JIM MIDDLETON: The prime minister, your prime minister, Najib Razak, has been teasing us for some time now, since late last year with the prospect of an early election. How soon do you, the opposition, now expect to be going to the polls?
LIM GUAN ENG: We expect election to be called probably in June or July. And it will be interesting because this is the first time that voters will have a real choice. A real choice between the present government or the alternative, that is the Parti Keadilan Rakyat coalition that is headed by Anwar Ibrahim. And I think this will be a game changing election for Malaysia.
JIM MIDDLETON: Mr Najib says it will be a challenge for the government to get a clear majority. On the other hand, the opinion polls suggest that he, personally, is more popular than ever. This seems to be something of a contradiction, the two cannot both be right, can they?
LIM GUAN ENG: Well, he may be popular personally, but it is not translated into popularity for his party. If this was a presidential elections I'm sure this would be a very different situation. But since you have to vote for the political party, he can't be everywhere.
So I think it boils down to the issues; which party can offer real change for the people.
JIM MIDDLETON: You won around 80 seats last time. You prevented the government for the first time in getting a two thirds majority. How well will you do at this election? Do you think you can achieve a majority?
LIM GUAN ENG: Well, I think that's the big question mark hanging in the air. But we feel that even if we do not make it this time, I think the election of the next would definitely see a change of government. And principally, because when you have new voters coming up, and new voters have strong yearning for change.
JIM MIDDLETON: You've been chief minister in Penang since 2008. I gather, from what I've seen, that you've been trying to practise what you preached in terms of economic policy it at the 2008 election. In a nutshell, what impact has your decision to abandon the practice of preferential treatment for Malay business interests had on the economy of Penang?
LIM GUAN ENG: When we first took power we thought we had to implement international norms. We practised governance based on CAT- competency, accountability and transparency - and of course this is translated into open tenders, public declaration of assets, of top officials; as well as public disclosure of government contracts signed with private companies.
And when we implemented open tenders, we were accused of sidelining Malay contractors. We believed that Malay contractors can compete on merit. And I think the results have proven that open competitive tenders have not affected Malay contractors. Seventy per cent of the contracts were actually won by Malay contractors. I think the difference is it is not Malay contractors who are not competent for securing government contracts, it is actually foreign contractors that were incompetent.
JIM MIDDLETON: What about in budgetary terms, in terms of attracting investment and so on to Penang, has it had a definable, a quantifiable impact on your budget and on investment within the State?
LIM GUAN ENG: Yes. When you have CAT governance competency, accountability and transparency open tenders helps to safe course and also ensure good management; and that, of course, is very good on your budget.
We had record budget surpluses every year since we took power. And we have also increased our cash reserves by almost 50 per cent to 1.2 billion ringgit and we have cut down our debt by 95 per cent.
JIM MIDDLETON: If this has been such a success in Penang, why then are other governments in Malaysia not following the same principles? Surely, economic success is its own reward?
LIM GUAN ENG: For (inaudible) governments we feel they're too entrenched in the old ways, based on cronyism, based on closed tenders, as well as of course on opaque governance. And whilst they may see these successes for us, I think they look at it with complete horror.
JIM MIDDLETON: One final subject: the controversy over the rare earths plant being built by an Australian firm in your country; why has this become such a significant national, rather than merely a regional issue in Malaysia?
LIM GUAN ENG: Green issues have never really taken off in the past. But with a greater political consciousness amongst the young, I think green issues are now coming to the fore.
So when the Lynas plant was approved in near secrecy, many Malaysians were not aware of the negative impact from the processing of rare earth. And when they finally discovered what was actually happening, there was an unprecedented movement amongst ordinary Malaysians to oppose the rare earth plant. And you can see that there are grave concerns, especially in terms of storage of the waste, and the refusal of the government to address these concerns have only exacerbated worries that the government is putting profits before health.
JIM MIDDLETON: Chief minister, thank you very much indeed.
LIM GUAN ENG: Thank you.