Party president Ong Tee Keat (centre) with his fellow leaders at the end of the assembly’s proceedings
SIGNALLING the seriousness of their intent to reform the party, delegates to the just-concluded 55th MCA annual general assembly on 19 Oct voted for candidates they felt could deliver the goods. And now all eyes will be on new party president Datuk Ong Tee Keat to see if he can outline a new vision for the MCA, which is badly in need of an overhaul.
Having suffered a humiliating drubbing at the 8 March 2008 general election, the party is faced with the difficult prospect of winning the hearts and minds of the Chinese Malaysian community it claims to represent.
And to ensure that the reform agenda is carried out, the delegates caused a surprising upset at the party polls on 18 Oct by voting in former vice-president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek as deputy president. Soi Lek beat the favoured candidate, secretary-general Datuk Ong Ka Chuan, who is the elder brother of former president Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting.
Soi Lek’s win also puts an end to the fixed-name lists, or cai dan (menu), for delegates. Traditionally, the cai dan indicates candidates who have the blessings of the status quo faction in the MCA, and delegates usually toe the line. But now, the curse of the cai dan culture is finally broken.
However, voting in a new team is only the first step. The question remains, how will the MCA reinvent itself at a time when multiracial politics is becoming more popular with the electorate? Can the newly elected leadership close ranks after a heated election that saw plenty of mud-slinging?
Soi Lek is mobbed by journalists after being declared new MCA
deputy presidentAnd how is the MCA is going to deal with the imbalance of power within the Barisan Nasional (BN), where Umno clearly calls the shots?
The return of Soi Lek, who does not see eye-to-eye with Ka Ting, shows that the delegates have rejected the former president’s leadership. (Two other leaders aligned with Ka Ting — Deputy Home Minister Datuk Chor Chee Heung, who vied for a vice-president post, and Deputy Minister of Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Teng Boon Soon, who contested for a spot in the central committee — also lost.)
There have been doubts as to whether ‘lone ranger’ Tee Keat, who handily beat former vice-president Datuk Chua Jui Meng, and Soi Lek will be able to work as a team. But both have sent positive signals after the election by saying that personal issues picked up during the campaign is “common in any election.” They have pledged to work together.
Central committee member and former Kelana Jaya Member of Parliament (MP) Loh Seng Kok says the new line-up shows that the Chinese Malaysian community wants an a assertive and strong leadership within the MCA.
“The delegates have given the mandate to a new leadership. The MCA wants a new leadership that can negotiate and talk to Umno in an equal manner,” says Loh.
Kangkung, fried with belacan (© Indradi Soemardjan) Badgered with questions about his lukewarm relationship with Soi Lek, Tee Keat, who is the Transport Minister, said in his winding-up speech during the assembly that their relationship is akin to cooking kangkung (water spinach). The taste, he said, depends on the cook; and in this case, the cooks are the delegates. (The pronunciation of Tee Keat and Soi Lek’s surnames in Mandarin, Weng Cai, sounds similar to “kangkung”).
Tee Keat’s speech on 19 Oct centred more on thanking delegates for electing him as president rather than setting a new vision for the party. His first speech as the new president lacked any articulation of national policy or party reform.
In contrast, his deputy Soi Lek’s speech was more inspiring. He noted that the emergence of a two-party system after the March 2008 general election posed a new challenge to the MCA.
“The electorate now can compare the quality of two coalitions (referring to the BN and the Pakatan Rakyat),” said Soi Lek, who added that they could no longer sing the same old song to the public.
“As the second largest political party, while we defend the interests of Chinese Malaysians, we fight for national issues, to ensure that the BN’s policies will not prioritise Malays or Islamisation.
“If our party cannot transform, we will have to close shop come the next general election,” Soi Lek warned.
To him, his priority for the party is clear: reform or die.
The new president Tee Keat (right) and his deputy Soi LekLater, he tells The Nut Graph that the younger generation is looking for non-racial politics in Malaysia, as evidenced in the 8 March elections.
“We must project an image that while we champion Chinese issues, we fight for national issues,” says Soi Lek, who believes that the MCA can stay relevant even as a Chinese-based party.
He says the MCA failed to garner support from young voters because the party did not adapt its struggle to their wishes.
“We should talk about national issues like abuses of power, corruption, and the judiciary, which assume more importance,” he says, adding that the MCA is tasked with ensuring that democracy, transparency and fairness are upheld in the BN.
A multiracial MCA?
Is multiracialism the right approach for the MCA to counter Umno’s dominance in the BN coalition?
“There is no need to change the party’s racial composition. More important is that members’ thinking must be non-communal,” says central committee member (CCM) Wong Nai Chee.
“I think more of our grassroots are receptive to this, especially after the March general election, and as they become more aware of globalisation.”
Tan Cheng LiangSecond-term CCM Tan Cheng Liang notes that the party constitution calls for multiracial policies, even if it is a race-based party. This is reflected in the MCA’s social-service programmes, which extend to all races.
“Being multiracial in composition will not necessarily attract more support. The party’s policy and values matter. Fairness, justice, transparency, the economy, and dealing with crime can be issues that win the people over,” she says.
Tan, the former Jawi MP, references the failings of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), a self-professed multiracial party but with a Malay majority.
“Even politicians from non race-based parties can be racist,” she says, pointing to PKR’s Kulim-Bandar Baru MP Zulkifli Noordin, who was among those who stormed the Bar Council forum on conversion on 10 Aug 2008. Until now, he has yet to be disciplined by the party.
In his final speech as party president at the assembly on 18 Oct, Ka Ting said Umno had become dominant in the BN. He said the balance of power in the BN is lopsided, even though the BN coalition is founded on a power-sharing basis between the component parties.
Many expected the new president, Tee Keat, to pick up on this, but he pointedly avoided the issue in his concluding remarks at the end of the assembly.
In his press conference later, Tee Keat, when pushed, merely said the MCA would deliberate at length the issue when the new party leaders meet.
Tee Keat’s cautious statements on
Umno indicate the difficult path
ahead towards BN reforms He made no commitment as to how the party hopes to regain equal footing with Umno, perhaps feeling that it is better not to rock the boat, at least for the time being. This could indicate the MCA leadership’s cautiousness in dealing with their Umno counterparts.
In contrast, the younger generation of MCA the leadership is more dynamic and progressive on this point. Wong says the way for the MCA to gain equal footing with Umno is to take a two-prong approach.
“We need to be assertive in voicing the people’s desires. At the same time, we need to persuade Umno to change for the better. We have to ask them what kind of future we want together,” the former Kota Melaka MP says.
“We must ensure that the openness in the top leadership trickles down to the middle ranks and the grassroots. At the same time, the middle ranks in the MCA must also engage their Umno counterparts.”
The lack of interaction between Umno and MCA grassroots is something he intends to address in the central committee. Wong, who was appointed a committee member in 2007, contested the same post in his first election on 18 Oct, and won.
This year’s MCA general assembly had the highest turnout in party
history, with 2,378, or 99.04%, of central delegates presentHeart-to-heart talks
Tan says power-sharing must be institutionalised in the BN, lest it be hijacked by changing political circumstances.
She says the new MCA leadership must have “heart-to-heart talks” with Umno on real power-sharing structures, such as the proposal to create a second deputy BN chair for the MCA. The suggestion was made by newly elected vice-president Datuk Liow Tiong Lai in his assembly speech as the outgoing Youth chief on 17 Oct.
So, can the MCA reinvent itself under the new leadership?
There are signs that the party is adapting to change. The election of former Wanita chief Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen as the MCA’s first woman vice-president is evidence of this shifting mindset.
Perhaps emboldened with their new representation in the main body, Wanita delegates were willing to take on the leadership.
“Why speak up when you are retiring; why did you not speak up when you were still in the cabinet? You, as a cabinet minister, have the right to defend the interests of people,” said MCA Wanita Malacca chief Datuk Kian Sit Har, who directed her remarks at Ka Ting during the debate on his speech.
The grassroots has set the tone for the new leadership’s direction. It is up to the leadership to close the gap between words and deeds.