The former Chief Minister of Penang, Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, passed away last night. Even though the passing is expected, since a person at his age who had a massive stroke is quite unlikely to recover, I am sure most Penangites will still feel sad .
There is no doubt that he was the main moving force that has totally transformed Penang from a sleepy entrepot with practically no industrial base into the Silicon Valley of Malaysia.
I grew up in Penang in the 60s, and that time life was difficult. The economy then depended heavily on being an entrepot, importing commodities and re-exporting them. The trade then was mainly rubber and tin. The only factory of note then was perhaps the Eastern Tin smelting company located along Dato Kramat Road.
On the retail side, businessmen survived on selling tax free goods to visitors from mainland and South Thailand, being a free port at that time. But business was slow after the tax free status was removed.
Dr Lim then was the chief of a small party called United Democratic party, the UDP. Even though the party was small, it was able to win a few seats in the 1964 elections, and had the support of many opposition-minded Penangites over the then Socialist Front (Bull Head Party, as the local called it then). In 1968, he joined hands with a few academics and some of the leaders from Labour Party ( a component of the Socialist Front) to form a multiracial party called Parti Gerakan rakyat Malaysia, a people’s movement for Malaysia. He in fact brought the whole UDP into Parti Gerakan and the former ceased to exist after the formation of Gerakan.
In Penang, Parti Gerakan depended heavily on the machinery of the dissolved UDP. With only 300 die hard cadres, Gerakan was able to defeat the Alliance Party to form the Penang State Government in 1969.
The joy of victory was however short lived, for a few days after the ’69 election, racial riots broke out in many areas in Malaysia, Penang being one of them. That event came to be known by all Malaysians as May 13, a tragic and black day in Malaysia.
The political landscape in Malaysia changed after May 13. Racial awareness was heightened. NEP was introduced to provide affirmative actions to certain ethnic group which was far behind economically. It must be said that the economic situation then was very different, and many people at that time did agree to have this affirmative action to help to address the economic inequality. NEP was later skewed by politicians with their own agenda but that was another story altogether( I have repeated spoken out against this policy in this blog). The intention then was noble, to eradicate poverty irrespective of ethnicity and to restructure society to have a more level playing field for all.
It was in this context that the late Dr Lim brought the whole Gerakan into a new coalition known as BN as a founding partner. I think there were many reasons for this move. One of the reasons was the development of Penang. Without the cooperation between Federal and State, lots of projects could not be implemented , and the grand plan that he has for Penang could not be achieved with the party continuing remaining as an opposition. On top of that, he believed that racial confrontation could best be avoided by working together rather than against each other. We must also not forget that he stepped down as party president in 1980, passing the baton to another Dr Lim, and concentrated instead on the development of Penang.
He did bring development to Penang. Penang was totally transformed and big multinationals began moving in and set up bases. Motorola, Intel , AMD, etc etc you name it, yo see it…. The free trade zones became a model for others to emulate. His legacies included the Penang Bridge, Komtar (once the tallest building in Asia) and of course a totally changed economic structure based on industries instead of just commerce. If ever there is a politican who could really change the life of people for the better, Tun DR Lim Chong Eu must be counted as one of them.
His passing is. although expected, still a sad day for all Malaysians especially those who are from Penang.