you!”.
* Note: The above letter was taken from Lim Guan Eng’s Facebook page. Chief Minister of Penang since 2008, he was recently appointed Finance Minister in Pakatan Harapan’s first federal administration.