From being a senior executive at a bank to a Member of Parliament, then becoming Penang’s chief minister and now the country’s finance minister, “Saudara” Lim Guan Eng’s political career can be described as an amazing race, nothing less.
“From Penang to Putrajaya, from a sea of black ink, as we have much more money to spend (in Penang) to a sea of red ink (in Putrajaya),” he said, comparing his 10-year stewardship of the Penang state government with his challenging Federal role.
The Penang state government, adhering to a philosophy of competency, accountability and transparency (CAT), was acknowledged in the auditor-general’s report as the best financially managed state as it had doubled its asset reserves to RM1.83 billion and reduced its debts significantly to RM65 million – an achievement that seems more remarkable against the backdrop of the staggering RM1 trillion worth of national debt and liabilities.
On his job at the Federal level now, Lim sees it as about cutting down excesses.
“So, I am going to be a very, very unpopular finance minister. I have no money to give, I am cutting down,” the 57-year old minister told Bernama in an exclusive interview at his office.
But, he said it was absolutely fine to go down in history as the most ‘unpopular’ finance minister, “as this process of cutting down, cleaning up and turning around the nation is for our children.”
Emphasising the magnitude of the financial fiasco created by the previous government through a state investment fund, he said: “1MDB’s (1Malaysia Development Bhd) last tranche of the RM5 billion 30-year bond, guaranteed by the Federal government, is due in the year 2039.”
Recalling his first day of reporting for duty as finance minister on May 22, Lim said he was given a 1MDB-related document to sign: “I told them ‘no, I am not going to sign this, bring me something else’.”
It was on the same day that he spilled the beans on the Ministry of Finance's (MoF) “bailout” of 1MDB’s debt obligations since April 2017 to the tune of RM6.98 billion.
“We want our children to live a better life than us. So, this fight is for our children because they deserve a better future than we have today. We need to make sure that we do not mortgage our children’s future. They (the previous government) have done that for the last 10 years, at least,” he said.
However, Lim admitted that it would not have been possible without the people speaking out loudly, via the ballot box, at the 14th General Election, which ended Barisan Nasional’s (BN) ‘grip’ on the country.
He believed that if not for the change in government, the “RM1 trillion debt could have easily ballooned to even RM2 trillion or RM3 trillion, a level where no medicine can be prescribed.”
“The new Pakatan Harapan government knows exactly what to do (to tackle the problem),” he said with an air of confidence, having turned the Penang state finances around.
“From that experience in Penang, we know what we need to do. The question is whether we can take that strain, that is the challenge. It is not going to be easy. But together, we can.”
'Investors want truth'
On criticism that the Pakatan Harapan government, especially the Finance Minister himself, was still talking as if it were still in the opposition by revealing details on the nation’s financial health, especially the astounding mountain of debts, Lim was convinced that there was nothing wrong in telling the truth to the people, as well as, investors because that is what they really want to know.
“It was the ‘Don’t tell them everything lah’ mentality (previously). They (the previous government) are not used to this. We are telling you (everything) as it is. What you see is what you get. They massage the numbers; we don't massage the numbers. They repackage it, they do creative accounting; we do not subscribe to creative accounting.
“And, just because I am in the Federal government now, I am not going to be any different. This is my style. I can still walk into a street shop and have noodles.
“It is a different league and ball game. But, rest assured that I know my job, I am an accountant myself,’’ said the down-to-earth Finance Minister, banking on the accounting pragmatism that it would all add up in the end.