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MCA’s irrelevant civil war

IF you believe that media reports reflect reality, you would think that the infighting in the MCA is the most important issue the Chinese Malaysian community is grappling with.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Among young Chinese Malaysians, the apolitical ones would not know what the 10 Oct 2009 extraordinary general meeting (EGM) is about, while most of the politically conscious simply do not care about the MCA.

Only some senior leaders of Chinese non-governmental organisations would lament that such infighting is hurting the community’s interests, and would call for the two factions — led respectively by Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat and Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek — to make peace.

Other than the leaders and their supporters, the only groups of people who are closely following the great showdown are journalists, bookies and gamblers.

Once relevant

Once, the MCA’s civil wars did get the Chinese Malaysian community emotionally involved. In the mid-1980s, when I was still in primary school, I followed passionately the bitter battle between then MCA vice-president Tan Koon Swan and acting party president Datuk Dr Neo Yee Pan in the Chinese-language press.

Similarly, the fight between party president Tan Sri Lee San Choon and his deputy Michael Cheng in the 1970s drew attention from the Chinese Malaysian community.

Likewise, the first MCA schism in the late 1950s between party president Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu and Tun Tan Siew Sin mattered to the community. At that time, Chong Eu wanted the Alliance to allocate to the MCA one third of all parliamentary seats to ensure that the Chinese Malayan community had the power to veto any constitutional amendments. As Siew Sin’s faction emerged victorious with Tunku Abdul Rahman’s open backing, many Chinese Malayans began to perceive the MCA as Umno’s puppet. The sidelining and eventual exit of Chong Eu and his faction helped the opposition’s growth. This almost deprived the Alliance its parliamentary two-third majority in 1969.


Lim Chong Eu (left) hoisting Gerakan co-founder Syed Hussein Alatas in celebration
of the party’s victory in the 1969 general election (Source: Wikipedia commons)

In contrast, the civil wars after the Koon Swan-Neo battle royale, namely the Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik-Tan Sri Lee Kim Sai abortive showdown in the early 1990s, the Liong Sik-Lim Ah Lek conflict after 1999, and the anti-Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting movement after 2008, had little significance outside the party.

Political irrelevance

Why? Because after 1990, the MCA did not matter much.

In the 1950s, the MCA was the second most powerful party in the Alliance, and was perceived by many Chinese Malayans as the guardian of their communal interests.

In the aftermath of 1969, the party enjoyed a period of renewed support as many Chinese Malaysians saw no prospect of overthrowing Umno, and longed for effective representation within government. San Choon and Koon Swan were very much seen as the “saviours of the community”.

In response to Umno’s aggressive expansion of the bumiputera economy, Koon Swan spearheaded a movement of economic ethno-nationalism by calling for the accumulation of Chinese Malaysians’ capital through Deposit Taking Cooperatives (DTCs).

However, the myth that good Chinese leadership could make the Alliance/Barisan Nasional (BN) model of power sharing work suffered a fatal blow in early 1987. Half a million depositors found their deposits in 35 DTCs frozen by the government when mismanagement and outright fraud led to a total loss of about RM3.6 billion. The government refused to bail out the DTCs even though it had done so for Bumiputera Finance Malaysia. The depositors eventually got only 62% of their deposits.


Tengku Razaleigh (Wiki commons)
At the same time, the BN government implemented an ill-conceived policy of appointing linguistically unqualified administrators to Chinese vernacular schools. There were also other instances of power abuse, and all these eventually led to the mass revolt of Chinese Malaysian voters against the BN in 1990. In fact, Umno could have lost its power had the Malay Malaysians not abandoned Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s Semangat 46 at the eleventh hour.

Umno did not retaliate against the Chinese Malaysians — as the 13 May myth would have it — but instead offered a certain degree of economic and cultural liberalisation under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Vision 2020. That helped save the MCA for the next three general elections in 1995, 1999 and 2004.

The MCA has indeed, since then, expanded its influence in Chinese Malaysian non-governmental associations, and its grassroots presence through complaints bureaus, lifelong-learning programmes and line dancing. But the real determinant of how Chinese Malaysians will vote is not what the MCA can do, but what Umno will do.

That means that the MCA’s intermediary role in representing Chinese Malaysian interest within an Umno-dominated coalition has ended. The party is only decoration to, and no longer a functioning part of, the Umno-BN one-party state. Indeed, the outcome of the 2008 elections quite simply pronounced the death of the MCA’s political relevance.

Inconsistent

Common sense dictates that such a party should unite to fight its way out of the doldrums, but the logic of realpolitik demands a showdown.

What holds the MCA together is not its role in the government, but the resources it enjoys being in government. With the loss of five states and 11 parliamentary seats in 2008, there are much less resources to share among the BN component parties.

Unlike gangsters who candidly fight over territories, politicians need justifications to openly fight for turf. In this sense, Ong’s faction has smartly portrayed him as a hero against the powerful (read: Umno). Ong’s supporters are pitting the weapon of public accountability in the Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ) scandal against Chua’s private morality.

To be consistent, however, Ong, who is also transport minister, should press for a Freedom of Information Act so that all scandals can be exposed regardless of the minister in charge and how courageous she or he may be. Ong should also announce the rejection of all scandal-tainted BN candidates.


Rohaizat Othman (Courtesy
of theSun)
So far, Ong has not done the former. More disappointingly, he and the MCA have openly campaigned for Rohaizat Othman, the Umno candidate for the August 2009 Permatang Pasir by-election; and now for Tan Sri Isa Samad, the Umno candidate for the Bagan Pinang by-election to be held on 11 Oct 2009.

It reminds me about how gung ho Ah Lek’s team once was about media freedom in 2001, when Ling’s team took over Nanyang Press. Neither Ong nor Liow Tiong Lai, both aligned to Ah Lek, has pressed for media reforms since joining the cabinet in 2008.

What next?

So, what should we expect from the MCA EGM?

If Ong’s faction prevails, the investigation of the PKFZ scandal — now out of Ong’s full control and under a task force headed by the chief secretary to the government — will probably be closed soon to minimise damage. Chua’s faction will probably move on to another BN party as the new alternative to the MCA in the BN, like the Makkal Sakthi Party is to the MIC.

What happens if Chua’s faction wins? I doubt Ong would opt for early retirement or that he can hold his faction together. His best choice then is perhaps to join Parti Keadilan Rakyat, so that he can at least keep his fighter image and Pandan parliamentary seat in the next elections. He may actually champion for a Freedom of Information Act then.

Getting bored or feeling sick? Be patient, this is probably the last show of the MCA’s civil wars.


A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He wishes he could read Tamil so as to understand Indian Malaysian politics, which seems far more interesting than Chinese Malaysian politics.

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9 Responses to “MCA’s irrelevant civil war”

  1. Pratamad says:

    I have the same thinking: the press by its intensity of coverage of the EGM has done the worst job in reflecting the interest and attention [of Chinese Malaysians]. The MCA has probably one last relevance: window dressing for a supposedly multiethnic political bloc called the BN.

    Hmm. Being the last show as you said, we should perhaps cherish it …

  2. Masnah says:

    Too much sejarah lah, Mr Wong. We want to know what is happening and what’s going to happen. Not some cerita nenek moyang.

  3. Andrew I says:

    The last show. Now that would be a shame. Less fodder for editorials.

    Penultimate hurrah for Ong if he joins PKR?

    The problem with the inclusive nature of coalitions is there is little or no yang. A vacuum will try to fill itself and a political vacuum is no exception.

    In cases where leaders seem to suffer from long-term pins and needles, the younger members tend to believe less and less in the relativeness of time and age.

    If only we could all live forever.

  4. Keith says:

    A truly good piece, and yes, the MCA is totally irrelevant to mainstream politics now. In fact, once the people actually realise what is happening, we will find that all political parties are irrelevant!

    All political parties want to hang on to power, and how they do it is to make the rakyat “depend” on them, by preying on our insecurities and making us think that without them, the rakyat is finished. When in fact, it should be the other way round!

    Political parties worldwide serve the people! Any hint of a misdoing, a public apology is in order and they would resign immediately (e.g. Japan and Korea). Over here, such people could be in power for more than 20 years, despite being totally incompetent in what they do!

    The Malaysian people are no longer fooled…

  5. isahbiazhar says:

    All these infightings among the BN parties are good. It shows that in the near future, only multiracial parties can survive. On the list to have a natural or drastic death are Umno, the MIC, MCA and PAS. If these parties were to [die] off along with their leaders, we would see political, matured, multiracial non-religious parties.

  6. siburp says:

    It is hoped that the Chinese [Malaysians] will abandon all the Chinese-based parties in BN as the analysis has shown that they no longer have any impact in helping Malaysians especially the Chinese as a whole.

    This country needs changes and the Chinese [Malaysian], by abandoning MCA, Gerakan and SUPP, will greatly help towards that change as PM has shown no real effort to change Umno except through rhetoric of 1M[alaysia].

    However, we wait and see where the Chinese [Malaysian] votes go in Bagan Pinang first for any hope of real changes in the Chinese [Malaysian] thinking.

  7. no votes says:

    People should not be voting for MCA anymore, let this party perish…

  8. Che G says:

    Political scientist or historian? We all know that MCA is irrelevant, so what’s next? Went from a history lesson to freedom of information. Gosh, the editors should do something here.

  9. chee says:

    If more and more race-based parties dismantle or just die in the corner, then Umno will look like the odd [person] out, wouldn’t it?


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