Will Gerakan and MCA withdraw from the Barisan Nasional?
THESE are not easy times for the MCA or Gerakan.
After the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s losses in the 8 March 2008 general election, there have been strong undercurrents within both component parties calling for their position within the BN to be reviewed.
Party grassroots have also called for the national leadership to consider leaving the BN as a way to teach Umno a lesson for its arrogance, and for these parties to regain lost credibility among their respective constituencies.
The recent fiasco over Bukit Bendera Umno division chief Datuk Ahmad Ismail’s hurtful remarks about the Malaysian Chinese has definitely exacerbated the situation, especially when the Umno leader dared to ask Gerakan to leave the BN instead of apologising for calling the Chinese penumpang or squatters.
Even though a recalcitrant Ahmad was suspended from Umno for three years, the arrest under the Internal Security Act (ISA) on 12 Sept 2008 of the Sin Chew Daily journalist who reported on his remarks, Tan Hoon Cheng, has given new life to grassroots disaffection within the MCA and Gerakan about remaining in the BN.
This unhappiness is clearly more pronounced within Gerakan than in the MCA.
Gerakan lost 10 of its 12 parliamentary seats and 27 of its 31 state seats in the March elections. The MCA managed to retain 15 parliamentary seats, but their state assembly seats were decreased by more than half, from 76 to 32.
Before the 8 March elections, Gerakan was able to secure the support of Penang voters in order to retain the chief minister’s post in Chinese hands. But post-March 8, the Pakatan Rakyat state government led by Lim Guan Eng has been popular.
Gerakan vice-president Datuk Chang Ko Youn tells The Nut Graph that the strong sentiment to withdraw from the BN is a “natural response” after the party’s disastrous loss in the March elections.
With only two parliamentary seats, and a BN that continues to be rocked by race-based supremacy from within Umno and allegations of corruption and abuse of power, the question is inevitable: can Gerakan survive in the next general election if it remains within the BN?
Gerakan acting president Tan Sri Koh Tsu Koon speaks to prime minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi in anticipation of the Permatang Pauh by-election on 26 Aug
That there is a deepening internal crisis is apparent. Over the past few months since 8 March, several respected party leaders have abandoned ship; namely, its deputy secretary-general Datuk Lee Kah Choon, Gerakan Wanita chief Rhina Bhar, Federal Territory Gerakan chief Datuk Dr Tan Kee Kwong, and central committee member Dr Toh Kin Woon.
Secretary-general for Penang Gerakan Youth Oh Tong Keong says the calls for Gerakan to pull out from the BN have been strongest among the party’s young members because they feel Umno is too arrogant.
However, he says, withdrawing is not a simple decision to make and would be subject to delegates attending the party’s annual general assembly.
Oh tells The Nut Graph that while the Chinese community was outraged with Tan’s ISA detention, it is important to remember that only a few Umno leaders made the extremist remarks that have hurt relationships within the BN.
He adds that even if Gerakan pulled out from the BN, it might not join the Pakatan Rakyat. Instead, it is more possible that they could become the third force in national politics.
“We have over 40 years of administrative experience as a ruling government in Penang. By not joining the BN or Pakatan Rakyat, we can become a formidable force to check and balance both BN and the Pakatan,” Oh explains.
Lau Yeng PengGerakan national central committee member Lau Yeng Peng reckons that about 80% of its members would vote for withdrawal if a party poll was held now. Such was the sentiment from the ground when he visited Perak, Kedah and Negeri Sembilan.
“The public needs to be more patient with us. We will have an answer within three to four months,” Lau said during the third-anniversary dinner of Chinese online news site Merdekareview.com in Kuala Lumpur.
“Currently, the leadership has not come to any conclusive decision. We need to have an in-depth discussion. We don’t want an emotional decision,” says Chang.
Chang stresses that under the BN, Gerakan has solved many issues internally. However, people did not see their efforts, and the March elections showed that people wanted more bold and daring statements from the party.
However, it would appear that there is a chasm between the party grassroots and the top leadership’s assessment of the situation.
“The people want Gerakan to withdraw from the BN in order to bring down Umno and the BN. But to tell you the truth, we won’t do that,” he says.
He admits, though, that the decision whether to withdraw from the BN will become clearer once the party elections are held in October 2008.
“We will also observe whether Umno is going to reinvent itself during its December 2008 annual general assembly. Within the next few months, we are going to fight for the reform of the BN. Only if reforms don’t happen will we start to consider withdrawing,” says Chang.
An internal family matter
The pressure for the MCA to pull out from the BN is much less than in Gerakan because its failure in the March elections was not as severe.
MCA Youth Chief Datuk Liow Tiong Lai says while the party respects the Chinese community’s opinion, the debate about withdrawing is “an internal family matter”.
The MCA is one of the founding members of the BN.
Liow believes that the BN component parties would be able to weather the crisis even though many MCA leaders protested against Ahmad’s penumpang remarks targeted at Malaysian Chinese.
Liow Tiong LaiLiow says the disciplinary action against Ahmad showed that Umno needs to respect decisions by the BN supreme council.
“The case showed that a dominant Umno can and should uphold BN decisions. It also reflected that the component parties of BN can check and balance Umno,” he says, adding that the case will allow the BN to regain the confidence of the people.
“The BN has not come to the end yet, it can survive,” says Liow.
Still, he argues that the BN should reform its image, cooperation and structure as a multiracial coalition, rather than a race-based coalition.
Since Sin Chew Daily was issued a show-cause letter on 11 Sept and its journalist Tan arrested the following day under the ISA, both MCA and Gerakan leaders have been uncharacteristically vocal in opposing the government’s actions.
Compare this with the public silence from both parties when racist remarks were uttered during Umno’s general assembly in 2006 and 2007, and when the keris was raised to assert ketuanan Melayu. Both MCA and Gerakan had to suffer being labelled gutless and cowardly by the younger generation, especially on the internet.
Skeptics say the outrage of party leaders at a juncture just before their respective party elections in October cannot be coincidental. Liow, however, asserts that MCA leaders are not speaking up now in order to strengthen their position before the party elections.
“Definitely not because of the party elections. It is to defend the honour of the Chinese community,” he says.
Former MCA secretary-general, Tan Sri Dr Ting Chew Peh, has a different view. He tells The Nut Graph that grassroots sentiment to pull out from the BN is widespread.
“Some party leaders share the same views. It is just that they did not openly propose it,” says Ting.
Political development after the March 2008 elections shows that Umno has not learnt any lessons, and the MCA continues to be “bullied”, adds Ting.
“The new political landscape has shown that the BN is not the only option for the MCA now. Top leaders should start thinking out of the box,” says Ting.
He stresses that when the MCA re-examines its relationship with the BN, securing ministerial positions should not cloud their minds from making a decision in the party’s interest.
He says Tan’s arrest under the ISA was a step backwards for the party, right after it seemed that Ahmad had been appropriately punished. He adds that the MCA leadership’s response to her arrest was “slow by half a tempo”.
“[MCA secretary-general Datuk] Ong Ka Chuan had to urge for cabinet and BN component party leaders to be consulted [before an ISA detention]. This is clear evidence that the MCA is treated as invisible [by Umno],” argues Ting.
Still, Ting stresses that the BN’s structure is not an issue. Rather, it is the obviously unequal relationship among component parties.
MCA vice-president Datuk Seri Dr Fong Chan Onn notes that the MCA and the BN have a historical relationship that dates back more than 50 years. “Without the MCA, the BN can be considered to have disbanded,” says Fong.
Fong admits there are grassroots calls to pull out from the BN, but says the party has to be cautious about making such a grave decision.
He notes that in 1969, the MCA withdrew from the Alliance government just before the 13 May clashes. But soon after, it was the Chinese community that asked the party to rejoin the government in order to protect Chinese interests from within.
(© Dawn Hudson / 123rf)Any decision must be steered by the party’s central leadership, he stresses.
And while the leadership of both Gerakan and the MCA deliberate their options, the debate continues. With uncertain political times ahead, political parties will have difficult decisions to make.