Malaysia: Penang Chief Minister Labels Graft Charges ‘Political Attack’

S. Adie Zul
160630-MY-corruption-folo-620.jpg Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng (center, wearing red tie), arrives at the Penang High Court in George Town under the escort of Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission officers, June 30, 2016.
S. Adie Zul/BenarNews

A Malaysian court Thursday charged a leading opposition figure and chief minister of Penang for corruption-related offenses, which he called politically motivated and whose party declared that it would not seek his resignation from office.

Penang state Chief Minister and Democratic Action Party (DAP) Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng, who has criticized Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak for alleged graft in a scandal linked to a government-backed investment fund, appeared at the Penang High Court where he was charged with two counts of corruption.

The charges were aimed at crushing his political career, Lim said in a highly charged news conference after he posted bail, which the court in George Town set at 1 million ringgit (U.S. $250,000).

“Today we see that this is all a political attack against me as a chief minister,” Lim told cheering supporters.

Following an ad-hoc meeting, Chow Kon Yeow, the chairman of DAP in the state, said the party’s leadership in Penang had unanimously decided “there is no need for Lim to resign as chief minister or take leave from his duties.”

Outside the courthouse about 1,000 people gathered in a show of support for Lim. When he took office as Penang’s chief minister in 2008, he pledged he would govern the state cleanly and backed that up by publicly declaring his assets.

Lim was arrested on Wednesday by officers with the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).

Lim, seller charged

Lim wore a black suit and red ties as he arrived at the courthouse at around 10 a.m.

Inside the courtroom, he was accused of committing graft over his approval in July 2014 of a rezoning application from Magnificent Emblem Sdn Bhd (MESB), in his capacity as the state’s Planning Committee chairman.

He was specifically charged with corruption over his purchase of a 2.8 million ringgit (U.S. $693,000) bungalow said to have been sold at below-market value and abuse of power for allegedly rezoning a plot of land from agricultural to residential use. The offense carries a maximum jail term of 20 years and a fine of at least five times the total alleged graft, or 10,000 ringgit ($2,500), whichever is higher.

He was also charged with obtaining a kickback as a public servant by purchasing his bungalow from Phang Li Koon on July 28, 2015, when the actual market value was 4.27 million ringgit ($1 million), as an alleged reward for the rezoning approval. The offense is punishable with a maximum sentence of two years in jail, a fine, or both.

Lim pleaded not guilty to both charges.

After setting bail, the court ordered Lim to give two days’ notice to the attorney general’s office and the court if he planned to travel abroad.

Phang, who also appeared in court, pleaded not guilty to a charge of abetment for allegedly selling the bungalow below its actual market value. She was released on a 200,000 ringgit ($50,000) bail.

The next hearing on the charges is set for Sept 22.

‘Willing buyer and seller’

Lim denied claims that he purchased the house at a discounted price for approving a land rezoning application by MESB, a company where Phang sits on the board of directors. That application did not pass.

“I have explained it over and over that the house was sold to be on a ‘willing buyer and seller’ basis between Phang and me,” Lim said during the news conference. “She did not enjoy any privilege as there is no conflict of interest involved with the state government, and she is merely a friend to my wife [Betty Chew], and not a developer.”

“I wish to stress here that if MESB had succeeded in converting the land status, it means that the company had benefitted from me, but I want to clarify that the company was not successful and the land status remains the same. As such, I want to ask, what is the privilege the company enjoyed from me?” he added.

‘This is politics’

The charges against Lim represent the latest example of the prosecution of a leader of Malaysia’s political opposition, said Penang-based criminal lawyer K. Prabhakaran, apparently alluding to the controversial imprisonment of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on a sodomy conviction.

“This is politics, definitely politics because there are others who are not being charged, whose cases are worse than his. For me this is a political maneuver by Barisan Nasional (BN) to suppress any opposition to them. Politically I foresee more of this (prosecution of opposition figures) to come,” Prabhakaran told BenarNews, referring to Malaysia’s ruling coalition.

Lim, the son of veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, leads one of three states run by opponents of Prime Minister Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a founding member of  BN.

Lim’s party, the DAP, has been attacking Najib over his alleged links to a financial scandal tied to state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Since July 2015, Najib has faced calls for his resignation amid allegations over a deposit of nearly $700 million into his private bank accounts. Najib has refused to step down, maintaining that he never took any of the money for personal gain. Malaysia’s attorney general has cleared the PM of any wrongdoing in the case.


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