Will MCA members decide KT polls

JAN 8 – Believe it or not, members of MCA may be the deciding factor in the Kuala Terengganu by-election.

Liew Chin Tong is the DAP MP for Bukit Bendera.

By now it is practically conventional wisdom that with Malay votes likely to be equally divided, the 8,700-Chinese voters who make up 11 per cent of the electorate are the 'kingmakers' in the upcoming polls.

Most significantly, we are talking about voters who have been affiliated to the Malaysian Chinese Association one way or another at some point in their life.

Most of these voters are concentrated in Bandar, one of the four state seats forming the vacant parliamentary seat. It is the only seat in Terengganu which MCA constantly contests in and constantly wins, excepting the 1999 election.

Over the years, in order to secure electoral victory for the MCA candidate for the Bandar seat, members of the party living in the outskirts of the state were encouraged to register as voters in the capital.

As a result, more than 3,000 Chinese voters registered to vote in the by-election on 17 January actually live outside of the boundary of the parliamentary constituency of Kuala Terengganu.

Some suggest that MCA members constitute as much as two thirds of the Chinese electorate in Kuala Terengganu.

But these figures do not paint as rosy a picture for the BN as one might think.

Like UMNO, MCA is a mass-based political party with a registered membership of more than a million. Many are merely members in name with very little involvement in the political processes.

Some may not even know that they are registered members of the party as the party's many crises over the last three decades drove warring factions to register members to boost their bargaining powers.

Nevertheless, during the March 8 election, the presence of a large membership of MCA probably did help the BN candidate win by a small margin.

By some estimates for that occasion, more than 60 per cent of Chinese voters supported the BN parliamentary candidate while slightly less than 80 per cent voted for BN's ethnic Chinese candidate for Bandar.

In other words, Chinese voters in Kuala Terengganu did not join the bandwagon of the peninsula-wide non-Malay revolt, aided by urban Malays, that fuelled the change of government in four states and denied the BN a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

The high concentration of former and current MCA members in the constituency means that BN potentially has easier access to Chinese voters compared to the PAS candidate; and the MCA's propaganda line, including the hudud controversy, will be magnified in Kuala Terengganu.

However, the new political milieu after March 8 has also resulted in an awakening of Malaysian voters that had not been seen before. Unlike previously, political issues are now discussed more publicly than ever.

MCA members, like most Malaysians, are deeply unhappy with the handling of the Ahmad Ismail controversy, the spate of ISA arrests in mid-September and the management of the economy.

There is a yearning for our own "Obama moment" that promises change towards a less corrupt and less racial polity.

Thus, potentially, there may be a swing among Chinese voters in favour of the PAS candidate, based on the reformist platform.

Packaged as an attempt to "teach UMNO a lesson", it is an attractive proposition that even hardcore MCA members are prepared to consider, especially in a mere by-election where there is no danger of a change of government.

This explains why MCA President Dato' Seri Ong Tee Keat has been quick to dismiss the talk that Chinese voters are the "kingmakers". He said it is essentially a fight for Malay hearts and minds.

Everything else being equal, a swing of ten to 15 per cent of Chinese votes is enough to deliver PAS the Kuala Terengganu seat.

More importantly, any such swing is a testimony to the disillusionment of MCA members with the party and, ultimately, the Barisan Nasional model.