By Lisa J. Ariffin
KUALA LUMPUR, June 16 — Lim Guan Eng today demanded Penang Barisan Nasional (BN) apologise for dangling the promise of restoring the island’s “free port status” as vote bait when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak recently said the concept no longer exists.
The Penang chief minister asked if Najib, who had reportedly made the statement in Parliament on Wednesday, was lying over the issue or if the promise was merely an election ploy to woo voters ahead of the coming polls.
“Penang BN must apologise because they talk about free port when (Prime Minister) Najib had announced that free port doesn’t exist anymore,” Lim (picture) told a press conference in Penang.
An audio recording of the news conference was made available to The Malaysian Insider.
Newly-appointed Penang BN chief Teng Chang Yeow had pledged to restore the state’s free port status recently but only if the ruling pact recaptures Penang in the coming polls.
According to Lim, Najib had reportedly said that since Penang has five free trade zones and the concept of a free port no longer exists, the issue of Penang becoming a free port “does not arise”.
The prime minister reportedly said this in reply to the DAP’s Bukit Bendera MP Liew Chin Tong’s question about the island’s free port status in Parliament on Wednesday.
Lim, who is also DAP secretary-general, reiterated that “Najib has said very clearly there is no free port”, and claimed the bid “was just a mere election ploy and propaganda to deceive the Penang people”.
“Why is Penang BN still saying there is a free port?” Lim asked.
“Are they saying that Najib is lying?”
Penang port has come under the limelight recently, with the state government rejecting the privatisation of Penang Port Sdn Bhd (PPSB) to logistics tycoon Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar al-Bukhary and demanded Putrajaya undertake a promised RM353 million dredging project crucial for the port’s expansion.
Lim said it was unlikely Syed Mokhtar’s Seaport Terminal Sdn Bhd would channel resources into PPSB as the latter would prefer to boost his main transshipment hub Port of Tanjung Pelepas (PTP) in Johor while “condemning” Penang Port into a “feeder port.”
The Malaysian Insider reported in December 2010 that the Cabinet had approved the Ministry of Finance’s (MoF) sale of PPSB to PTP despite competitive bids from other businessmen and also the Penang government, which owns the port land.
Lim wrote to Najib in early December 2010 to put in a bid to run the port, which has declined since the ministry took over in 1994.
The port lost its free port status in 1974 but Najib’s BN is offering to reinstate it if the federal coalition regains Penang which it lost in Election 2008.
PPSB is a wholly-owned subsidiary of MoF Inc while the regulator, PPC, also reports to Putrajaya through the Transport Ministry.
It is learnt that cargo volumes at Penang Port have failed to match that of Port Klang and Tanjung Pelepas, growing only 5.8 per cent a year between 1995 and 2009, against Klang which grew 14.2 per cent annually.
PTP began in 1999 but now handles more than six million TEUs a year, five times more than Penang Port, which Lim said had grown to handle 1.3 million TEUs last year.
Penang has complained that federal ownership of the port operator has worsened its financial position, with net debt rising from RM148 million in 2004 to RM832 million in 2009 — a 462 per cent increase in five years.