Opposition at loggerheads over Phee’s detention

(The Straits Times, Singapore) – Malaysia’s linchpin opposition parties are at loggerheads again in Penang, this time over graft investigations into DAP state executive councillor Phee Boon Poh.

PKR’s Penanti assemblyman Norlela Ariffin has been accused of initiating the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s (MACC) raid on an illegal carbon-filter factory last week which led to Phee’s arrest last Friday.

While she denies lodging a report with the graft busters, she says she has complained about the factory in her constituency over the last two years to no avail. “Finally. Thank you, MACC,” Dr Norlela said on Facebook after the arrest.

The DAP-led state government has insisted that Phee is innocent as it has been state policy to allow illegal factories set up before 2008 to be given time to meet current regulations. Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng told The Straits Times that Phee, the councillor in charge of the environment, had merely written two letters in 2015 and 2016 asking that the factory be given time to legitimise its business.

But PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim said “the MACC’s actions were reasonable”.

His wife and PKR president, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said “locals clearly want the pollution they are facing to be addressed, which was expressed in a memorandum signed by 168 residents and handed to Norlela Ariffin … The residents’ well-being comes first”.

Penang government sources told The Straits Times that Lim “is definitely not happy” with PKR’s failure to back Phee.

“The issue is timing, because it can affect the general election,” said a source from the Chief Minister’s Office.

Relations among the four parties in Pakatan Harapan appeared to strengthen of late after a leadership structure headed by former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad and a common logo was formalised on July 14. But the factory debacle has revealed that DAP and PKR’s thorny relations in Penang continue to prickle.

DAP leads the state government by virtue of capturing nearly half the state assembly seats on its own, and along with PKR, it has a comfortable grip on 70% of the legislature. But PKR leaders have complained privately about Chief Minister Lim’s dictatorial leadership. In 2012, PKR Penang chief Mansor Othman, then Deputy Chief Minister, called Lim a “tokong (deity)” in a leaked recording, a remark that observers say led to his being dropped from the post.

Last year, five PKR backbenchers abstained from voting in a motion by Umno seeking to suspend land reclamation projects until public hearings were held. Two were subsequently removed from the boards of state-linked agencies chaired by Lim. Norlela was among the five, and she has frequently run afoul of the state government.

A Pakatan leader told The Straits Times the opposition was already struggling to win support from the Malay majority due to the perception that Chinese-dominated DAP was calling the shots in Pakatan. The Malay-majority Umno has also accused its former strongman, Mahathir, of being a DAP stooge.