Dr. Boo Cheng Hau : Bringing Johor Forward

[THE ROCKET] In this series, the Rocket travels down south to Johor where the state DAP Chairman and state assemblyman for Skudai, Dr Boo Cheng Hau shares his experiences studying in the Caribbean as well his views on Pakatan Rakyat and what the next elections may bring to his beloved state.

Dr. Boo, Johor DAP chairman

Dr. Boo, Johor DAP chairman

Please tell us a bit about yourself and your career thus far.

I was born in Batu Pahat, the hometown of many DAP personalities. I grew up and studied in Yong Peng. For my tertiary education, I studied my first degree in chemistry in the USA. Subsequently, I studied and completed my medical degree in University of West Indies, Jamaica. I was one of the first Malaysians to have graduated from that university, if not that part of the world.

I did my housemanship training in Muar followed by several stints as a government practitioner in Segamat and Johor Bahru before I decided to go into private practice as a general practitioner. Now I have my own medical practice in the Skudai area.

Actually, I also studied law at the University of London.  As for my personal life, I am married and a father of two children. I began my political career in 1999, when I stood as a candidate for DAP in the Skudai state seat. I contested again in Skudai in 2004 and won the seat for the first time in 2008.

You have three degrees in three different fields from different countries. With such an impressive background, what made you interested in politics? In particular, why did you choose DAP?

I was always interested in politics. I recalled when I was still in secondary school, I was reading a book by DAP parliamentary leader Lim Kit Siang titled “Time Bombs in Malaysia”. It stirred me to know more about the country’s economy, education and politics. My interest in politics was piqued as a result. I found my calling in politics.

I decided to enquire about joining DAP so I wrote to the DAP headquarters. But perhaps I was too young then because they did not give me reply (laughs). But after my varsity education and housemanship training in Muar, I became a DAP member while I was serving in Segamat.

The reason I chose DAP was because I refused to subscribe to the racial brand of politics that Barisan Nasional practiced. I would have felt very uncomfortable in MCA. Growing up in a multi-cultural and multiracial society, I have always enjoyed being in fellowship with non-Chinese acquaintances. Though I came from a Chinese school background, I was always at ease with my non-Chinese friends. I have a Malay friend from my Chinese school days whom I still maintained contact with till this day.

When I was studying in Jamaica, I began to appreciate the vibrancy and strength that a multi-cultural society has to offer. I concluded that the politics practiced by BN along racial lines would be bad for the country.

How do you juggle your roles as a politician, a doctor and a family man? What are some of the challenges and issues that an elected representative faces?

I admit that handling the different roles have been challenging for me and my family. In my first year as an elected representative, most of my time was spent at work and politics. Particularly, I missed the time I spent with my children. In the past I would regularly bring them out to watch movies; that began to change in 2008. My children had a difficult time coping with it.

However, I am beginning to cope with these roles. I have been delegating more of my duties and responsibilities to my assistants and now I am able to spend some time with my family on a more regular basis.

Johor has always been known as the bastion of BN. With all the political changes that took place since March 2008, how have things changed in the state?

There is definitely a sense of change coming to Johor. Some of the Johoreans have rued about missing the boat of change that came as a result of the March 2008 general elections.

Johoreans are generally cautious; however that does not mean they do not want change. Many of them are following the political scenario closely; they are looking at how Pakatan Rakyat is performing in the states that it controls. If they decide to change their voting preference away from BN, they will give Pakatan a long tenure to run the state and country before changing back again.

As an analogy, I would liken the Johoreans’ voting choice to an investor making an investment decision. They don’t change easily, but when they change it would be for a long time. So in this sense, we are hopeful about the future.

This sense of change is widespread across the state. I have been to FELDA areas where Malay settlers are warmer now compared to the past. They are willing to attend our ceramahs and ask questions of what we can do for them. So I think they are willing to give us a chance.

What are the issues that are affecting the political scenario in Johor?

For Johoreans, the focus is generally on bread and butter issues. Some of these include rising cost of living, dwindling job opportunities, income levels not rising, bad public transportation system and the likes. These issues have brought disillusionment to the people in their perception of BN’s capabilities to run the country. It is now our job to present and explain the alternatives that Pakatan Rakyat can bring to them.

As for the local issues, we see Johor facing poor water management, rising sewerage cost and inefficient rubbish collection issues. The performance of the local authorities leaves much to be desired.

Another matter of concern is the state government’s growing debt. As of 2009, the Johor government owes RM1.27 billion in public debt. Together with the RM6 billion debt owed by the state-owned company Johor Corporation Bhd (JCorp) in which RM3.58 billion is due for maturity in 2012, Johor is potentially looking at a debt burden of at least RM6.6 billion. To solve its growing debt, JCorp has been reportedly seeking buyers for its investments which include blue chip stocks such as Kulim (Malaysia) Bhd and KFC (Malaysia) Holdings Bhd.

The state government has even resorted to selling land and properties to the federal government. JCorp has sold the Plaza Kotaraya office towers to Iskandar Investment Bhd (IIB), a federal government linked company. The state government is also looking to sell the Customs, Inspections and Quarantine (CIQ) site at Stulang to IIB as well.

As for the Iskandar Malaysia project, the federal government recently allocated RM339 million for 2011 and 2012 for the development of the place. This amount is too small to be able to develop it according to the plan envisioned.

This is due to the federal government’s disproportionate allocation of development budget to the Greater Kuala Lumpur area. The Klang valley area is already saturated with development; the government should instead develop other parts of the country.

Overpriced low cost housing project for civil servants - RM130, 000 each

Overpriced low cost housing project for civil servants - RM130, 000 each

How is Pakatan Rakyat perceived in Johor? What are the sentiments amongst the people towards Pakatan?

I am optimistic that we have created a positive impact on the people’s mentality towards PR, particularly with the efforts we have put in. After the 2008 elections, Johor PR formed a secretariat to address organisational matters and common issues in the state assembly proceedings. We have now progressed to form coordination committees at the district levels. This is to cement a long term working relationship together.

In regards to our prospects, we are capable of denying BN the two-thirds majority in the next elections. As for forming the state government here, I think we have to be prepared psychologically to face that prospect as well. We cannot say we will be the opposition here in Johor forever. We can only remind ourselves as to what happened in Selangor in 2008 when PR formed the state government unexpectedly. If we are to form the state government, it has to be on a solid footing; we need to win at least 38 state seats to be secure in governing. We don’t want what happened to the Perak PR state government in 2009 to occur here.

What are the issues or challenges that PR has to overcome?

PR has to present the solutions that will help the people solve their everyday issues. Harping on extreme and controversial ideas such as the Islamic state does not help us. If we look at past examples such as the communist bloc countries in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, we see that mundane issues such as the lack of electricity to heat homes in winter caused discontentment amongst the people and contributed towards the downfall of the government.

In regards to our relationship with other PR parties, there are things to be ironed out. We have been working closely with PAS as we have known most of the state leaders since the 1990s. However, we do encounter difficulties with PKR as they have been changing their state leadership frequently. It takes time to communicate and coordinate with their new leadership. Also, I think PKR in Johor needs to be more realistic about their ambitions and organisational capabilities.

As our strength is generally in the urban areas, we are able to help the other parties in reaching out to the voters there. In the last elections, many of the votes for PAS came from the urban areas. We hope that everyone would be sensitive in the statements that they make, especially in not championing any particular community’s cause at the expense of others. Also, we hope our efforts to help other parties will be appreciated.

We will also be facing a new Prime Minister at the helm in BN in the next general elections. There will be a “new PM effect” that could cost us many votes; we saw that happening with Tun Dr Mahathir in 1982 and Tun Abdullah Badawi in 2004. We will be facing a tough time in this election. People may want to give Najib Razak a chance as he is new to the job. We need to change our strategy to convince the people that Najib is just the new PM in the same corrupt BN government. Nothing has changed.

What are the challenges for DAP? What do we have to change to progress to the next level?

Our party structure and organisation has to be sound. After the 2008 elections, there was a big influx of new members to the party. Many of these new members’ background and loyalty are unknown. This may potentially bring problems to the party. We have had experiences in the past when there was also a big increase in party membership. Yet just before the general elections commenced, many of them quit en-masse, causing much embarrassment to the party.

In Johor, we are recruiting members more cautiously. We are screening the new recruits rigorously, ensuring that they understand our party cause and are loyal to the struggle. Our branch numbers have been growing steadily at nine percent since 2008.

In addition, we also need to make DAP more multiracial in our composition. Our leaders need to be more open-minded in reaching out to the different races. We have to take the initiative to reach out to the different segments of the society and the different races. An example could be having more open house events for the different religious and ethnic festivities. This will allows us the opportunity to mingle with those outside of our ethnic and religious community.

In addition, we should try to broaden our outreach efforts to the non-traditional voters by being visible in the areas where they congregate. In Johor, we have embarked on some exercises which include distributing the Malay Roket to members and potential members in the market, speaking at the other PR partners’ ceramahs in the inland areas and organising joint forums on common issues such as Johor’s fiscal situation and water price increase with other PR parties and stakeholders. These efforts will provide us with the platform to reach out to the Malays and Indians.

We are now seeing some of this efforts pay off. Recently we have some Malay settlers from FELDA schemes coming to Johor Bahru and asking us to assist them with land ownership matters. These Malay settlers came to know about us through the news and ceramahs. I also requested the state leaders from PAS to assist in highlighting their issues.

I brought them to the state assembly to witness the debates and they were very happy that it was highlighted. By standing together with other PR party members, we are also showing PR as a united front in helping the people regardless of race or religion.[THE ROCKET]