Labis is where MCA’s haunted past may cause a GE13 disaster

The next general election is expected to be the closest fight to form the new Malaysian government. And several seats across the nation are likely to be heated battles with the slimmest of majorities. The Malaysian Insider takes a look at some of these hot seats in what will be an intense election for control of Malaysia.

Clara Chooi, The Malaysian Insider

Labis feels like an island, secluded and quiet with nary a sound from the hustle and bustle one would expect to see in a constituency held for six terms by two prominent MCA stars — former president Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik and current chief Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek.

Like its name, which some historians believe was derived from “labi-labi” or river terrapins, the daily pace here is almost tortoise-like; slow and sleepy.

Most of its residents work in rubber estates or oil palm plantations, while the others are petty traders, government servants or merely passing through to the busier parts of Johor.

Here, one can neither hear the buzz of industries nor see white plumes of smoke polluting the skies as the nearest factory is miles and miles away.

After 7pm, buses no longer ply the town’s roads — rarely do passengers get off at this stop, anyway.

“Labis becomes a remote area after 7pm… a dead sea. The irony of it all… Ling Liong Sik was the transport minister when he held the Labis seat,” local resident S. Madhavan remarked recently when met in the evening of a characteristically quiet Monday in this sleepy hollow.

Dr Ling held the Labis seat from 1986 to 2003.

Sixty-three-year-old Tey Koh Hout, offering a toothless grin, had the same to say.

“MCA… they are all the same, aren’t they? They have big-shot government posts and they forget who gave them the opportunity,” he told this news portal.

“There is so much anger with the MCA… sometimes, they are so angry that people cannot even remember why they are angry. But they know for certain that they want a change,” said Tan Chin Guan, a local DAP leader.

“The Labis people get slaughtered in so many ways… but many do not even know, they are so innocent.

“But today, some have leapt off the fence… they say they want to try something new,” former Education Ministry officer G. Krishnabagwan said.

Madhavan, Tey, Tan and Krishnabagwan, who each spoke at separate interviews recently, are among the estimated 22,600 non-Malay voters who make up a sizeable 62 per cent of the 36,000-strong electorate in Labis.

Their voices echo a growing resentment among the non-Malays here against the MCA and may well be the death knell for the party, which has been struggling since its dismal performance in Election 2008 to recapture at least some of its lost Chinese support.

But during the interviews, there was one resounding sentiment that could not be avoided — Labis’ non-Malay voters have largely gone pro-opposition.

At every step of the way, those interviewed were too quick to blame the MCA and Barisan Nasional (BN) for every hardship they face — from the common flooding of their neighbourhoods and the lack of street lamps to the lack of job opportunities and affordable housing.

Tan, a 60-year-old who spoke in halting English, lent voice to a perceived sentiment when he said that some voters feel so strongly against the MCA that they have even forgotten their reasons.

“But it makes sense… when you see the same faces everyday, read about the same names, and your life remains the same, you tend to want something different. It’s always been MCA’s… Tun Ling for so many years, then Soi Lek… now Tee Yong,” he said, the last referring to the incumbent MP, a son of Dr Chua, the town’s previous parliamentary representative.

“You begin to think to yourself, let’s try something new. What’s the harm in that? We could always change the government again,” he said, during the interview at his home in the Labis town centre here.

Dr Chua won the Labis seat in the 2004 general election, but stepped down in late 2007 after a sex scandal.

Dr Ling, who was transport minister and MCA president for 17 years until 2003, held the Labis parliamentary seat for five terms from 1986, the same year he took on his government and party posts. 

He was succeeded by Dr Chua in the 2004 polls, after which the latter was appointed health minister in the Abdullah administration.

The seat is held today by Datuk Chua Tee Yong, son of Dr Chua, who took his father’s place after a sex scandal in late 2007 forced the veteran politician to exit politics briefly, just months before the 2008 election, no less.

Tee Yong is said to possess the same boldness and bravado exhibited by his outspoken father.

Taking into account his relative youth — he is now 35 years — and his reputation as the man who accused the Selangor Pakatan Rakyat (PR) government of a RM1 billion Talam Corp accounting scandal, Chua junior is said to be a popular face among his Labis constituents.

But youth and passion may not be enough to win the game for the MCA in Labis, which is fast becoming the stage for a political battle that could very well spell the party’s demise in its southern fort.

It is not Tee Yong that the non-Malay voters are against — it is the flag that he flies and memories of the years of alleged neglect that it carries with it.

“The present MCA president, he is doing better. His son comes here often, we see him a lot.

“Last time, Dr Ling never came at all… I think his reputation itself has ruined things for MCA,” said one drinks stall owner, who only identified himself as Mr Tan.

“Everyone called Dr Ling a yes-man. A weak man. The Chinese here, when we speak of MCA, we equate it to weakness. 

“It is not a deep-seated hatred. But for sure, the non-Malays are for the opposition, for the DAP,” Mr Tan said.

The father of two agreed that Labis town has seen no development over the past few decades, pointing out that its population is ageing and disappearing quickly to seek better opportunities elsewhere.