AFTER years of keeping publicly silent on issues involving the rights of the Chinese Malaysian community, MCA leaders seem to have found their voices of late.
From its president Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting railing against the demonstrators who disrupted the Malaysian Bar Council forum on conversion to Islam on 9 Aug 2008, to the voices from every level of the party asking for a review of the Internal Security Act (ISA) after the recent spate of detentions, the MCA finally appears to be standing up for itself in the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
Is this a case of the party leaders taking to heart the painful lessons of the 8 March 2008 general election? Or simply a shameless attempt at getting political mileage and populist support ahead of what looks to be a keenly fought party election on 18 Oct?
The blame game
(From top) Ong Ka Ting; Ong Ka
Chuan; Ong Tee Keat (© The Nut
Graph); Donald Lim; Fong Chan
Onn; Chua Jui Meng; Liow Tiong
Lai (Original sources: parlimen.gov.
my; mca.org.my; mca-selangor.org.
chuajuimeng.com; liowtionglai.com)The March election handed the MCA its worst defeat since 1969. Its parliamentary seat share was slashed from 31 to 15, and state seats from 76 to 32. Many opposition candidates standing against MCA candidates used slogans such as “A vote against MCA is a vote against Umno” — reflecting the party’s marginalised status and role in the Umno-led BN. Hence it is no secret that some in the MCA’s leadership blame Umno for their poor showing in the election.
With the confidence of the rank and file dropping to new lows, Ka Ting has stepped forward to take the blame for the MCA’s dismal performance. On 28 June, he said he would not contest in the upcoming party elections. His deputy Tan Sri Chan Kong Choy followed suit, and their exit opens up many possibilities in a party that is trying to regain its footing.
New deals between the potential candidates for the top posts are being brokered, and two distinct camps have again emerged in the struggle for power.
Ka Ting and his brother, party secretary-general Datuk Seri Ong Ka Chuan, have joined forces with vice-president Datuk Ong Tee Keat and Youth chief Datuk Liow Tiong Lai to form what is being touted as Team A; while former vice-president Datuk Seri Chua Soi Lek has joined forces with vice-presidents Datuk Donald Lim and Datuk Dr Fong Chan Onn in what is being called Team B.
A tough fight
Donald tells The Nut Graph that it is far more important for MCA to reform and reinvent itself from now, and that the leadership’s quality and party’s direction are more critical than responses by the leaders to various issues.
“What is the point for having a war of words? A more realistic way is to draw up and fight for fair political policies,” Donald says.
He adds that the March election tsunami is a message to the MCA that the Chinese community wants concrete action, not lip service.
“If any leader cannot make [concrete action for fair political policies] come true, they should give way to others,” says Donald, who announced his candidacy for deputy president in Penang on 28 Sept. He will be facing Soi Lek and Ka Chuan in what is expected to be a tough fight.
The battle for the president’s post is between Tee Keat and former vice-president Datuk Chua Jui Meng. Tee Keat was the first to announce his intention to contest, and he has strong backing, as was seen by the state-level women and youth elections held in early September, where many candidates aligned to him won.
Jui Meng, whose decision to contest for the top post comes as a surprise, is not aligned to any camp, and is considered a lone ranger in this party election.
Both candidates are standing on a platform of reform, but Tee Keat was the first to suggest the MCA should take a multiracial approach.
“It is a multidimensional reform. It should be gradual, and it does not mean that we open the door immediately to non-Chinese to join the MCA,” Tee Keat says.
He cautions that neither MCA members nor the non-Chinese Malaysian community are mentally prepared for the recruitment of non-Chinese Malaysian members into the party.
“We cannot achieve everything in just one step,” stresses Tee Keat, who also insists that he is not promoting any one candidate over another in the coming election.
But observers wonder if such lofty agendas are doomed to remain nothing more than rhetoric, as concrete plans and specific objectives are conspicuously absent in the candidate’s message.
Keen on reform
Still, Tee Keat tells The Nut Graph that the party members are keen on reforming the party.
Grassroots are open-minded about party reforms as
they do not have personal interests, says Tee KeatHe says pulling out from the BN and taking on a more multiracial approach are just some of the options raised by the grassroots during his nationwide campaign to solicit support for his presidential run.
“The grassroots are very open-minded about any idea to reform the party as they do not have any personal interests,” he explains.
His opponent, Jui Meng, also believes in the reform agenda. He tells The Nut Graph that the MCA needs to transform itself in order “to improve the fate of the Chinese community.”
“After I become MCA president, I will initiate talks with Umno to discuss plans to abolish the New Economic Policy,” says Jui Meng, who also wants the ISA to be repealed.
But his answers betray one of the bugbears of the Chinese Malaysian community: that any attempt by the MCA to spearhead reform in the nation has to be done with Umno’s blessing.
Jui Meng also wants to introduce rules that enforce transparency within the MCA, such as making it mandatory for Huaren (the MCA’s investment arm) accounts to be published during the party’s annual meeting.
According to political commentator Josh Hong, this suggestion would put a lot of pressure on Tee Keat and the Ong brothers to be transparent about the party’s financial status.
“Jui Meng is fighting an unwinnable battle, but it is a positive campaign to pressure Tee Keat to come up with far more progressive plans,” says Hong, adding that Jui Meng’s contest is a symbolic fight against the status quo.
Playing second fiddle
(© Benjamin Earwicker / sxc.hu)Though Jui Meng is facing an uphill task, he looks set to leave a mark on the party for fighting against the dominant faction; in this case, Tee Keat and the Ong brothers, Hong observes. Jui Meng has done similarly before, when he managed to garner one-third of the votes during the 2005 party election against the current president Ka Ting.
Still, Hong is more reserved about MCA leadership’s reform initiatives. Given that the party is now bracing for an intense election, any talk about transforming the party is premature, and all the potential candidates are busy jostling for positions rather than working with a long-term plan.
“As things stand, the MCA is still playing second fiddle to Umno. There is no sign of the Chinese party being able to influence the policy-making process within the government, either on the issue of petrol prices or judicial reform,” Hong says.
As an example of the MCA’s continued irrelevance in the BN, Hong points to events post-March elections. When news leaked of the secret talks between Umno and PAS on Malay unity and forming a ruling coalition in Selangor, the response of the MCA leadership was apathetic at best.
Hong says that Team A leaders such as Tee Keat, Ka Chuan, Liow and Dr Wee Ka Siong — who are either ministers or deputy ministers — have the advantage of government resources, tilting the situation in their favour.
All charm but no substance
Looking back on previous power struggles within the party, the faction backed by the Umno-led government usually won. The exception was in1985, when Datuk Dr Neo Yee Pan lost to Tan Koon Swan.
But this time, Umno itself is in hot water, Hong says.
“So far there has been no sign of Umno leaders giving blessings to either faction within the MCA. And Tee Keat, widely perceived to be the heir apparent to Ka Ting, is not popular with Umno due to his controversial, lone-ranger style.”
Umno Youth chief Hishammuddin Hussein Onn
(© MrAaron@Flickr) Tee Keat has crossed swords with both Umno Youth chief Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein Onn and his deputy Khairy Jamaluddin on several occasions, and it would be interesting to observe whether Umno would warm up to a “Chinese-ultra” as MCA leader.
Besides, Hong says, it is clear that Tee Keat is now in a dilemma. He is popular with the Chinese grassroots on account of his lone-ranger, almost maverick image, and for having offended many Umno leaders along the way. He vowed not to be aligned to any faction, but now finds it impossible to win without the backing of Team A. “Even if he made it to president, too close a relationship with Umno would be unpalatable to the grassroots, while being a lone ranger would get him nowhere in government,” Hong says.
“Tee Keat has all the charm but no substance. He exploited adroitly the differences of various factions in the past, and his survival skills are truly impressive.
“However, other than uttering sophisticated phrases in Mandarin to enchant the Chinese-speaking crowd, his achievements as party leader and cabinet member are negligible. So far, he has not come up with any initiative as to how he would reform the party, not to mention policy changes in government,” Hong points out.
With Jui Meng not likely to make much headway, it seems likely that it will be up to Tee Keat and the new A Team to push the reform agenda. But that, like everything else, may take a back seat once the dust of the election battle has settled.