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Why fight?

(Boxing gloves by januszek /

DOES it matter if the MCA stops fighting after the 28 March 2010 party election? On one level, I don’t think so. After all, just 10 days after its elections during which Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek made a remarkable comeback as party president, the MCA’s newsworthiness has already faded.

On another level, however, I believe MCA offers us a good opportunity to reflect on one issue that concerns all political parties and all of us as citizens: political competition.

Why fight?

Why do MCA leaders need to fight? While you may point a finger to one or more leaders, allow me to offer you a structural analysis.

They fight because the MCA is part of the Barisan Nasional (BN). And as part of the BN, the MCA will have to keep fighting for so as long as the BN maintains its current political paradigm.

For decades, the MCA has been given four ministerial positions. That was the case when the MCA did very well in 1982, when DAP president Dr Chen Man Hin was defeated by MCA president Tan Sri Lee San Choon. It was also the case in 2004, when the MCA won 31 out of the 40 parliamentary seats it contested.

Former DAP president Chen
But no performance is good enough for the MCA to get even one more ministerial position, even though the cabinet’s size has grown over time. Perhaps the good news is that, conversely, no performance is too bad that the MCA would be punished with one less ministerial post. In 1990, the MCA won 18 out of 33 parliamentary seats it contested. In 2008, it did even worse, winning only 15 out of 40 seats. It nevertheless still got four cabinet portfolios.

The road to ambition

What does that mean to any ambitious MCA politician? It means if you want to reach the peak of your political career — becoming a minister — you eventually have to train your gun on your party senior. Defeating an opposition politician will not necessarily guarantee you a ministerial post. But defeating the party’s top leader will.

Hence, how can MCA leaders not fight against one another? They must fight among themselves if they are ambitious for power, and they do this from top to bottom.

If you are a grassroots MCA leader, your political goal is probably to be a local councillor or a village head. This would give you certain political influence, and, almost without fail, some business opportunity, too.

Now, how do you get that dream position? By making the MCA more popular, so that the villagers or your fellow townsfolk vote for you? No, that wouldn’t work, since we haven’t had local elections for 47 years now.

Grassroots positions are all by appointment, based on a senior party leader’s recommendation. This may be the division or state liaison chief. So, to get the local councilor or village head position, you have to get that senior leader’s support.

And what do you do in return to thank your dear leader? You support him or her — as a central delegate, perhaps — in his or her bid for higher positions in the party, and perhaps later in government.

Generally, this is how factions in patronage-dependent parties like the MCA would form. They clique together not because they have different ideological outlooks, but often simply because they need buddies to win group fights — not unlike street gangs.

Healthy competition

I will not lament the lack of idealism among MCA politicians. It is all right for politicians to compete for power, position, and, within legitimate means, perks. It is just like businesspersons competing for profit; job applicants competing for work; men and women competing for love; siblings competing for parental attention.

As long as we are mortals with human desires, we compete. What is wrong with the MCA is not that they compete, but that they compete destructively.

Obama and Clinton (Public domain)

Look at the Democratic and Republican party elections in the US. Hillary Clinton competed bitterly with Barak Obama, but that bitter fight only produced a stronger Democrat party to take on the Republicans. The same thing happened with the Republican primary. American politicians compete by serving their boss — the electorate — better.

In the MCA, the party elections did not result in concrete policy debates within the party. Nor did it allow the MCA to contribute to a more rigorous political debate at the national level.

Why? Because competition in MCA is suppressed at a higher level, and the MCA elites have to fight within the given quota of four ministerial positions in the cabinet, X number of seats in an election, and Y number of appointed councilors in a local authority.

And suppression of competition, or politicking, is exactly what the BN political paradigm idolises. If you introduce local elections and allow BN parties to compete freely, the MCA grassroots leaders would be less dependent on their senior leaders, and the heat of party infighting may dissipate. After all, it is likely that the extra fuel of local factionalism in the MCA produces more prolonged infighting and politicking than three weeks of campaigning for local elections.

What is evil?

For many, the evil of Umno’s electoral one-party state is that the ruling coalition has produced too many corrupt leaders. The solution, then, is to elect in cleaner leaders.

For me, the evil is the fundamental anti-competition philosophy inherent in the ruling coalition’s politics, which may be traced back to Tunku Abdul Rahman.

Both competition from opposition parties and competition among the ruling coalition’s component parties are suppressed because our multiethnic nation, we are told, cannot afford politicking.

MCA president Chua (left) and former president Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat

Has the suppression worked? No, politicians will always be politicians. They compete, not because they are bad, but because they are human, like us. Suppression of open competition only channels their competitive energy to infighting, or corruption when there are enough resources to be abused to placate opponents, critics and losers.

And who loses when politicians don’t compete to serve us better, but instead compete to destroy one another? We citizens.

If we don’t reject anti-competition in our politics and reform our system, even if we vote out the BN and vote in the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) one day, the PR parties will soon be fighting like the MCA.

That’s why while the MCA does not matter, the lesson of its infighting does.

Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. He believes politicians can be a human’s best friend if we know how to housetrain them.

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4 Responses to “Why fight?”

  1. sunny bunny says:

    A brilliant perspective.

  2. Andrew I says:

    Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. He believes politicians can be a human’s best friend if we know how to housetrain them.

    Yes, get those quills out. Have quill will housetrain.

  3. Rhan says:

    “For me, the evil is the fundamental anti-competition philosophy inherent in the ruling coalition’s politics, which may be traced back to Tunku Abdul Rahman.”

    So what do you suggest to rid of the evil?

    I think the only means is, 1) The number of non-bumiputras [be] reduced to [an] insignificant ratio, 2) the literacy rate (middle-class) [be] increased to a significant ratio.

    As times goes by…

  4. danny leebob says:

    Love your analysis. You always seems to be able to dissect the things we can’t.

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