MCA spat reflects wider strife

By Bruce Gale (The Straits Times)

SEPT 9 — Recent developments suggest that the MCA is about to embark on yet another round of self-flagellation.

What is it about the MCA that encourages such self-destructive behaviour?

Answering this question is not easy. But it is most likely related to the nature of Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese community and the fact that MCA leaders, while close to the centre of power, have limited access to government largesse.

Political observers have been quick to draw parallels between the current spat pitting MCA president and Transport Minister Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat against his former deputy Datuk Seri Chua Soi Lek, and the turmoil that began in March 1984. That epic battle, between then acting party president Datuk Seri Neo Yee Pan and then vice-president Datuk Seri Tan Koon Swan, began as a dispute over the issue of ‘phantom’ members.

But after Neo sacked his rivals and refused to recognise a petition by the Tan faction calling for an extraordinary general meeting, the party was plunged into months of near anarchy. The matter was not resolved until November 1985.

Other Malaysian political parties — Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s Umno included — have experienced similar power struggles. But the MCA’s record seems particularly depressing.

In 2001, for example, a decision by the MCA leadership to purchase a Chinese- language newspaper triggered yet another bitter split, this time between then party president Tun Ling Liong Sik and his deputy Datuk Seri Lim Ah Lek.

Veteran party watchers can cite other destructive rivalries dating back to the 1970s.

One reason for the frequency of factional struggles within the MCA is that as descendants of immigrants, Malaysian Chinese have long lacked the stabilising influence of traditional hierarchical structures of the sort represented in the Malay community by the sultans.

Nor has respect for authority been inculcated through employment in the government bureaucracy. As a result, Malaysian Chinese leaders enjoy nowhere near the same level of deference that Malay politicians enjoy.

An incident that took place at a convocation ceremony in Kajang in January this year illustrates the point. United Chinese School Committees Association of Malaysia president Yap Sin Tian was giving a speech to about 500 people, including students, parents and guests, when a man walked onto the stage and punched him in the face. Yap was later taken to hospital with a fractured cheekbone and nose. Witnesses identified the attacker as a former student who was angry at Yap’s refusal to support the reappointment of the college’s popular principal, Dr Kua Kia Soong.

Such an attack would be almost unthinkable in the Malay community.

The idea of a centralised administrative authority is readily accepted by Malays. But Malaysian Chinese have traditionally been much more independent- minded. As a result, notes Rita Sim, deputy chairman of the Institute of Strategic Analysis and Policy Research (Insap), “while there are many Chinese leaders, there is no leader of the Chinese community”. Even the MCA, she notes, is regarded as little more than a ‘political connector’. Insap is an MCA-sponsored think- tank.

According to it, there are more than 7,000 Chinese associations in Malaysia, of which about 2,000 are active. They include chambers of commerce, educational associations and clan groups. All are quick to guard their independence.

The point was amply illustrated earlier this year when, after emerging from a bruising internal power struggle of its own last year, the influential Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia engaged in a very public spat with the Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia. At issue was which organisation was the most qualified to serve as the umbrella group of the Chinese community.

Interestingly, the MCA was never considered a contender. Nor were MCA leaders invited to attend a carefully staged peace dinner with other community leaders held late last month, during which the two groups pledged to work together.

Yet another reason for the MCA’s troubles is that, while it does not actually run the government, joining the party is still regarded as the surest means by which ambitious ethnic Chinese politicians can gain access to power and the spoils that go with it. And today, despite the fact that the MCA has lost the support of around 85 per cent of the country’s ethnic Chinese voters, the stakes are higher than ever.

According to Sim, the party’s assets are now worth an estimated RM2 billion.

Even so, the resources available to an MCA president seeking to consolidate his influence are limited in comparison with the largesse an Umno leader can draw upon. Inevitably, some groups will feel neglected.

And that is when the trouble begins.