Teh Yee Cheu: The people’s guy

At the Penang DAP headquarters in Georgetown on a late Friday morning last month, I found the second-term Tanjung Bungah State Assemblyperson Teh Yee Cheu with his hands full.Teh was busy answering phone calls and entertaining a couple of elderly folks who were there to ask about the state benefits for senior citizens, as the others were having a staff meeting.

For Teh Yee Cheu, it was no big deal. He’s comfortable doing the things he used to do when he began helping out the DAP in 1999.

“Not only phone calls, I used to sweep the floor and clean the toilets at the old party office in Jalan Talipon (in Georgetown). Those were the years when everybody shunned DAP and life was very tough for any opposition party member,” he reminisced.

Starting out

Teh, 55, was born in Baling, Kedah but grew up in Georgetown. His parents ran a grocery shop. And he had no interest in politics when he was growing up. He wanted to be a ship captain to travel around the world. He even hoped to study navigation but ended up in the field of marine science, obtaining a degree from Taiwan’s National University of Marine Science and Technology in the mid-1980s.

It was in Taiwan that he began to get interested in politics.

“I saw people rise up against the authoritarian Kuomintang government. When the majority of the people dare to fight unjust rule such as martial law and curbs on freedom, the government had no choice but to listen to the people.

“I saw the young people taking the lead to oppose undemocratic rulers. At the same time, the people of South Korea also fought against their authoritarian government. I began to realise that when people are united, they can overcome oppression,” he recalled.

But surviving everyday life was more important to Teh after he graduated from his studies. He became a shipping agent. Like most Malaysians in the mid- and late-1980s, he wanted a share of the economic cake too. So he applied for some business permits.

Unfortunately for him, it was the beginning of the “Ali Baba” era – where an UMNO-linked company with little or no skills would get a contract from the UMNO-led government but later outsourced the job to a non-Bumi company that has the actual skills.

“Even when our company has international contacts, as long as we don’t have any Malay company’s involvement, we’re denied permits or projects. This situation continued until the 1990s,” said Teh who remembered that at that time still had no desire to get involved in active politics despite feeling the heat of economic injustice.

Closer to home, as he had settled in Tanjung Bungah, he was also angry with the land reclamation projects approved by Gerakan-led BN government of Penang; reclaiming lands to build luxury condominiums and hotels while neglecting the needs of the poor people. Yet he was not ready to commit himself to full time politics.

Beginning of an active political life

It was until the Reformasi that he felt he was ready to get involved. Was it because of Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking?

“No, not really. It reminded me immediately about what I saw in Taiwan and South Korea in the 1980s; that it could be possible for Malaysia to have a two-party system. And Anwar Ibrahim also mentioned about the two-party system,” he explained, adding that he joined DAP in 1999.

At the old DAP office in Jalan Talipon, Teh who was “unemployed” (with a very supportive wife and with helping some family business) began to make the premises his second home. It also enabled him to become a full time party worker, doing this such as sweeping swept the floor, cleaning the toilets, answering phone calls, visiting areas that needed help and selling the Rocket including at night markets.

Under the guidance of Chow Kon Yeow who was the then Penang DAP Secretary, Teh learned more about politics and ways to bring people’s support to the party. Chow took over the running of the party in Penang after the devastating split following the KOKS (Kick Out Kit Siang) campaign in 1998, launched by certain party leaders to attack Lim Kit Siang for allegedly his “failure” to rejuvenate the DAP. The detractors also opposed the party’s decision to work with PAS to prepare for the 1999 general election.

Such squabbles caused DAP, especially in Penang, to suffer a devastating electoral defeat.

Penang DAP won one state seat only. Kit Siang and Karpal Singh lost their Parliamentary seats in Penang.

A typical life of a Penang DAP member 1999 – 2008

Life was no bed of roses for DAP members between 1999 and 2008. For Teh, he was given the task to head DAP’s Citizens against Government Waste Committee – an idea Chow brought back from his visit to the United States in 2001. It allowed Teh to gather information on environmental degradation, unused houses and bungalows as well as rubbish dumps and reclamation of land. That’s the beginning of his active involvement in green issues including his passion for cycling.

In 2002, Penang DAP held a state committee election. Teh was among the 15 candidates elected despite being a party member for only two years. Why was it easy for him to be elected?

“No one wanted to join DAP at that time. The mainstream media including the Chinese language press highlighted the KOKS campaign as well as demonised our relationship with PAS, which was seen as an extremist political party.

“With not many people want to be active with DAP, I guess we didn’t have much choice. That’s why I was elected,” he explained, adding that although Penang DAP had 32 branches at that time, only 10 were active.

All his friends told him it was stupid to join DAP but his wife gave him full support. It was a critical time for the state DAP and morale was very low. During those times, Teh who was peddling the Rocket in Penang had to suffer humiliation. He had to literally beg people to buy the party paper and had to endure harsh words from the people, especially the Chinese whosaid that DAP had betrayed the community by working together with PAS.

Even Chow, in the aftermath of the 1999 general election admitted that “BN’s effective fear campaigns on the Islamic state issue and political instability were so successful that many Chinese decided to opt for the status quo”.

When Dr Mahathir Mohamad stepped down, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi gave a fresh hope for Malaysians. Hence the 2004 general election was another round of defeat for the DAP, barely maintaining the sole state seat in Penang.

For Teh, the 2004 general election was his baptism of fire. He contested in a newly created state seat of Air Putih on the island but lost to the MCA incumbent. “We weren’t disappointed because no one had high hopes for Penang DAP. In fact post-2004, there were no newcomers for the party in the state,” he said, adding that he was busy setting up the Penang DAP website as well as promoting the party online.

The 2008 political tsunami

When it was time to choose for candidates in Penang to face the 2008 general election, it was a comical affair. Many didn’t want to contest. Most probably they were too embarrassed to suffer another humiliating defeat, just like 1999 and 2004. Hence quite a number of Penang DAP members declined to contest. Some, who accepted, did so reluctantly.

No one expected DAP or the opposition to do well despite there were signs such as the first Bersih rally as well as the Hindraf’s Makkal Sakhti that people were angry with Abdullah Badawi’s failure to fulfil his promises.

But then March 8 happened. BN lost four states – Kedah, Penang, Perak and Selangor (as well as PAS maintained Kelantan) and lost its two-thirds Parliamentary majority. And Penang DAP won all the seats it contested.

Walk the talk

Initially, Teh’s obsession with environmentalism – he calls himself “half environmentalist, half socialist” – did not get full support from the party. Perhaps they were more concerned with other issues such as the anti-corruption drive and good governance. It was only when Lim Guan Eng, as Chief Minister, gave his support; Penangites began to see serious efforts to green the state.

Guan Eng who is also DAP Secretary-General had led Penang since 2008 with the aim of greening the state including becoming the first state in Malaysia to reduce plastic bag consumption. Such an effort was later copied by the Federal Government although it is only confined to every Saturday as a no plastic bags day.

Among other things promoted by the Penang Pakatan Rakyat government are:

* Zero Waste campaign – the banning of polystyrene boxes and plates in all official functions in 2009 and two years later it achieved a 24% recycling rate which exceeded the country’s targeted 20% rate for 2020. Penang aims to achieve 49% recycling rate by 2018;

* Giving incentives to developers certified by Green Building Index (GBI);

* Establishing the Penang Green Council (PGC) in 2011 to enable, empower and enrich all stakeholders to practice sustainable development that protects the environment and quality of life;

* Providing free bus services around the George Town heritage enclave at the cost of RM50,000 every month as well as the Bridge Express Shuttle Transit (Best) which are free shuttle services to and from between Seberang Perai, the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Area and Balik Pulau. The public transportation services will reduce carbon emission.

Teh said he was happy that the efforts to green Penang which was highlighted many years ago were being implemented by the current state government, compared to the time when BN was ruling the state.

“For myself, I have to walk the talk. That’s why besides campaigning for environmental awareness, I also cycle to work every day, or 80% of the time,” he said, adding that Penang state government is also very serious about enforcing the safe bicycle lane throughout the island, and soon on the mainland. While he hoped cyclists would be patient with the progress, he wanted the state authorities to speed up the plan for the dedicated bicycle lanes.

Worries and concerns

The Pakatan state government led by Guan Eng since 2008 has done a great job in transforming Penang from a sleeping island, in particular during the era of Gerakan’s Koh Tsu Koon – into some form of recovered robust state. Community building activities, including the return of street arts and gotong-royong (communal mutual aid), are just a few examples of the success of bringing back the light to Penang.

Yet for Teh, although he acknowledges the positive changes, he still worries about the physical development in the state, particularly on hill slope projects as well as the land reclamation projects. “I know most of these projects were approved during BN’s time but

I hope the state can find a way to review these projects to ensure the environment is not damaged,” he said.

He added that his role as a backbencher in the state assembly meant that he would support the government of the day but he must also voice out the concerns of the people, especially those in his own constituency of Tanjung Bungah who are affected by the rapid development.

“I know capitalists are only interested in making profits. They will find many ways to persuade any government to give them projects. Therefore the government must be very careful in dealing with capitalists because the government’s main responsibility is to ensure the well-being of the people,” he said.

Teh believes that putting people first is more important than the favouring the developers and he hopes that whenever possible, the state government must review decisions made by theformer BN government to ensure the protection of the people.

“Whatever projects we do, they must benefit the people, not benefit the capitalists only,” he added.

However, even with Teh’s concerns, Penang state government actually does quite well for the people even with daily attacks by the mainstream media. In the words of Guan Eng at the Penang DAP state convention last month:

“We have shown that we can wipe out poverty in 5 years that BN couldn’t do in 50 years. We have shown we can spend more than RM100 million yearly on welfare assistance without going bankrupt. We have shown that we can make Penang cleaner in a state that BN condemned as the dirtiest in the country. We have shown that we can make Penang safer. We have shown we can make Penang come alive as the cultural and heritage capital of Malaysia.”

Perhaps one of the things in life that politicians must remember is that capitalism’s sweet promises usually end up with plunder and pillage; and people are usually the losers.

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