Pakatan Rakyat may test the constitution to build their shelved Penang projects

So, it may soon boil down now to the Penang Government’s temerity to challenge the Federal Government in what may be a landmark constitutional battle to make the Federal Constitution favour them.

By : Azmi Anshar, New Straits Times

It was static to the ears of Penangites, a white noise of dread when the reality came crashing in that the RM2 billion Penang monorail and the RM1.5 billion Penang Outer Ring Road projects didn’t merit a mention for the much-needed funding. The Penang projects were not people friendly, the Prime Minister demurred in his speech at the House this morning when he laid out the Mid-Term Review of the Ninth Malaysia Plan when he sought an extra RM30 billion to boost a variety of other people-friendly projects. On a lesser impact, the proposed administrative centres in several states were also scratched.

Based on the figures provided by the PM, the bulk of the extra funds, at RM10 billion, will go to the economic corridors, the ones he touted the most among the many initiatives he made since the took over in 2004. But in these times of soaring oil prices, global security threats and problems in food production that for some states meant starvation, the Penang Government may be well-advised to not aggravate the shelving of the two projects by making a meal out of the zero funding.

Any gripes that the Pakatan Rakyat Government and the Penangites have, no matter how justified and excusable, cannot compare to the needling problems of the lower income group in simply surviving on monthly piecemeal basis, as the thrusts of the Mid-Term Review demands. So what if there is no monorail to gallivant around the island and so what if the is no Penang Outer Ring Road — a new expressway in connecting George Town to Gelugor in the south, near Penang Bridge and to Tanjung Bungah in the north – which would simply urge motorists to endure more years of bad congestion. At least the Second Penang Bridge project gets the nod but at the great disadvantage of higher construction cost, perhaps as high as 60 per cent if speculative reports are to be believed.

The overall economic picture in the meantime would not be high-defined perfection but a blank transmission for the Penang Government, who may have banked too much on the two projects to stimulate the state’s economy and grease the wheels of two its most profitable industries – tourism and all that is produced in the free trade zones.

But was the Feds’ motive in shelving the two projects not done out of political repudiation? That they had to salvage for lost pride after the majority of Penang voters’ power inured themselves that DAP’s Lim Guan Eng would make a far more endearing Chief Minister than BN’s Tan Sri Koh Tsu Koon in toppling the BN State Government on March 8?
The Deputy Prime Minister, in realising the negative backlash to the shelving of the two projects mean, came out strongly, denying that the projects’ shelving was a form of punishment to Penangites who voted for the Opposition. “It is not a question of punishing anyone. Essential projects will continue to be implemented whether the states are under BN or not,” he insisted.

The government, Najib asserted, was forced to defer some projects after conducting a re-evaluation but it did not mean that they are cancelled. “They can be implemented when the situation permits,” Datuk Seri Najib Razak told a Press conference in Parliament after Abdullah tabled the Mid-Term Review outline.

“When the situation permits” is the operative sentence to act. On one hand, the people of Penang may have to brace perhaps for more years of patience for these projects to come around but for the political climate going against them notwithstanding, the book on the projects may be closed for good, unless the voters suddenly decide in five years to return the BN to power and ease the Feds hardball stance.

But they are not waiting. There are strong murmurs that the Pakatan Rakyat Government is not leaving the “lost of ideal funding” for these two projects to providence or any justification that their needs are not “people-friendly”. The PR, arguing in principle that the BN lost of way among the plebiscites was the primary reason why they lost far too many seats on March 8, is determined not to be dragged that way too if they fail to get these projects moving. Some would say that getting the projects done at all cost would be their flagship election issue five years from now.

The business savvy among the PR crowd may now be thinking of alternative and independent means to raise funds for the two projects. That’s what it is: a mere lack of funding rather than lack of resolve, resourcefulness and some third party angel investors willing to fork out a cool RM3.5 billion in a coterie of investments and soft loans.

But Najib seemed to have anticipated this economically subversive thinking. When he was asked whether Penang could carry out the deferred projects on their own, Najib pointed the issue as a matter subject to the Federal Constitution. “You have to decide whether it is under the state or federal list. Secondly, if the state want to borrow (a loan), they still need permission from the federal government,” he said in underscoring the Federal Government’s stand.

Perhaps that was why DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang (DAP-Ipoh Timur) seemed nonchalantly blasé in his reaction to the PM’s Mid-term review speech – he may have already this legal onslaught in his mind and in saying it out loud and likely to speak on behalf of his fellow oppositionists, especially from Penang, brushed aside the loss of funding as “nothing much exciting.”

So, it may soon boil down now to the Penang Government’s temerity to challenge the Federal Government in what may be a landmark constitutional battle to make the Federal Constitution favour them. The Penang Government’s argument may revolve around the fact that land and water is a state prerogative and anything that is grown, built, planted, dug or shifted on Penang soil is their business and their business alone.

So would that make Najib’s pointer moot? Perhaps not. The moment the Federal Government sniffs something amiss, like contractors suddenly making a beeline to excavate earth and plant huge foundations, a court injunction would quickly come down hard to stop all construction work.

Would that deter the Penangites? Not those hardy pugilists from the DAP, Pas and PKR with the cojones of bull fighters. They will slug it out, with their Queen’s Counsels and their brigade of local lawyers salivating at the thought of arguing this unique case in court, knowing that the legal concurrences may swing with them.

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