Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, a prominent Malaysian opposition leader, was charged with corruption yesterday, with his party throwing its support behind him and claiming the charges were "baseless and politically motivated".
His Democratic Action Party (DAP) yesterday held an emergency meeting and decided that he need not resign or take leave as chief minister of the northern state, a defiant stand for a party that often calls on government leaders to stand down temporarily if they are under investigation.
The two charges against Lim and a businesswoman, Phang Li Koon, involve accusations that Lim misused his position to buy a bungalow at below-market price and approved an application by her to convert a piece of agricultural land for commercial purposes.
Both claimed trial. The case will be up for mention on Sept 22.
Lim and Phang, who were held overnight by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission after their arrest on Wednesday, appeared at the High Court in the Penang capital of George Town surrounded by hundred of supporters.
That Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and his wife, Ms Betty Chew, when chairing a Penang state planning committee meeting on July 18 last year, allegedly approved a rezoning application from agricultural to residential land for a private company, Magnificent Emblem, according to court documents.
The offence carries a maximum jail term of 20 years and a fine of at least five times the total gratification or RM10,000 (S$3,400), whichever is higher. Lim has claimed trial.
In the second charge, Lim has claimed trial to allegedly obtaining benefit in his position as a public servant and chief minister, when he bought his bungalow in Jalan Pinhorn on Penang island for RM2.8 million, from businesswoman Phang Li Koon. The actual market value of the bungalow was RM4.27 million, according to the court documents.
If found guilty, he is liable to a maximum jail term of two years, or a fine, or both.
Phang, 44, is president of Magnificent Emblem.
Separately, Phang was charged with abetment for allegedly selling the bungalow to Lim at below its market value.
The offence carries a sentence of up to two years' jail, or a fine, or both upon conviction. Phang has claimed trial.
Lim was released on RM1 million bail and Phang on RM200,000 bail.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
The case jolted the country as chief ministers are rarely pulled in to face criminal charges, and Lim is secretary-general of the DAP, which has the biggest bloc of MPs in the federal Parliament after Umno.
Lim, 55, spoke to the media later, using strong language to defend his innocence. "I will not submit to such dirty and vicious political plays to destroy my reputation or Penang's image as the cleanest and best-run state in Malaysia," he said.
Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai, president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, a ruling coalition party, shot back: "In the past, he (Lim) has been asking people to resign and take leave. Now, it's your turn."
The opposition, rife with infighting that has weakened it, yesterday called for unity to face Prime Minister Najib Razak's government, amid expectations that a general election, due in 2018, would be called by next year. "Let us set aside all our past differences and prejudices and return to the drawing board," Selangor Menteri Besar Mohd Azmin Ali, deputy president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, said in a statement.
"We need to forge a consensus, stronger than ever before, and build a solid bloc for the next general election," he added.
The prosecution team was led by Attorney-General Mohamed Apandi Ali, who was appointed by Datuk Seri Najib last July.
In January, Tan Sri Apandi controversially cleared Mr Najib of wrongdoing in the case surrounding state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and some US$700 million (S$940 million) found in the prime minister's bank accounts in 2013. This was despite the ongoing probe in some seven countries into alleged transfers overseas of billions of dollars of 1MDB funds.
Thus, moves by Mr Apandi in prosecuting the Lim case - his first court case as attorney-general - will be closely watched in the court of public opinion. Some have noted the swift manner in which the case ended up in court as allegations about the bungalow purchase first surfaced only in March.
"Apandi's decisions are being seen as selective prosecution because he decided to exonerate and stop the investigations against the person who gave him his current job, yet he has gone ahead to prosecute Najib's political opponent with much expediency," said think-tank Ideas chief Wan Saiful Wan Jan.