PENANG GOVT THINKS IT KNOWS BEST: NGO says people are afraid to speak or voice objections for fear of upsetting CMGEORGE TOWN: THE normally cool and calm S.M. Mohamed Idris has finally snapped and the cause of his displeasure is none other than the Penang government, namely Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng.
Mohamed Idris said Lim's style of governance had turned Penang into a place where an "atmosphere of intolerance" prevailed and people were afraid to speak and voice their objections for fear of upsetting him.
He said it had come to a situation where the state government thought it was more knowledgeable than anyone else and should not be questioned now that they had been chosen by the people.
The veteran non-governmental organisation leader said he had heard from people, including his own friends, that they would rather not make comments or take part in press conferences organised to raise issues against the administration.
"Freedom of opinion, to debate and criticise is important in a democracy, but the chief minister does not seem to like that. I do not know what his position is.
"People are scared. We cannot work in this atmosphere of intolerance. People are being attacked ... if you are not with me, you are against me. I think this is the very unfortunate situation we have here," he said yesterday.
Mohamed Idris had gathered the media at his office at the Consumers' Association of Penang, off Jalan Masjid Negeri here, to respond to an open letter to CAP by Lim last week in relation to the NGO's strong objections against the proposed RM6.3 billion undersea tunnel and highway projects.
Replying with his own open letter to Lim, Mohamed Idris said he was angry because Lim's letter had accused CAP of being selective in its criticism and also implied that the organisation was aligned with Barisan Nasional.
"I do not need power. I am not seeking political power or any reward ... or any name-calling!" he said while banging his fist on the table several times.
"Use reasoning to argue and not put labels on people. That is the worst part of it ... no substance," he said, adding that it was highly irresponsible and unethical for Lim to accuse CAP of such.
"We can understand that you (Lim) are under pressure and mounting tension with the elections coming closer, but you must be careful with your comments and not make wild allegations.
"That is what marks a statesman from a quarrelsome politician.
"Are you taking the people to be fools? If people say anything (critical against the administration), then they are BN. Nonsense!"
Reading out his letter, Mohamed Idris said CAP had opposed the BN administration when it wanted to build Komtar, the first Penang Bridge, allow Penang Hill to be developed by a private developer and the Bakun Dam project in Sarawak.
He said CAP also criticised the previous Gerakan-led state government over land reclamation in Seri Tanjung Pinang in Tanjung Tokong.
"Interestingly, a BN politician recently accused CAP of being aligned to Pakatan Rakyat to bring down BN. By perceiving constructive criticism from civil society through a party's lens, some politicians display their intolerance and ignorance of democracy."
In his letter, Mohamed Idris also informed the state government that he would not accept a personal invitation to a meeting to discuss the concerns of CAP and his other NGO, Sahabat Alam Malaysia, about the projects as "in our culture, we do not invite people to meetings through open letters".
"In any case, a meeting will be futile and not serve any purpose since, according to press reports, the state government has already awarded the project to a private company, despite opposition from many NGOs."
He also appealed to the state government to reconsider the multi-billion ringgit projects and look instead at short-term measures like an efficient shuttle service to reduce traffic jams while working on long-term solutions that would need radical changes in the economic model, town planning and consumption pattern.
He said the state's difficulties with the Federal Government in efforts to improve the public transport system did not justify embarking on the expensive tunnel and highways without understanding long-term implications or convincing evidence that the projects would solve the island's traffic woes.
"The fundamental question is whether Penang needs the tunnel and what feasibility and cost-benefit studies have been done to support the decision to build it.
"You (Lim) announced the signing of the MoU (memorandum of understanding) for the four major roads with Chinese companies (in April 2011) even before consultants began work on the Transport Master Plan (TMP). On what basis was this decision taken?"
When asked if he would go all out to fight the state government, Mohamed Idris said he would fight all governments, even international ones, if they were doing something that was not in the long-term interests of the people.
In Lim's letter, dated March 21, he said the state government had openly engaged with the public and civil society since the projects were mooted in 2011, during the open tender process and until the tender was awarded to the company that won the bid this year.
He also criticised CAP for failing to acknowledge the efforts by the state government to make public transport the mode of choice for Penangites and for not questioning the Federal Government for rejecting the state's offer to pay it RM10 million a year for free bus services here.
In Malacca, Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam criticised Lim's plans to impose toll on motorists who used the tunnel.
"Lim has always pressured the government to get rid of toll charges, but now he appears to be doing an about-turn by deciding to charge toll for the under-ground tunnel.
"This is the action of a hypocrite. Their manifesto claims that tolls implemented by the BN government would be abolished should they come into power, but it seems that at the slightest chance, they, too, are willing to have tolls."
Ali added that Malaysians should not be easily taken in by the opposition's empty promises, as it was clear that they did not take their manifesto seriously.
He also pointed out that Lim's insistence on proceeding with the projects despite repeated protests and concerns voiced by the public showed just how arrogant and self-centred the DAP secretary-general had become.