DESPITE his own dilemma about remaining in the MCA, party deputy president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek believes the Barisan Nasional (BN) has a chance at regaining voter confidence, but not if it doesn’t muster the political will to change.
He thinks the BN has a shot at reform under new Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak if the political parties can move towards becoming issue-centric, rather than remaining race-based.
Yet, the former cabinet minister doesn’t think Malaysian society can fully forsake racial politics to embrace issues- and ideology-based politics until after two more general elections.
He says while the Pakatan Rakyat has lifted people’s hopes with its “new politics” of equality, Malaysia’s realpolitik will not let such a message be realised so easily.
The Umno-dominated government, therefore, has to show it can be fair and just to all races.
Chua speaks to The Nut Graph in the second and final part of an exclusive interview about Najib’s early days, the shrinking Chinese Malaysian population, and the future of race-based parties.
On Prime Minister Najib
(Pic courtesy of theSun)TNG: Before Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi left, he wanted to hold a BN convention to strengthen race relations. Should Najib still proceed with it?
I think there is a need for a BN convention so there can be a consensus among all the component parties on the future direction of the BN and the government. After March 2008, a lot of component party leaders felt that if they became more vocal, then things would be okay. They think they’ve shown to their own community that they’ve dared to speak out and demand the things their community wants.
But does that solve anything, whether by talking or by asking for things that your community should have — will it be fulfilled?
So speaking out is not enough. The MCA has been doing that a lot with a lot of different statements lately.
You can speak out, but will your voice be heard? I don’t know how effective it is. By being vocal as a component party, are we sending the right message? People on the outside will also say, you are part of the government, why should you make so much noise? If you were really effective you could whisper and get it done. You don’t have to behave like the opposition. The opposition needs to be vocal because they don’t have a channel to the prime minister.
What do you think of Najib’s leadership and his 1Malaysia?
It’s time for him to walk the talk. People nowadays are not taken up by slogans. This is a time when the government must show and demonstrate that it is committed to treating everyone fairly.
He must be democratic and transparent in his decisions, must show that the government of the day means business, that it will deliver what it promises, and that it is making a Malaysia where all people, irrespective of race, are stakeholders. And as stakeholders, they are entitled to what is due to them under the constitution, and that the government will not say one thing and do another. They want to see that the leaders are in touch with the rakyat.
Najib’s walkabout was good, but it doesn’t solve problems. The walkabout should be followed by dialogue to know what that particular community wants. Just walking around and shaking hands is good political spinning, but the younger generation is sceptical about it. We should take it a step further by sitting down and talking.
I do that in my constituency, that’s how I can survive, I walk around and talk. Even now I still do in my own bahagian, because I’m still ketua bahagian for MCA Batu Pahat. I help the local wakil rakyat by going around and talking to people. It’s no point walking around and having coffee and creating a hoo-ha. Will that translate into support?
How do you evaluate Najib’s one month so far?
He’s done the right things that people have been waiting for during Pak Lah’s time. One is the liberalisation of the services sector and now the financial sector. I think he’s done it in a subtle way.
Instead of calling for a review of the New Economic Policy (NEP), he’s slowly taking away some of the… how do I put it… things contained within the NEP. By calling for a total review, he will probably upset a lot of Malay [Malaysians]. But by dismantling some of it, without calling for a total review, it’s a smart political move that can win votes on both sides.
Secondly, the conversion issue, which is a long-standing issue… I used to sit in the cabinet sub-committee chaired by the deputy prime minister with (Datuk Seri) Ong Ka Ting, (Datuk Seri) Shahrizat (Abdul Jalil), and the Attorney-General’s Chambers, to study religious conversion issues when one spouse becomes a Muslim. We argued a lot. And what we wanted has all been achieved by Najib in one cabinet meeting. So I really salute him for that.
The criticism about the cabinet decision is that it has no legal bearing.
Very simple. Once the government makes a decision, it’s now up to the AG’s Chambers to put the legal system in place.
Najib has angered the syariah lawyers and other more conservative groups.
Sure, it’s very bold.
Do you foresee repercussions for the BN because of this?
In a multiracial country, any decision made which is seen as favouring a particular ethnic group will have repercussions from the other ethnic group. But we hope that people look at the total picture of fairness, of harmony of the family.
You believe Najib will be able to hold it all together?
If there is political will and good sense. Najib must demonstrate through positive actions that the government of the day does not belong just to Umno. That the goverment of the day doesn’t just implement policies that benefit only Malay [Malaysians] or a certain segment of people. I think these are the most fundamental changes he has to initiate.
Looking at the cabinet he has, and the new Umno line-up, do you think those people can lend him that kind of support? Are they centrist enough?
I think Najib has full control of Umno. He’s strong within Umno, and he should use this mandate to reform Umno, to strengthen Umno, to make it pursue a policy of moderation. Umno should not only make decisions that takes care of Umno members, but decisions that have a bigger picture, that really are “1Malaysia”.
On Chinese Malaysians
One year after the general election, where do you think Chinese Malaysians are, after getting a taste of Pakatan Rakyat politics and governance?
I think the Chinese [Malaysians] are still disenchanted with the BN government. I just attended a forum organised by Chinese associations in Klang where 2,000 over people attended, and I could feel the mood wasn’t pro-government.
Chinese [Malaysians] have high expectations. Pakatan Rakyat has raised their expectations to be very high. So high, that it is as if… this is a mono-ethnic community. They’ve forgotten that this is still a multiracial country. They forget that the government in power, whoever it is, has to do a very fine balancing act. Balancing the needs, the sensitivities and the idealism of each community.
Pakatan has raised Chinese and Indian [Malaysian] expectations so high, and let’s hope that it will not be anticlimatic.
You think they’ve raised it to a level where it’s unrealistic?
You say this because you’re in the BN, you’ve seen how difficult it is to balance interests…
Yes, it’s all about balancing. Look at the practical problem — DAP has more ADUNS (state assemblypersons) in Selangor and Perak, but still they know the menteri besar cannot be a Chinese [Malaysian]. So idealism, equality, expectations, should be grounded on political realities and pragmatism in this country.
Where are the Chinese [Malaysians] now one year after March 8?
They think they have a choice. It’s very obvious from the by-elections that they think they have a choice [between the BN and Pakatan], and they just want to try it out. So the BN has two and a half to three years to change this perception. The BN must show that no other party can replace [it]. People now have the perception that the BN can be replaced by Pakatan.
But the BN doesn’t present that kind of hope of equality for Chinese or Indians [Malaysians]…
That’s why the BN must reform. What Najib has done in the last few weeks is something that has brought hope to the BN.
Pakatan has raised expectations, and because they’re not in power they don’t have to deliver. People are not critical of them because they are enjoying a political honeymoon.
People are critical of the BN because the BN has been in power for so many years that they know all about its faults and defects. Whereas Pakatan has only been in power one year [in some states], so faults and weaknesses are not so obvious. People are more forgiving, they say Pakatan is on a learning curve. The BN must show that it cannot be replaced by Pakatan.
But that would bring us back to race-based politics, and people seem to want to move away from that.
Well, I’m not too sure if we’re moving away from race-based politics or not. Look at the religious conversion issue, who objected to it? You find that the Umno people are more muted in their criticism. The protests are all from PAS and the Keadilan (PKR) Muslims.
To me, the idealism and utopia of issue- replacing ethnic-centric politics is still quite far off. Non-Malay [Malaysians] better accept this, that the hope that Pakatan has spun on them is correct, but it is still not achievable in this time frame.
Probably in the next two elections. You must understand that Malays [Malaysians] will not easily give away their special rights. No way. As long as there are Malay privileges, ethnic-centric politics will always be there. So the long and short of it is that we need a government that is fair. A government that takes care of all its people without neglecting needs. If Malay [Malaysians] are poor, they get help. If Chinese [Malaysians] are poor, they will also get help. It should be based on needs and economic necessity. That should be the central and core policy.
There are projections that by 2020 the Chinese Malaysian population will shrink to about 20%. How strong will be the political clout of the community to preserve what’s theirs?
I think we should talk about whether race-based political parties are relevant anymore. This is being debated. We should ask, if MCA and MIC do not exist, will Chinese and Indian [Malaysians] suffer?
If Umno and PAS can reach out, then people might think we don’t need you. If Umno knows the needs of the Chinese and the Malay [Malaysians], then there’s no need for ethnic-based political parties. This is being debated. People are asking, without the MCA, will the Chinese [Malaysian] be deprived of anything?
Why are people questioning this now?
The political scenario has changed. At the time of independence, Umno, MCA and MIC fought together for independence. It was the MCA and MIC who fought for the rights of Chinese and Indian [Malaysians]. They played that meaningful role. They had to sit down and think about how, when the British leave, each community in this country will enjoy rights and privileges under the constitution. So the MCA and MIC had important roles to play at the time: the role of providing citizenship, of looking after [the] Chinese in the new villages, of ensuring political stability.
Fifty two years later, we don’t have these things to fight for. So people are more critical, they are wondering if we have outlived our political usefulness. What are the Chinese [Malaysians] fighting for? For schools? For temples? For new villages? But even Umno is aware of all these problems, and if it can reach out to the Chinese [Malaysian] community, even without the MCA or MIC, people say you’ll have no role to play. No role for the DAP, even.
Umno, as it is, is not going to reach out to the Chinese [Malaysians]; they’re still stuck with their Malay agenda…
You think PAS still isn’t stuck on their Islamic agenda?
So where are the Chinese [Malaysians] headed if, numbers wise, they are going to be smaller?
We may be smaller, but at the end of the day, if the government is issue-centric, then we’ll still have a meaningful role to play. Our rights are still protected by the constitution. It’s the ethnic-based political party whose roles will be questioned.
You said it will be at least two more elections before politics can become issue-centric.
Yeah, that will be almost 2020.
So you’re hopeful, then, about the future of racial harmony in Malaysia even as minority groups grow smaller…
Oh, we all live on hope, anyway. We hope we get well tomorrow, we hope we don’t die in a road accident. Twenty people die in road accidents daily on average. Everybody has hope.
Pakatan Rakyat courts Chua Soi Lek