(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.
But 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.
In 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.
MCA’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.
Also 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.
Similarly, 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.
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.
He 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.