NEWLY-minted MCA president Datuk Ong Tee Keat raised eyebrows with his pick for the post of secretary-general. The person he chose was Datuk Wong Foon Meng, 54, who takes over the influential party post from Datuk Seri Ong Ka Chuan.
Though he has been Senate deputy president since 2004, Wong, a one-term state assemblyperson for Bandar, Kuala Terengganu (1995 – 1999), is seen as a low-profile politician who is known for his loyal contributions to the party.
Talking to The Nut Graph at his office in the MCA headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, the soft-spoken politician and Terengganu heavyweight said he never expected to be made secretary-general.
The party president also appointed Wong party coordinator for the upcoming Kuala Terengganu by-election on 17 Jan.
With one disastrous general election behind them, and an eye on the upcoming by-election, Wong talks candidly about plans to strengthen MCA, and transformations within the Barisan Nasional (BN).
TNG: Tell us about yourself. How did you get involved in politics?
Wong: I graduated from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia in 1978 and then worked as an engineer in the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment.
Around mid-1985, I was appointed as Environmental Department Head for Terengganu and Kelantan, and was based in Kuala Terengganu. At that time, the department head was highly regarded by local Chinese leaders. They always approached and urged me to help them with issues related to government departments. I realised that without knowing government officers or political party leaders, many Chinese Malaysians did not know how to solve their problems.
In 1988 I was invited by MCA leaders to join the party, and started to be active in politics. I felt that by joining the MCA, I would be able to contribute to the Chinese Malaysian community and nation.
Many say you are a low-profile politician.
Yes, I am rather low profile and prefer to work than talk. But when it is needed, I will certainly speak out. For me, what matters most is that problems [are] solved. The result is more important.
What is your role as secretary-general and how much influence do you have?
I implement decisions made by the party, assist in party administration and follow up with the plans of the central leadership. These include following up with government agencies such as the Home Ministry, Information Ministry, etc. on issues raised by the party.
I also need to ensure the smooth operations of the party. The secretary-general plays an important part in recruiting new members, setting up new branches and managing the relationship of MCA with BN component parties. Apart from the MCA president and deputy, I also represent MCA in attending BN supreme council meetings.
Strengthening the party requires a systematic plan. We have to show people that the MCA is a party that is still relevant. We will be more active in engaging the problems faced by people such as with the economy, education and religion. We want to ensure that the government is more open in the way it treats all the races in the country.
How are you channelling your views to the government?
We will discuss the problems in the meetings [at party and BN level]. At the same time, when and if it is needed, we will inform the public. In the past few months, the BN has been changing, especially with the initiatives of the prime minister and deputy prime minister, [and are being] more open about government policies.
How do you see the MCA’s position in BN? Is being in the coalition weakening the MCA?
After the 8 March 2008 general election, the MCA’s power within the BN has weakened as we have fewer seats now [15 parliamentary seats]. But the party’s fighting spirit remains the same. Only in Pakatan (Rakyat)-ruled states do we need to bolster the spirit of members, so that they will continue to fight for the party.
Based on my experience in Terengganu, we’ve always coordinated with Umno in order to keep the confidence of Chinese Malaysians with the BN. But in the five Pakatan states, I believe we and the BN have to plan an effective strategy to win over the confidence of voters, take back the lost seats and state governments. So, there must be a concerted effort and strategy.
But the BN component parties only seem to work together during election campaigns.
That was the weakness we have identified. We need to intensify communication within the BN. In the past, the BN management committee might call a meeting once every year or two. Now it has a regular monthly meeting. After all the BN component parties agree on something, then a policy [proposal] will be sent in to the government. In the past, we had no idea of policies that might be drawn up by the government.
So, the MCA is now well-informed about certain policies before they are discussed in the cabinet meeting?
Yes, that’s right. These are the changes.
Is the MCA still considering pulling out of the BN as an option to pressure Umno into recognising that the other component parties are on an equal footing within the coalition?
Pulling out is not an option. The most important point is that the BN component parties need to accept and respect opinions of every component party and the community represented by the particular party. And if we can respect each other, and don’t express statements that might hurt the feelings of other races, I believe many problems can be solved.
This is very important. I come from Terengganu where the Malay Malaysians make up over 90% of the population. But Chinese Malaysians there have no problems living alongside the Malays because we have mutual respect and understanding of each others’ cultures.
In Terengganu, the menteri besar and state leaders can sit down and have a cup of coffee with the Chinese in a restaurant; they understand the needs of the Chinese Malaysians community. In the exco meetings, the state leadership always considers interests of the minority. The state government even gave an allocation for a Chinese cemetery in Kuala Terengganu. That’s why we were not affected by March 2008′s political tsunami.
How do you see the debate about ketuanan Melayu?
For me, we respect Malays. But, when they talk about ketuanan Melayu, they should not hurt the feeling of other races. When they emphasise ketuanan Melayu, they should not make other races feel threatened or insecure.
I think that the difference in opinion is common. I don’t believe in personal vendetta in politics. Differences in opinions do not mean that we cannot find a solution (for the party and country). I believe that top leadership will concentrate on party matters and win over people’s confidence and support.
Do you expect to be appointed as cabinet minister later?
I don’t want to make any speculation. It is up to the president and prime minister to decide. And I believe that it is not necessary that we have to have a cabinet post in order to do our job.
You have also been appointed as the Selangor MCA state liaison chief. What plans do you have to regain the support of the voters in the state?
After Terengganu fell to the opposition (in 1999), our (Terengganu MCA) spirit was very low. But then we did not give up. We sat down with Umno and discussed [things]. We put aside personal vendetta and factional politics; [we wanted] nothing else except a united BN front.
I told party members, “We don’t have any political asset anymore to negotiate (with Umno) as we lost all the seats. How can you say you want to get a senior government position when you lost? And how can you talk about your factional fights? No need at all.” So we became very united [to win back the people's support].
[Now, after the March 2008 general election] we have decided to restructure our organisation, and strengthen our party activities in Selangor. (We will) enhance our relationship with the Chinese associations and the people; come up with people-oriented policies, so that voters in Selangor will give us another chance (in the next general election).