End of an era for Barisan?

By Ooi Kee Beng, The Malaysian Insider

AUG 23 — More than two years after the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition suffered shock defeats throughout the north of the country, its second-largest member, MCA, is finally showing signs that it will not go without a fight.

In its more predictable way, Umno, the major party within the BN coalition, was the first to go through a change in leadership. This it managed to do 13 months after the general election.

No doubt, that change carried no surprises and Datuk Seri Najib Razak was able to step comfortably to the top of the power pyramid. But perhaps because of that relatively smooth transition, the new leadership has had a hard time convincing the citizenry that it is sincere about reforming the country’s key institutions. The administration’s indecisive stance, be it on the restructuring of the economy, the cutting of Budget deficits or the reorganisation of inter-ethnic ties, has not helped.

Najib’s attempts to attract foreign investments and appear as a reform-minded Prime Minister have been undermined time and again by increasingly outspoken right-wing elements.

As for the MCA, leadership change involved a damaging internal battle, as had been the case several times before in its history. In March, two years after the general election, Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek — a former Minister of Health disgraced several years ago after being caught on a sex video — emerged against all odds as the new president of the party.

A big advantage that Dr Chua has is that he is not part of the Najib Cabinet, nor is he a Member of Parliament. This means that he has been able to focus fully on a strategy of survival and party rejuvenation. During the five months since he outmanoeuvred his adversaries within the MCA, one must assume that he was in deep consultation with the party’s strategists.

The key question that the MCA, and indeed all the other lesser BN parties, must find an answer to is this: How to regain credibility as the champion of the ethnic group it represents without antagonising Malay rightists. So far, the Najib administration has been overly responsive to pressure from those quarters, making the balancing act all that more difficult for his allies.

However, recently, Dr Chua hinted at the new direction in which he could take the party. Apparently realising that anything less than a decisive stand would not do, he took the risk of upsetting his Umno allies by calling for changes that brought him close at certain points to positions normally taken by the opposition Democratic Action Party.

He tied national interests to party interests, arguing that the development of the Chinese community went hand in hand with the country’s economic growth; and went so far as to call for a lowering of the 30-per-cent Malay equity ownership criterion that had defined the country’s affirmative action programme for 40 years.

Attacks from the Malay right-wing were not late in coming, nor were criticisms from some of his allies within Umno. It is noteworthy, though, that the Prime Minister has simultaneously given his assurance that the Foreign Investments Committee, the body that monitors the 30-per-cent Malay equity ownership policy, will be dismantled.