Lim Guan Eng and the house that jolted the party

Lim Guan Eng, in 2013. Firdaus Latif/Wikimedia Commons

By Vanitha Nadaraj

In a middle-class neighbourhood of Penang, its chief minister Lim Guan Eng bought a double-storey bungalow. It has no swimming pool, he insisted, to show just how modest his new home was.

News of the purchase of the house, made below the market price, sent a jolt to the Democratic Action Party (DAP) that has up to now appeared unshakeable, while other parties in the opposition bloc Pakatan Harapan are showing signs of weakening.

Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) is still trying to find its footing and direction, after their adviser, Anwar Ibrahim, was jailed early 2015, and the new Parti Amanah Negara, formed by disgruntled members of Islamist PAS in October 2015, is still trying to find its voice. PAS is proving each day through its softening stance towards UMNO that it cannot be depended on by the opposition parties.

The DAP’s strength in representation is unmatched. Its candidates won all the seats they contested, and the party has in its hands all urban parliamentary seats in Malaysia. The DAP is said to be able to retain them all in the next general election. The same confidence was not accorded to PKR, and Amanah is still very much untested.

The party has seen its share of internal drama, from disgruntled members leaving en bloc like the one in 1995 to 1996, to personal attacks on the Lim dynasty – party secretary-general Lim Guan Eng and his father, the party stalwart Lim Kit Siang. The question is whether the recent spate of events hitting Lim Guan Eng and DAP has put a dent on the party.


Two weeks ago, an UMNO lawmaker claimed that the purchase of Lim Guan Eng’s house is linked to a 2012 sale of government land in Taman Manggis, a prime area in Georgetown, to private developers to build a private hospital and hotel.

Lim Guan Eng moved to quash the claims by inviting the media to his home to show them his house, and to emphasise the point that he bought it on a willing-buyer-willing-seller basis.

Meanwhile, the comments from urban social media users show that not all were taken in by Lim Guan Eng’s explanations. There are some who said “what is good for the goose, is good for the gander”, indicating that if allegations could be levelled at UMNO for abuse of power and corruption, then the same could be done to the DAP. Some took the “all politicians are the same” stance.

To be fair, there was support for the DAP, like those who ssaid outside forces were out to destroy the party. Some said they were willing to live with a little corruption just as long as the quantum was nowhere near the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal figures.

The responses from party leaders, in trying to defend the DAP, needs to be well thought of. Responses – like feng shui led to a cheap sale of the house or the accountancy-trained Lim Guan Eng did not know the house market price – invited ridicule and scorn, making the situation even more of a circus.

In the midst of all this, the UMNO-linked Red Shirts stormed the DAP headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday to submit a memorandum demanding that the DAP “take responsibility for an unrelated Chinese man’s disparaging remarks about Islam”.

This is a totally unrelated issue, and the DAP handled it quickly, but there may be more such distractions.

Lim Guan Eng faces attacks from within

One of the DAP strongmen in Penang is now issuing a challenge. Tanjung Bungah assemblyman Teh Yee Cheu wants to limit the tenure of the Penang Chief Minister post to two terms. Lim Guan Eng is now serving his second term as chief minister.

Teh’s proposal before the state constitutional committee should not be taken lightly. This is a man who has a strong backing from the Tanjung Bungah folk and a wrong move on the part of DAP party could cause a huge internal friction between the grassroots and the leadership. Teh is known for his tenacity and his commitment to his constituents, and if this issue is handled clumsily, it can erode Penang support for Lim Guan Eng.

Teh is not the only thorn in Lim Guan Eng’s flesh. In Malacca, an old feud resurfaced last month when two state party leaders were suspended “for allegedly disparaging the party through a court case against another party member”.

The two are: Goh Leong San, who was defeated as state party chairman in a hard-fought state party committee elections in December 2015; and Sim Tong Him, a former state chairman who has strong grassroots support and also from among Chinese educationists.

The two belong to one faction while those in the other faction are aligned to Lim Guan Eng. In the 2005 state elections, both Lim Guan Eng and his wife Betty Chew were voted out in the state party committee elections, but the feuding goes even further back. It is usually during Malacca state elections that the fangs come out.

How will DAP fare in coming elections?

Old party feuds and grassroots rumblings cannot be allowed to fester and neither can they be dealt with in a high-handed manner. One wrong or unpopular move and Lim Guan Eng will start to feel the effect. As usual the content in social media is always a reasonably good indication of what the urban middle-class is saying.

Already there is a meme on the DAP’s Ubah mascot, the hornbill in traditional warrior outfit introduced in the last Sarawak state elections held in 2011. Barisan Nasional supporters are likely to use the house issue to show corruption exists in the DAP. It makes for convenient political ammunition, and if used right, can be lethal.

This, along with the hugely popular Chief Minister Adenan Satem, is going to be hard for the DAP. Especially now that there is talk that three of the 12 Sarawak state seats held by the DAP are shaky and could fall to Barisan Nasional. Announcement on the election details will be made on April 11.

Sarawak elections is more of a test for the DAP than it is for Barisan Nasional, Adenan or Prime Minister Najib Razak. It would be highly impossible for Barisan Nasional not to win.

Poor performance by the DAP in the state could make its party members demand an explanation and could give rise to more external distractions. All of which Lim Guan Eng cannot afford to have. Not when the general elections can be held anytime between now and 2018.