DAP veteran still on top after political roller coaster

Democratic Action Party secretary- general Lim Guan Eng and his wife, Madam Betty Chew. Today, Mr Lim leads Malaysia's largest opposition party, including many who are fanatically loyal to him despite recent setbacks.
Democratic Action Party secretary-general Lim Guan Eng and his wife, Madam Betty Chew. Today, Mr Lim leads Malaysia's largest opposition party, including many who are fanatically loyal to him despite recent setbacks.PHOTO: THE STAR/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK

KUALA LUMPUR • Democratic Action Party (DAP) secretary-general Lim Guan Eng has become used to curveballs after a tumultuous three-decade political career. So, on Aug 11, when Penang state Cabinet minister Phee Boon Poh was arrested by Malaysian graftbusters, the Penang Chief Minister still set aside half an hour to be interviewed by The Straits Times, as if there was no crisis on his hands.

Ever focused on getting things right, the unflappable Mr Lim later slipped out of a meeting to pass on details of his signature Penang Transport Masterplan obtained from another executive councillor, Mr Chow Kon Yeow. "So we can be consistent," he explained.

The 54-year-old has had a chequered time in politics over the past 30 years. Mr Lim, then the MP for Kota Melaka, was the first of 106 people to be arrested under the Internal Security Act in the infamous Operation Lalang dragnet of 1987, a round-up the government said was necessary to cool racial tensions.

Today, he leads Malaysia's largest opposition party which has supported giving the leadership of the Pakatan Harapan alliance to former premier Mahathir Mohamad - the man who sent him to jail 30 years ago.

Critics and allies alike find this decision perplexing. But Mr Lim's journey, fraught with ups and downs, has made him single-minded in pursuing DAP's ultimate objective - unseating the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) and Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is mired in controversy over state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

"We are part of a coalition and it cuts both ways, a double-edged sword. Yes, we have many disagreements and a lot of reservations about Mahathir. But between him and Najib, who is the better alternative?" he said.

In 1998, Mr Lim spent another year in prison for sedition, losing his seat in Parliament. He was elected as MP for Bagan in 2008.

He even faced a DAP internal revolt in 2005 when he and his wife came in bottom of the pile in a party poll for his home state Melaka.

He has bounced back to become the perennial opposition party's first chief minister, and has brought it closer to defeating BN than ever before.

The father of four is fiercely protective of his party. This, in turn, engenders a nearly fanatical loyalty from the party faithful, who rally even closer to him despite recent setbacks, including a graft trial over an alleged discount he received for his RM2.8 million (S$891,000) home.

"Should my political victimisation... help to wake up the people from their political lethargy, I am willing to be that catalyst," he said in an open letter after being charged with graft last year.

After Mr Lim endorsed Mr Chow as his successor as chief minister, should he be jailed, at last year's Penang DAP convention, practically the entire hall stood up holding "Support, Solidarity, Sympathy Lim Guan Eng" placards.

Still, his critics and even some allies have labelled him arrogant and dictatorial.

In 2012, then Penang Deputy Chief Minister Mansor Othman called Mr Lim a "tokong (diety)" in a leaked recording.

Mr Lim hardly broke his stride and was re-elected chief minister with a larger mandate the next year.

Even now, when under siege from a ruling coalition determined to tarnish his decade in charge of Penang, Mr Lim is selective over who he needs to respond to.

He began the interview saying: "These are all liars. The ministers are already liars. You want to talk about all these small critics, they are even greater liars. I don't want to waste time with all these irrelevant fellows."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2017, with the headline 'DAP veteran still on top after political roller coaster '. Print Edition | Subscribe