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MCA’s new dilemma – how to work as opposition

(Also published on Malaysiakini)

Even though MCA is part of the BN ruling coalition at the federal level, it has many characteristics of an opposition party. A dilemma is having to choose between two options which seem equally unfavourable or mutually exclusive. Politicians and political parties in Malaysia often face such difficult choices.

For MCA, its ‘old’ dilemma was choosing between working quietly behind the scenes in the ‘shadow’ of its big brother, Umno, and risk being criticised by the community for being a compliant party, or speak out against certain government policies and risk offending big brother.

mca youth agm 011011 06But since the 2008 general election, a new dilemma for MCA has been introduced into the larger political landscape. And the recent debates between MCA president Dr Chua Soi Lek and DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng notwithstanding, MCA does not seem to have figured out how to solve this new dilemma.

What are the components of MCA’s new dilemma?

Firstly, it must start thinking of and structuring itself as an opposition party but this runs into the problem of admitting that it is, in fact, already an opposition party in many ways.

Secondly, if it is somewhat effective in its ‘opposition-like’ activities, especially in the Pakatan Rakyat-controlled states, this strategy can potentially backfire if these criticisms are redirected at the federal government, which has more power and resources compared to the state governments.

Let me elaborate on each component.

MCA a ‘de facto’ opposition party

Even though MCA is part of the BN ruling coalition at the federal level, it has many characteristics of an opposition party.

While MCA is still the second largest party within the BN with 15 parliament and 32 state seats (PBB has 14 parliament and 35 state seats but only has a presence in Sarawak), for the first time in Malaysian history, it has fewer parliament and state seats compared with the main opposition parties.

Even in the 1969 general elections, where MCA suffered a massive electoral setback, it still managed to win more parliament (13) and state (33) seats compared to its major rivals, DAP with 13 parliament and 31 state seats and Gerakan, 26 state seats.

azlanIn the 2008 general election, PKR won 31 parliament and 41 state seats while PAS won 23 parliament and 72 state seats. DAP, whom MCA considers its main political rival, especially in battling for Chinese votes, won 28 parliament and 72 state seats.

After the Perak defections, the Sibu parliamentary by-election and the Sarawak state elections, DAP now controls 29 parliament and 82 state seats, giving it slightly more than twice the number of elected representatives compared to MCA.

MCA’s representation in three states with a high percentage of Chinese voters – Penang, Perak and Selangor – has been significantly decreased after the 2008 general election. MCA has no elected representatives at the parliamentary and state levels in Penang, three MPs and one Adun (state assemblyperson) in Perak and only one MP and two Aduns in Selangor.

This drastic reduction in political representation requires an equally drastic shift in political strategy. MCA would be required to play the role of an opposition party in the Pakatan-led states of Penang and Selangor and to a lesser extent, Kedah (and Perak, prior to the change in government).

At the national level, its politicians needed to not only defend government policies in a more sophisticated manner but also to attack Pakatan on its policy platforms.

Unfortunately, MCA is structured in such a way that most of its members and leaders are much more used to service-oriented activities and having the resources of the state to carry out such activities.

It’s old guard, former and currently political representatives know of no other experience than to be part of the ruling coalition in the state and federal level. Hence, it is not that surprising that most of them cannot make that transition to the role of an effective opposition.

In fact, groups and politicians other than MCA have been more vocal and effective in their role as check and balance on the state governments in Penang and Selangor. The NGOs seem to be leading the charge against hillside development projects in Penang.

In Selangor, the Select Committee on Competency, Accountability and Transparency (Selcat) has played a more prominent active investigatory role into alleged abuses of power by the state government and agencies within the state government than any MCA politician.

NONEMCA’s shortcomings in playing the role of an effective opposition was most starkly revealed in the recent allegations by MCA’s Young Professionals Bureau chief Chua Tee Yong (left) of a RM1 billion land ‘scandal’ involving the Selangor state government and Talam Corporation.

When further details were uncovered, it was shown that this was actually an effort, spearheaded by the Selangor state government, to reclaim back debts owed to various state government agencies by Talam rather than the supposed ‘bailout’ as claimed by Chua.

Dearth of political talent 

Refutations against Chua’s allegations came quickly. The response which I found to be the most interesting (and witty) was given by none other than Talam itself (now renamed Trinity).

Some highlights include:

“Firstly, we would like to inform the deputy minister that Talam (as we were then) had purchase the said land in question from the state in 2001 at RM115,000 per acre and sold the said land to the state in 2010 at RM80,000 per acre. Common sense would dictate that it was Talam which was at a loss as opposed to the state.

“Further to the above, Talam had transacted 13 pieces of land as its settlement of debt with the state. The valuation of all 13 pieces of land (vetted and approved by Bursa Malaysia Berhad and Securities Commission) is RM685,230,000, but the transaction for the settlement of debt was only RM676,094,000. We are certain that the deputy minister is able to do elementary arithmetic to decipher if Talam was bona fide in its transaction for the settlement of debt.

“What the deputy minister failed to understand is the fact that all 13 pieces of land was deemed as one transaction towards the settlement of the debt due to the state. In fact, the deputy minister should applaud our conduct of having to give a discount on the overall value of the land as opposed to implying that we ‘cheated’ the state.

“In order to eradicate the learned deputy minister’s doubt pertaining to the veracity of the transaction, we are prepared to advertise in the local papers all the disclosures made pertaining to this transaction if the deputy minister is prepared to pay the cost.”

These erroneous accusations also led many to question Chua’s own capabilities as an accountant and former chief financial officer (CFO) of a government-linked company. The backlash against Tee Yong over this issue has significant repercussions on MCA as a political party.

Apart from the fact that Tee Yong is a son of the current MCA president, he was also touted as one of the more promising future leaders of the party, a well-spoken young professional that stood out from among the old warlords within his party.

NONEAlso not lost among some is also the fact that it was Tee Yong who led this attack against the Selangor state government rather than the MCA chairperson of the Selangor state liaison committee – Donald Lim – or another party leader in Selangor.

This inevitably leads to questions on whether the dearth of political talent in MCA is so severe, especially in an urbanised state like Selangor with politically sophisticated voters, that an ‘outsider’ like Chua had to be ‘imported’ for this mission.

As it is, MCA is caught in ‘no man’s land’, with a membership and leadership base that is used to being in positions of power with access to state resources but has to contend with an electorate, especially among the Chinese, which is increasingly demanding and to cope with the reality of decreasing power and influence at the federal level and being in the opposition in two economically and politically important states for the party.

Soi Lek a lone ranger?

Even if the MCA is somewhat successful in highlighting the inadequacies of the Pakatan-controlled state governments in Penang and Selangor, it can easily run into the problem that some of these criticisms may backfire on the BN federal government.

Take the issue of education. MCA has tried to blame the Selangor state government for not doing anything for Chinese schools in the state. But when it was shown that the state government has indeed set aside land for the construction of these schools, the tables were turned on the MCA since the building of schools is under federal jurisdiction.

NONESimilarly, MCA chief Dr Chua Soi Lek’s proposal during the second debate between himself and Lim Guan Eng that the Penang state government build more kindergartens could be easily turned on its head since publicly funded pre-school education is also under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

Interestingly, Soi Lek is currently occupying an advantageous position with regard to repositioning MCA. He is not a cabinet member or even a member of parliament, which means that he has more room to be ‘critical’ of certain BN politicians and policies.

He has done this on certain occasions, most recently hitting out at an Umno Johor Adun (Ayub Rahmat of Kemelah) for proposing that hudud be implemented for all Malaysians, not just Muslims.

The fact that he is not a cabinet minister also means he has more time to dedicate to party-related activities including the settling up of various 1MCA initiatives, such as the 1MCA Medical Fund and the 1MCA Micro Credit Loan Scheme.

He has also been very vocal in various forums in critiquing Pakatan policies, especially with regard to the policies outlined in the Buku Jingga, the opposition coalition’s common policy framework.

But he seems like a rather lonely figure among the MCA leadership. None of them, with the exception of his son, Tee Yong, seem to be aggressively supporting his critiques of Pakatan.

And the actions of certain MCA leaders which seem to grab the headlines are those which have to do with unsubstantiated allegations of extramarital affairs targeted at Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng rather than with more substantive critiques involving important issues of the day.

This kind of strategy will likely backfire on the MCA, especially given the already proven scandal involving Soi Lek.

Needed: Tan Keng Liang 2.0

One person who has been successful in solving this ‘dilemma’ is Gerakan’s Kedah Youth chief Tan Keng Liang (photo below). He is clear on this primary role – which is to be an opposition politician in the Pakatan-controlled state of Kedah.

NONEHe has exposed various ‘scandals’ associated with the Kedah state government and so far, has not suffered the same kind of backlash as Tee Yong’s Talam ‘revelations’. Sometimes, he makes slight geographical shifts in order to criticise the Penang state government for not having open tender for certain projects, such as the WiFi initiative in the state.

More importantly, he has been successful in raising both his profile as well as that of the issues which he champions to the national level. And he has done this by employing a variety of channels including via social media so much so that he has been given the tag of a Twitter ‘sensation’ by a member of the media. (He has close to 24,000 followers on Twitter compared to less than 3,000 followers for Tee Yong).

What MCA needs in order to partly solve its new dilemma is to have more Tan Keng Liangs within the ranks of its younger leaders. Or more specifically, newer versions of Tan Keng Liang, who are equally dogged in their exposes of wrongdoing on the part of Pakatan-led state governments but who are also sophisticated and strategic in their critiques of some of the BN policies at the federal level.

It needs more people like Eric Choo (who tweets @choows), a Malacca-based lawyer who was the former president of MCA UK and a regular contributor to the Loyarburok blog (www.loyarburok.com) as well as MCA Youth Education Bureau chief Chong Sin Woon (who tweets @chongsinwoon), who has publicly advocated for racial quotas for the matriculation programme to be abolished.

Of course, MCA is not the only BN component party to face this dilemma. Umno, for example, cannot figure out how to lead an effective opposition coalition in the state of Selangor, partly because of the presence of many factions within the state and partly because of the lack of capacity on the part of some of these state leaders.

In Penang, it took the BN more than three years to replace Koh Tsu Koon as its leader and even then, there still seems to be a lack of coordination between the BN among the Penang state and federal leaders.

Ultimately, this new dilemma can only be solved at the structural level when the BN falls out of power at the federal level. When this happens, it will be the turn of the Pakatan parties to face its own sets of dilemmas. But this discussion is for another article at another time.

Dr ONG KIAN MING holds a PhD in Political Science from Duke University. He is a lecturer and political analyst at UCSI University.

The Great Debate’s political impact – one week later

(Also published on Malaysiakini

One week after the debate between MCA president Dr Chua Soi Lek and DAP secretary-general and Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, after the passions have cooled down and the arguments digested, what is the likely political impact, if any, moving forward?

What most Malaysians may not have realised is the one cardinal rule associated with political debates – “Don’t Screw Up”. Most of the members of audience would not remember the substantive points made by politicians on salient issues during these debates but almost all of them would remember if any political gaffes were made.

For Richard Nixon, it was not so much something he said but rather his body language – nervous, withdrawn and sweating profusely – that made his younger, confident and more relaxed opponent, John F Kennedy, look more appealing in their first 1960 presidential debate.

More recently, during a debate featuring aspiring Republican presidential candidates, Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, infamously uttered “oops” when he could not remember the name of the third federal agency he had promised he would abolish. In other words, impressions of the debate matter more than the actual substance of the debate.

Undoubtedly, the lasting impression and the most significant political gaffe made from this debate did not involve either of the political leaders but came from a member of the audience who posed a question/made a statement directed towards Lim.

jessie ooi 05Jessie Ooi, an MCA member and ‘caretaker’ of the Selayang parliamentary area, accused the Penang chief minister of putting additional burdens on the people by raising the assessment rates and by towing cars parked illegally after 10.30pm, even though the streets were empty at that time. I suspect that neither Ms Ooi nor the two political leaders realised that the 38 seconds used to pose that question would make her an Internet sensation almost overnight.

One week after the debate, she remains a widely debated topic, especially among the Chinese community. Judging from the over 40,000 comments which have been posted on her Facebook fan page and the many thousands of other mostly negative comments in the rest of cyberspace – Twitter,YouTube, blogs, news items – she has sparked a greater backlash than when Ibrahim Ali handed out white packets to senior citizens during a Perkasa Chinese New Year event.

Her accidental rise to infamy has, to a large extent, taken some of the positive attention that Chua may have received as a result of him daring to go face-to-face against the DAP’s secretary-general and Penang chief minister. More worrying for the MCA is the very real possibility that the massive outpouring of anger/scorn/derision targeted at Ms Ooi could translate into a further loss of support by the MCA among the Chinese community.

‘Cheap shot’ at Tee Keat

The second likely lasting impression from the debate is Chua’s ‘cheap shot’ at former MCA president Ong Tee Keat. When responding to Lim’s reference to Ong’s admission to a US embassy official that the Chinese community in Malaysia had the perception that they were just getting ‘crumbs’ from the government, Chua seemed to take great pride in declaring that MCA had gotten rid of this non-performing leader after less than a year in office.

azlanNot surprisingly, this prompted an immediate response from Ong who tweeted ‘But I wonder if he (referring to Chua) is not rottened, why MCA has got such a nosedive support’ (sic).

There was no question that Chua was intent on going all out to attack the DAP, especially with regard to its relationship with PAS.

While he raised some salient points, such as the lack of a comprehensive governing agenda on the part of Pakatan, his ‘swipe’ against Ong probably left a deeper impression than his attacks on the DAP.

By doing so, he allowed himself to be thought of as a vindictive and sarcastic person rather than someone who was raising relevant issues for public consideration. This move by Chua, coupled with the aggressive questions posed and statements made against Lim by the various MCA supporters and leaders from the floor, left the impression that MCA was more interested in making personal attacks than to debate and discuss policy issues.

Lim’s usual strategy of promoting the policies and accomplishments of the Penang state government probably exacerbated this perception.

The third likely impact may not get fully played out on the national stage until a later time. Chua has been doggedly trying to use the issue of Islam, the Islamic state and PAS to attack the DAP. But often, much of what he has said can and has been interpreted as insulting or belittling Islam. For example, he used arguments from a book – ‘Malaysia and the Club of Doom’ – to equate Islam with all sorts of negative indicators such as corruption and low literacy

NONEIn the Tenang by-election, he infamously criticised the PAS candidate for not wanting to shake hands with men during the campaign. In this debate, many Malays who were tuning into Astro Awani got a chance to listen to Chua’s non-stop attacks against DAP for being powerless against PAS to establish an Islamic state or to implement more Islamic leaning policies such as the banning of cinemas and not finding new locations for pork abattoirs.

Here, Chua is stepping on thin ice since he may end up losing more Malay support for the MCA than the little support he can gain from the Chinese community, given the relative lack of salience on this issue.

Potential backlash

If his statements regarding Islam in this debate, together with some of his statements made in other context, gain a wider audience among the Malays, the potential backlash against the MCA could be significant enough to cause MCA to lose a few more parliamentary and state seats.

This is not to say that Lim gave a stellar performance and that Chua had a dismal outing. Both achieved most of their stated objectives. Lim did not want to just discuss issues of interest to the Chinese community but went beyond by bringing in corruption, economic management and his record in Penang. Chua wanted to show that he could go toe- to-toe with Lim and take him on in areas of supposed vulnerability such as hudud and PAS’ intention to set up an Islamic state.

Both also had some shortcomings. Lim failed to draw attention to some of the successes of other Pakatan states especially Selangor.

And he let slip the opportunity to re-emphasise DAP’s firm commitment against the implementation of hudud and the establishment of an Islamic state. Chua failed to bring up the prime minister’s name even once and no mention was made of any of Najib Abdul Razak’s transformation policies.

But these points have probably been forgotten by the public, including those who witnessed the debate live on TV or as a member of the audience. What counts are the lasting impressions from this debate and from this perspective, the negatives are much more apparent for the MCA than for the DAP.

Finally, if the next debate between these two leaders in English / BM, takes place as originally promised, it would ramp up pressure on Najib to have a much more politically significant debate with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. If this debate were to take place, the same cardinal rule would apply – “Don’t Screw Up!” In the meantime, all of us political junkies will be waiting expectantly.

ONG KIAN MING holds a PhD in Political Science from Duke University.