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Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Penang, It’s time for 'softly-softly' Koh to let go!

It’s time for Koh to let go


Calls for Gerakan president Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon to step down from leading the Barisan Nasional charge in Penang is gaining momentum, putting the coalition at a political crossroad.

THE Hungry Ghost festival is in full swing in Penang but Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, the former chief minister and current Gerakan president, is seeing more political ghosts than he could imagine.
Koh Tsu KoonImage via Wikipedia

He feels a puppet master is pulling the strings to force him out. He feels there's an agenda against him.

He blames the Opposition of wanting to dethrone him. If he listens hard enough or has the gall to admit it, the loudest calls are from his Barisan Nasional partners, from his Gerakan party and from the Penangites.

The calls are coming in stringent and unwavering, so much so that Dr Koh called a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Friday to refute the charges.

He gave investment figures that “skyrocketed” under his watch as chief minister from 1990 to 2008.

He gave facts and figures of the projects undertaken during his tenure, the constructions that were done and the wave of investments.

But the fact remains that under his 18-year stewardship of Penang, the island's economy headed south and a new generation of Penangites could not find any use for a man who bent over backwards to please big brother Umno.

What counts is that Penangites rejected him so thoroughly like Sabahans did to Datuk Harris Salleh and his Berjaya Cabinet in 1985 and brought in the rule of Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan.

No matter how he wants to justify it or mitigate it, the fact remains that the voters of Penang have rejected him in totality.

After such a massive and thorough defeat, it is a wonder that only now, nearly four years on, that we hear rumblings for Dr Koh to step down as Gerakan president and as a federal minister.

The rumblings are coming from within Barisan Nasional and not from the Opposition, which is happy if Dr Koh stays so that it can continue to lampoon him for all the failures in Penang from uncollected rubbish to closure of foreign factories, which were household names, moving to China and the dramatic drop in foreign direct investment.

The verdict of 2008 shows Dr Koh, 62, has outlived his usefulness, so his critics charge. He is no longer relevant and has become a liability and a burden to Barisan Nasional.

Dr Koh is a man from the past, best suited for the world of academia. In fact, he was in academia as a deputy dean of education in Universiti Sains Malaysia but was persuaded to leave that cosy and comfortable job for the topsy-turvy world of politics.

Dr Koh was a big name in academia with a string of degrees and awards to his name.

And the Chinese value a man of learning like him. He was an ideal man for the times, his education, his intellectual rigour and his origins made him best suited to take over from Gerakan founder Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu as administrator of Penang.

Dr Koh was born in Penang in 1949 and attended Phor Tay Primary School and Chung Ling High School. He went on to graduate from Princeton University in 1970 with a degree in physics, and obtained his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1977 in economics and sociology of education.

He was a Fulbright scholar at Stanford University and made the transition to politics, first winning in the 1982 general election as a Gerakan Youth leader.

Eventually he climbed the ladder to become deputy president of Gerakan all in 15 years and under the tutelage of the plain-speaking Tun Dr Lim Keng Yaik.

After 18 years at the helm, years that some critics say he has nothing to show for he and his entire Gerakan team of Cabinet ministers were wiped out in the 2008 tsunami.

A new man is at the helm as the chief minister in DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng.

First Dr Koh is not doing what he should do fighting Pakatan Rakyat point for point in Penang and at the same time revive his own party's fortunes.

Neither is he combative nor has the leadership acumen to lead the state Barisan in its time of crisis.

The most telling thing said of Dr Koh came from his former boss Dr Lim who, in a recent interview, said Dr Koh had the intellectual capacity and integrity but was unable to match it with political decisions or to provide the crucial political leadership.

Dr Lim, who headed Gerakan for 27 years, believes that Gerakan has lost Penang for good.

Barisan Nasional has carried Dr Koh for some three decades and it is time to let him go.

What next for ‘softly-softly’ Koh?


Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon is trying to move his political base from Penang to Kuala Lumpur but the renewed pressure about his political future shows that he is still a liability for Gerakan in Penang.

GERAKAN members in Penang say Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon has sold the Tanjong Bungah house in Penang where he had lived for much of his 18 years as chief minister. He seldom goes back to Penang these days and seems set to make Kuala Lumpur his home.

The talk in his party is that he is preparing to make Kuala Lumpur his next political base too and that he is eyeing a parliamentary seat in the next general election. Some people call it running away; others say he is merely moving on. Anyway, Penang is no longer a tenable option for the Gerakan president. His party has been wiped out in the state that used to be synonymous with Gerakan and he is still being blamed for the catastrophe.

At the height of their political standing, party members were fond of saying that Penang is Gerakan and Gerakan is Penang. And now, without Penang, the party is floundering and Dr Koh’s shortcomings have become the DAP’s strength. He has not had an easy time since the 2008 general election. But the last one week has seen him come under renewed pressure to atone for the loss of Penang to Pakatan Rakyat.

Scathing remarks about him by Tan Sri Tan Kok Pin, a developer tycoon and Penang Chamber of Commerce president, resulted in calls for Dr Koh to step aside in Gerakan and give Barisan Nasional a chance to make a comeback. They claimed he is not helping his party or the coalition in Penang in accepting a Cabinet post via the Dewan Negara.

Several figures in his party have defended him and he held a press conference in Kuala Lumpur yesterday to refute some of the allegations. The circle around him imagine there is a conspiracy to bring him down and they use terms like “orchestrated” and “coordinated attacks”.

But, by and large, his party, especially in Penang, has been strangely tongue-tied about the criticism. The Penang Gerakan folks are aware of what people in the state think of the party and the former chief minister. They are disturbed that public sentiment has yet to shift in their favour three years after the political tsunami.

“I get a lot of that from members on the ground but I always ask them: I know you guys want a change in leadership, but tell me, change to who? They have no answer to that and neither do I,” said Gerakan Youth chief Lim Si Pin.

Party members, as Lim admitted, are resigned to accepting the situation till the next general election which will decide the fate of the party.

Dr Koh has shown little sign that he is about to exit the political stage now or in the near future. During the recent party’s state conventions, he asked members to give him two terms as president so that he can put things back on course.

Some were stunned because they felt that he should be thinking about a workable exit plan instead of trying to push for an extended term in office. Some had even wanted him to address the transition issue at the coming National Delegates Confer-ence but it looks like that is the last thing on his mind.

The trouble is that very few top leaders in Gerakan are in a position to ask Dr Koh to go because many of them had also lost in the election and are unwilling to make way.

There was empathy for Dr Koh immediately after March 8. He won respect for overseeing the peaceful transition of power to the new regime and was praised as a gentleman politician.

He could have gone with his head held high at that point. His sin was being unable to stand up to Umno but he had little personal baggage - he was seen as a relatively clean leader and he led a moderate private life.

But the goodwill quickly evaporated when he accepted a Cabinet post via the Senate. The public perception was that he had not taken responsibility for his party’s losses. He conceded the moral high ground by accepting the ministership and when MIC president G. Palanivel was appointed a minister recently, some blamed Dr Koh for setting the precedent.

The fact that he is making a fresh start elsewhere also irks those who are left trying to clear the mess in Penang. They feel that he is washing his hands of a problem that had and still has much to do with him.

Penang is where the party base is most extensive, yet he has relegated the party’s recovery in the state to Penang chairman Datuk Dr Teng Hock Nan who has been unable to inspire the troops.

“He should consider not running in the next general election. He would bring the whole party down with him if he does. He is a smart guy. He should be able to see that,” said a Penang Gerakan figure.

Even former party president Tun Dr Lim Keng Yaik has not been spared – he is being blamed for grooming Dr Koh.

He has privately told people in that blustery way of his: “Don’t think I don’t feel bad about what has happened to the party. I am very frustrated but there is nothing I can do.”

Chinese history is full of lessons in politics and Dr Koh should know that his intellectual and “softly-softly” style was suitable in peace-time politics. But it is a war zone out there these days and Gerakan needs a wartime leader – someone who can take the hits and hit out at the same time.

In private conversations, party members readily admit that he is not balancing his priorities between the party and his ministry. They feel that he should spend more time on party matters.

Instead, he seems more concerned about his ministry duties, to be seen with the Prime Minister and appearing in the media with him.

Dr Koh has been put on the defensive by renewed pressure for him to go. While it is true that the calls are coming from people without any real locus standi, the point is: There are not enough calls from his own party expressing confidence in his leadership.

It will be 30 years in politics for Dr Koh next year. That is a long time and that may be why people are wondering whether he still deserves to be up there.

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