Is MCA in its death throes?

(FMT) – PETALING JAYA: The Malaysian political radar is registering strong signals of an impending general election. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak recently remarked that it could be held at any time soon, reinforcing a hint he had made in his call for a state of preparedness among the component parties of Barisan Nasional.

FMT talks to Stanley Koh on issues that may have an impact on the election performance of MCA, the second largest BN component party. Koh is a seasoned observer of MCA politics, having been the party’s head of research unit.

FMT: Give us an idea of the current scenario in MCA in terms of party unity. Do you see any indication that the party has been reforming itself since Dr Chua Soi Lek took over as president?

Koh: Unity is an elusive element for any political party, and it always has been so. But I must say that this is particularly true with MCA. Unity within MCA must always be seen in the contexts of political patronage, power struggles, collective permanent interests and personal gains.

As for reforms, you no longer hear any MCA leader at whatever level publicly shouting for them or calling for a reinvention of the party. Reforms and reinvention were hot topics after the 2008 election, but BN parties are today back to business as usual, and this is particularly true with MCA, where the order of the day is wheeling and dealing and pork barrel politicking as various personalities vie for party posts and government positions.

Coming back to your question about unity, Chua won narrowly against Ong Ka Ting and Ong Tee Keat in the MCA presidential race last year. He got 901 votes against Ka Ting’s 833 and Tee Keat’s 578. That’s just a little more than one-third support from the voting delegates. So we can understand why it was essential for Chua at that time to emphasise uniting the party.

With the general election impending, the process of selecting the candidates will begin soon. This always carries an element of instability, right down to the grassroots level. Many will say this is normal. I will not say the party will become unstable and disunited, but there will not be anything close to what we might call party unity. A better expression to use would be “a realignment of factions”.

What is the public perception with regard to Chua’s leadership? Is he seen as moving the party in the right direction?

Public perception towards MCA has partly been influenced by public perception of Chua himself, which has been negative since his widely publicised sex scandal. It has been three years since he confessed to being the man in a sex video, but it is still fresh in public memory. You need only to read online comments on him to see how negatively he is perceived. But then, even without the scandal, public perception of MCA has not been good for quite some time, especially in urban areas.

There are rumours that the party is spending big money training new cyber troopers and paying experienced bloggers to fend off negative remarks and polish the party’s image in the cybersphere.

Party veterans, when asked to comment on MCA’s leadership performance, normally shy away from saying anything. Nevertheless, there are some who point out that Chua’s leadership and performance are not adequate to the task of someone who has to lift the party out of the doldrums and reinvent it to keep up with the aspirations of the rakyat. MCA leaders in government remain mediocre and less than dynamic.

Someone once asked me whether there was any difference in the leadership styles of Ong Ka Ting and Chua. Ong was alleged to have promoted his brother, Ka Chuan, while Chua is promoting his son, Tee Yong.

What are some of the other criticisms levelled at Chua and the party?

I think Chua is caught in a political twilight zone. The history of MCA is against him and his leadership. He is caught in a bind. Some say it will be a Catch 22 situation as long as MCA plays second fiddle to Umno.

There are many factors working against him and the party. Firstly, MCA has a record of party leaders being charged in court for criminal breach of trust. It happened in 1986 when three top leaders were charged. Two of them were former deputy ministers. Today a former MCA president is in court and a former deputy president is awaiting trial. To make matters worse, the BN is accused of double standards in charging a PR leader for sodomy but leaving Chua untouched although he was guilty of sexual indiscretion.

It needs to be pointed out that DAP leaders too have had their share of legal trouble, but their alleged crimes were political, having to do with their fight for public causes.

Thus, history is not on MCA’s side.

Will MCA be able to pull through the next general election? Can it deliver the votes to Umno and BN? Is Chua likely to spring a surprise?

Political observers knowledgeable about the goings on in MCA are not optimistic. The feedback from well-informed sources in Umno indicates little confidence in the party’s ability to deliver.

Umno’s top leadership is just tolerating Chua to a certain level. They have little choice. He was elected by party delegates, even though the delegates themselves had to limit their choice between the disastrous and the unpalatable.

It is said that the list of MCA candidates for the coming general election that Chua will submit to Umno will be closely vetted to ensure only “winnable” candidates are chosen. In other words, Chua himself may be rejected, even if his own division nominates him. His sex scandal may disqualify him as a winnable candidate.

There is gossip that Chua may be compensated with a high profile post. He may be put in charge of all shipping ports in the country.