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Reviving the MCA’s fortunes

Candidates waiting at the MCA headquarters on nomination day

WITH the MCA party election just days away on 18 Oct 2008, the delegates are gearing up for the keenest contest in years. Eager to sweep away the memories of the drubbing suffered during the 8 March general election, the MCA is determined to turn a new page.

Hopes are high that incoming leaders will help the 59-year-old party out of the doldrums and make it relevant to the current political scene. But the battle to save the party may be lost in the in-fighting and mud-slinging for the top posts.

The candidates have been busy touting their message of reform at various dinners, dialogues and karaoke sessions around the country (mostly in the delegate-rich states of Johor, Selangor and Perak), though they have avoided direct confrontations.

Chua Jui Meng shows his nomination paper to
members of the press
Presidential candidates Datuk Ong Tee Keat and Datuk Chua Jui Meng, for instance, repeatedly found reasons not to take part in the US-style televised debates over ntv7; instead, they have traded barbs via the print media, and on the internet through their blogs.

So far, Tee Keat, who is MCA vice-president, looks to have the upper hand in the race. He has a strong support base thanks to his close association with the outgoing president Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting, and is popular with the Chinese Malaysian community.

However, Tee Keat has had to dodge various allegations of corruption in the run-up to the election, and even lodged a police report on the matter. He has also been the target of vicious poison-pen letters that even found their way into the nomination centre at the MCA headquarters on 13 Oct.

Still, MCA senior grassroots leader Leong Boon Peng believes Tee Keat should have no problem trouncing Jui Meng, a senior politician who has been out of the party’s leadership since losing a bruising election against Ka Ting in 2005.

Leong tells The Nut Graph that many senior delegates are disgruntled with Jui Meng’s campaign, which has harped on the issue of corruption. But this is a non-issue in this party election, where most delegates are more concerned about how the party can move forward, says Leong.

Factional politics

Chua Soi Lek
But even this reform agenda is being overshadowed by factional politics, with various candidates aligned to one or more camps. And this, says Leong, may result in a higher number of spoilt votes in the contest for president.

Leong explains that this is due to the influence wielded by Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek, former vice-president and now candidate for the deputy president’s post. Soi Lek’s supporters may opt to not vote for either Jui Meng or Tee Keat, and spoil their votes instead.

“The spoilt votes will definitely affect the legitimacy of the new MCA president,” says Leong, who adds that he is still trying to persuade some of the disgruntled delegates not to spoil their votes.

“The party needs a good leader that enjoys the strong supports of members,” he points out.

Political commentator Tee Beng Lee says this election may be Ka Ting’s way of ensuring he keeps a hand in the party leadership.

“It is definitely a proxy war for Ka Ting (who announced he would not contest after the results of the 8 March elections); he should feel lucky that when the MCA is at its lowest ebb, there is a candidate like Tee Keat who is willing to shoulder the burden of being a reformist to lift the MCA,” says Tee.

Ong Tee Keat (left) on nomination day

Lame-duck president

Of course, being known as Ka Ting’s man has its drawbacks. Some delegates worry that Tee Keat may end up being a lame-duck president, as Ka Ting’s men such as Datuk Seri Ong Ka Chuan (who is contesting for the deputy’s post) and Datuk Liow Tiong Lai (a vice-presidential candidate) are there to keep him in check.

“Ka Ting needs Tee Keat to continue his power base, and so has no reason not to support him,” says commentator Tee.

But Ka Ting’s apparent attempt to stay in power via a proxy is not going down well with a section of the delegates who have a strong desire to reform the party.

Theng Book
Puchong MCA division vice-chairperson Datuk Theng Book, who is contesting for a central committee member’s post, tells The Nut Graph that this undercurrent remains strong; and as such, it will be difficult to predict the election results.

“Unlike previous elections [where] the status quo can control the elections, this time there is a stark difference. It’s a 50-50 chance for Tee Keat or Jui Meng to win the presidency,” says Theng, who headed a “Save MCA” campaign that pressured Ka Ting to resign a few months ago.

According to Theng, despite public perception, Jui Meng is not necessarily an underdog in this contest.

“Tee Keat’s popularity with the Chinese Malaysian community does not necessarily mean that he is popular in the MCA,” says Theng.

Tee Keat’s lone-ranger style is also not endearing him to the party members, who complain about difficulties in working with him.

Four-corner fight

While the contest for the presidency might be a milestone for the MCA reform agenda, it is not the only big fight on the cards during the 18 Oct party polls. The deputy president’s post sees a four-corner fight featuring MCA secretary-general Ka Chuan, Soi Lek, Datuk Donald Lim Siang Chai and Lee Hack Teik.

Ong Ka Chuan
The spotlight falls on Ka Chuan, who is the elder brother of outgoing president Ka Ting; and Soi Lek, a former health minister who resigned after a video sex scandal in early 2008.

“If it was a one-on-one battle between Ka Chuan and Soi Lek, then the former may not win it easily,” grassroots leader Leong says.

But Ka Chuan will certainly benefit from the split in votes among the other three candidates, points out Leong, who quotes a proverb about the fisherfolk being the winner in a fight between the mussel and the snipe.

Theng agrees. “If it wasn’t for Donald Lim’s candidacy, Ka Chuan will surely lose.”

For the anti-Ka Ting faction, the entry of senior party heavyweights like Lim and Soi Lek into the race for the deputy presidency has muddied the waters.

According to Theng, the delegates, who are against Ka Chuan, are now unsure which of the other two to support.

“We (the anti-Ka Ting faction) want to concentrate our votes on one person only; we do not want to split our votes between the two of them,” explains Theng.

Tee dubs Soi Lek as a daring leader who was betrayed by his supposed ally, Lim. But he is also suspicious of Lim’s entry into the race, and says the incumbent vice-president may just end up playing the role of spoiler.

Delegates and observers look at nomination papers
In which case, “Ka Chuan might only win with a slim majority,” says Tee.

As for Lee Hack Teik, observers say he is considered an insignificant candidate in the race for the deputy presidency.

Battling for the VP slot

The battle for the four vice-president slots sees eight candidates in the mix.

They are the current vice-president Datuk Seri Fong Chan Onn; former Women chief Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen; Lumut division chief Datuk Kong Cho Ha; former MCA Youth chief and current Health Minister Liow Tiong Lai; Datuk Chor Chee Heung, Deputy Home Minister and Alor Star Member of Parliament (MP); Datuk Yap Pian Hon, former MCA vice-president and former Serdang MP; Lim Teck Chong, Kuala Langat MCA division vice-chairperson; and state chief of Johor Tan Kok Hong.

Liow, who is closely connected to Ka Ting, should have no problem winning, Tee reckons.

“As the Penang chief, and with his strong connection with MCA Youth as well as resources in Pahang (where he is an MP), he is expected to do well. But he has to garner at least the second-highest number of votes in order to retain his ministership,” says Tee.

Liow Tiong Lai
Tee also picks Chor Chee Heung and Tan Kok Hong as likely winners due to their strong support base.

“Ka Ting needs Tan in Johor to check and balance Soi Lek’s power,” says Tee, who points out that seven out of MCA’s 15 parliamentary constituencies are located in Johor.

Kong Cho Ha, who garnered the most number of votes in the past party polls for the central committee member’s post, is another favorite candidate due to unwavering support from the grassroots, says Tee.

As for Ng, her groundbreaking candidacy might not be enough to get her elected, says Tee. This is mainly due to her connection with Soi Lek’s faction, and the heavyweight candidates she is facing.

Whatever the outcome, Tee, Leong and Theng believe the new leadership will have their work cut out for them. There is a lot to do to regain the support of the community and to close ranks within the party. It will take more than spouting rhetoric and promises to reform to revive the MCA’s fortunes. 

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