IN the almost six months since being elected MCA president following bitter infighting, Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek has marshalled the party rank-and-file to begin reclaiming the Chinese Malaysian vote. How is he attempting to do this? Chua believes that a more outspoken MCA, which shows it won’t cower under Umno’s shadow, is one of the key ways to win back support.
The MCA has asked the Home Ministry to rescind the “Allah” ban, dared to raise the issue of overseas Mara scholarships, and called for the easing of bumiputra equity quotas to make the economy competitive. But is being vocal enough to convince Chinese Malaysian voters? Is this just a Barisan Nasional (BN) election strategy? And what does speaking up cost Chua as a leader within the ruling coalition?
Chua speaks to The Nut Graph in this first of a two-part interview at Wisma MCA in Kuala Lumpur on 6 Sept 2010.
TNG: As you evaluate the national scenario now, what do you think the MCA’s chances are in the next general election?
Chua Soi Lek: I don’t dare to say anything because voters change, they can change overnight. In politics, one night is a long night. More so, when you are the party in government, [you have] a lot of resources to change and turn the tide.
Meaning the government will step up more development, deliver more “goodies”, so to speak, ahead of the next general election?
I don’t think it’s just a question of development. Development is happening all the time in Malaysia. It’s a question of how to become quicker in responding, in speaking the language the rakyat likes to hear, which Pakatan Rakyat is doing very well because they know what the rakyat wants to hear.
Whether the general election is held sooner or later, how might this affect the BN’s chances?
I don’t think it will be held this year. I don’t know if it will be held this year. I really have no idea whatsoever.
So, voters may change overnight, but as things stand now, where do you see the Chinese Malaysian voters?
As things stand, I still feel the BN will win, but we will not get the two-thirds majority. It will be difficult because we may have a lot of problems in the mixed constituencies or in the predominantly Chinese [Malaysian] constituencies where they form 70% to 80%.
Why has it taken the MCA so long to be more vocal and to speak up against Malay Malaysian right-wing conservatism?
You have to ask my previous president, you cannot ask me that question. It’s not fair. Then people will think I’m poking at them. I just want to put the house in order and move the party forward, and I want to do what I’ve felt all the time MCA should do – be more vocal and articulate within the context of a multiracial country.
And now clearly that is what you are doing. Is this enough to impress and convince the Chinese Malaysian electorate?
I don’t think it’s a question of impressing or convincing people. I feel that this is the route that we should pursue. The reason is simple. Ask yourself, why do people support DAP when they don’t have any power to deliver anything at the central level? Even at the state level they have limited power. The only state where they can actually deliver anything would be Penang. But before they even came into power, they already got support by being vocal, by articulating the frustrations and expectations of the Chinese [Malaysian] community. That’s all they did.
[In the meantime], MCA kept such a low profile that people don’t even think we exist. But a lot of problems have been solved by MCA in a low-profile manner that does not strike a chord with the rakyat anymore. The rakyat want transparency, they want to know what you are doing.
What is this speaking up costing you? Lately you’ve clashed with Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin…
Oh, I’m prepared to say what is true. We’ll put our foot down.
What is this costing you politically?
[Nothing,] except more police reports against me. I have to see the police soon; they want to see me for my statement. [Previously,] when I said we reject the ketuanan Melayu concept, I was also called up by the police after people lodged reports against me. I suppose this is an occupational hazard.
But how does it affect your political alliances with Umno?
I think Umno has to change and accept the political reality that they need an MCA which is more articulate and vocal. And it is all for the good of the BN and not for any single community. It’s for the BN’s good that we have to be seen as more vocal, more visible and more active.
Is the MCA like a pressure group within the coalition?
No, it’s wrong to say that we are a pressure group. We will not function as one. We will just see the prime minister, go through the cabinet, and tell them what we feel should be done.
A good example are the long-standing issues involving Chinese independent high schools, which I have been resolving one by one. First, I managed to tell the higher education minister that [the National Higher Education Fund of] PTPTN loans should be granted to graduates [with the United Examination Certificate (UEC)] from these independent schools. And for once, loans are being granted to UEC students.
Secondly, scholarships will be given yearly to 50 students from Chinese independent high schools. And now I’m working with the deputy prime minister on how to resolve the issue of recognising or accepting the UEC for entry into teacher training colleges so that they can become graduate teachers. This is part of the plan to resolve the chronic shortage of Mandarin teachers.
I’m also fully aware this country is administered by balancing the demands and expectations of the different ethnic groups. And that’s the only way we can maintain social stability. Nobody in power can meet the demands of any one particular race or to the exclusion of any other ethnic group. Nobody.
With regard to your political alliances with Umno, for example, you’ve worked closely with Muhyiddin and have strong connections with Johor Umno, and recently both of you traded barbs in the media…
No, he knows that this is part of my job as MCA president. And I view him as doing his job as deputy prime minister.
You’ve told him through the media not to beat “racial war drums”…
Oh yes, you notice he never responded.
So there is this understanding between you and your Umno colleagues that this is a political strategy?
No, they know that MCA has become more vocal, that we need to become more vocal.
It poses a problem for them as well, with their Malay [Malaysian] electorate…
Of course, that’s why I say I accept the political reality of balancing.
What might your speaking up for the MCA cost the party’s candidates in terms of votes from the Malay [Malaysian] electorate?
I don’t think it will cost … as I’ve said, this is all for the BN’s good. I think everyone should be able to accept political realities as well. We are the founding members of the Alliance and the founding members of the country’s independence.
What if despite all this speaking out, Chinese Malaysian voters still don’t return to the BN?
Well, it is up to the Chinese to decide who they want to vote. I’m just doing my duty.
What have been the challenges in rebuilding the MCA since you became president?
The first thing was to reunite and consolidate members, more so after one-and-a-half years of bruising battle within the party. And I would say there is a certain amount of stability and unity within the party now, and people are all focused on the next general election.
So ranks are fully closed?
I would say so. Except, of course, as a big party with so many members, some may not fall in line. As a democratic country, you can never get 100% support. As long as the majority are in line, you can move.
Some people, not necessarily MCA members but common people, feel that your predecessor was a good minister, maybe not a great party president but at least a good minister…
I have my doubts. I have a divergent view. How do people know what has he done, in such a short time, in one and a half years, to qualify him as a good minister?
People remember him as clean and incorruptible for wanting to clean up the Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ) scandal.
To me, it’s not just the PKFZ. The Transport Ministry is a big ministry. PKFZ only represents a small part of it. When you [highlight] it, it is because of the media spin and publicity that you can get.
In fact, investigations had been initiated for quite some time by the cabinet, during my time [in the cabinet]. Except when he took over, he made it a high-profile issue. Yes, we need to solve PKFZ. There needs to be closure to this scandal. Whoever is responsible for this scandal should be held accountable. And the government should handle it well. And this was initiated during my time, except that it was done in a low-profile manner.
Initiated at the MACC’s level?
At the cabinet level.
Was the anti-corruption agency already involved?
At that time, there was a paper presented and the government directed that there should be a white paper or that there should be further investigation. And he (Ong Tee Keat) knew it, and when he took over, he just … I don’t wish to start a verbal war …
[Suffice to say that] solving PKFZ does not solve MCA’s problems or the Chinese [Malaysian] community’s problems. The MCA president has many other duties other than his ministerial function. I expect my ministers to also play their role in the party. I cannot say, for example, since Liow Tiong Lai is health minister, he should only talk about health issues every day but not talk about Chinese community issues. Or that [an MCA minister] does not need to do party work, or does not talk about community problems.
I think that’s wrong because without the party, you don’t have a position in the government. Let’s be very clear about that. It’s because of the party that you have your position. So you have certain obligations towards the party. In the same way, you have an obligation to your ministry work. Only then are you regarded as performing. We cannot be lopsided.
I also have to respect the delegates’ wishes whoever they choose. You notice that the people who didn’t support me [but won in] the party elections were still recommended as senators and made deputy ministers even though they failed in the general election. [Datuk] Donald Lim, Gan Ping Sieu. Because they won the party elections as vice-presidents, I have to recognise that. It’s no point calling your delegates to vote and in the end you don’t recognise the result. That’s how I was treated.
And you cannot say that delegates don’t represent people outside the party. It’s wrong. They are all grassroots people. A lot of them are small-time business[people], some are educated business[people], some are professionals, some are hawkers. So they represent the whole spectrum of people. So don’t [think] there is a dichotomy between the people inside and outside the party. There is definitely a difference of opinion. But to say that [the delegates are] not representative, most people cannot accept that.
See part two: Soi Lek on managing Malaysia
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