Since the last general election, MCA, the second biggest party in BN, is still struggling to make a political comeback. The party lost more than half of all the seats it contested in the last general election. Its parliamentary representation fell from 41 seats to a meagre 15 seats. It lost in almost all Chinese majority constituencies. Chinese support for the BN was at a low of 25 to 38 percent in mostly urban seats.
Technically, the party represents the Chinese community only in name. Leaders of the party are less revered and respected compared to their predecessors such as Tan Cheng Lock, Tan Siew Sin, Lee San Choon, Lim Chong Eu, Lim Ah Lek and others. Years of racial politics has taken its toll of all parties representing the minorities in BN. Most of them lost their respective community's support because they were seen as conceding too much to the dominant racial party, UMNO.
It is interesting what the new leadership has in store for the party when it celebrates the 60th anniversary of the party. There are several crucial issues confronting MCA.
First, there is an obvious lack of unity and clarity in the party's struggle. The ongoing rift between Ong Tee Keat and Chua Soi Lek is affecting the leadership's concentration on its renewal and revival process. More leaders have offered to mediate their differences. Some leaders such as Loh Seng Kok have asked for Chua to be given a second chance. He argued that the deputy president should be given a second chance as even ex-criminals are given a chance to serve the community after they have paid the penalty and turned over a new leaf.
This is precisely the problem. The party has given Chua a chance by appointing his son, Chua Tee Yong, to replace him as the MP of Labis. Chua wants another slice of the cake for himself and demanded to be made a minister and a senator after his successful election as the deputy president of the party. His repeated demands have annoyed his president. Chua should have focused his political continuity through his son who is a qualified accountant and a likable person.
Afterall, public perception is clearly not to his favour. A recent poll by Merdeka Center said 74 percent of the respondents cannot accept politicians with moral deficiency. Political parties such as MCA, Gerakan and MIC have continued to operate in their own space and are largely ignorant of public perception. Their leaders think that they are still popular as long as they can command the support of their party delegates. This is a crucial misconception. It was proven in the last general election where dominant party leaders were defeated in the general election.
Until and unless this tiff is resolved, the party will continue to be sidetracked on personal disputes which may actually invite both anti-Ong and anti-Chua factions to join in the fray. Already sparks can be seen in Selangor and Johor where some members are considering to call an EGM to table a no-confidence motion against Ong. The EGM may also be an end game for Chua. Based on current sentiments, it is remotely possible for the no-confidence motion to succeed. A defeat of the motion will set the relationship of the two leaders on the course of no return.
On the other hand, Ong should act more magnanimous. He was too quick to go for a kill and replace many key positions with his people. Those who are familiar with Ong's political career can understand his reaction. He was treated like an outsider before the last general election. His relationships with the last two presidents were not at their cordial best. Hence, there was a mistrust between him and several key generals in the party who were appointed by the previous administration.
Ong, an ardent student of Sun Tzu and classical Chinese history, should have tried to use a softer approach to win over the heart and mind of these generals. A number of these generals are not hardcore supporters of their ex-bosses. They can be incorporated to help reduce the possibility of faction building in the party. It would be better for Ong to keep them competitive for his endorsement and attention. This creates a natural check-and-balance system in the party especially for those who are keen to impress the president.
Second, the party has yet to identify which political path it should take. A number of its leaders argued that it is likely for MCA to stay communal as long as UMNO still exists. There is a critical flaw in the statement. While UMNO has obviously benefited from this racial arrangement and is able to utilize a number of race-affirmative policy tools to strengthen its position, MCA and other minority parties have to beg for small concessions. It is obvious that their partnership was not between equals.
As a result, the influence of MCA and other minority parties is contained and constrained by UMNO and its behaviour in the coalition. The power sharing and consensus driven relationship is further eroded after the last general election when MCA and other minority parties lost badly. Most of the key policy decisions, e.g. ban on the use of 'Allah', arbitrary use of ISA against civilians, toll hike, petrol price hike et cetera, are made solely by UMNO without any proper consultation with its partners. MCA, like the opposition parties, is reduced to merely voicing their dissatisfaction over the party-controlled media.
Hence, it is not wise for the party to hinge its political direction on UMNO. The latter is not going to change its direction and policy in the near future. Politically, UMNO is still the most dominant party in the country. It has created an impressive patronage system which includes the public institutions, monarchy, elites and legal coercive forces. This patronage system is not easily dismantled or defeated. Ironically, many Malaysians were naive enough to believe that Anwar Ibrahim was on the verge of bringing this whole system down through his grand defection plan. If the plan was anywhere close, UMNO would have reacted beyond just plotting the downfall of the Perak state government.
The whole point is while UMNO can afford to remain communal, the MCA will continue to pay a huge price for not being a competent communal player. It does not have any visible leverage against UMNO. The party can only play a second fiddle in the coalition at best. It will be reminded that it was a beneficiary of UMNO's support in the 15 parliamentary seats that it won. Despite losing more than half its parliamentary seats, it was still given the same number of cabinet positions. This is another area which UMNO will claim credit.
Here is where the dilemma lies. As long as MCA is seen to be supportive and protective of UMNO, the party will not be able to regain its lost ground. All the opposition parties need to do is avoid shooting their own foot. They might even be able to win the next general election by doing practically nothing and act totally the opposite of UMNO.
In this regard, the party should take a bold step to try to overhaul the coalition instead of waiting for UMNO. Its leaders should quickly stop placing all hopes on Najib Razak's leadership to do the trick. Najib's imminent leadership has not created any positive movement or reaction from the public. The only ones who are euphoric are BN leaders. Najib's low popularity score amongst the Chinese and Indian communities is not helpful to both MCA and MIC.
If MCA cannot talk UMNO to become more reasonable, to allow the public institutions to grow independent, to restore public's confidence in them, to respect the rule of law, to address corruption, to embrace all minorities as equals and to respect the status of all religions, the party should either leave the coalition, rebrand the party as a multiracial party or become strictly a business organisation.
The last option of leaving competitive politics may not be a bad choice for the party. It can use its business clout and connections to stem its influence in any government. It does not have to fear losing the support of the community or allow its fate to be dictated by another competitive communal party.
After 60 years, MCA should wake up to the fact that UMNO is not its natural partner. If PAS and DAP are odd bedfellows, both MCA and UMNO are competitors in a race-based coalition. History has proven that race-based political parties will come to a head-on if each is committed to protect and defend the interests of its own race. MCA and UMNO relationship is sustained only because the former was willing to accept a dominant partner and is willing to concede some key concessions to the latter.
MCA is celebrating its 60th anniversary as a political party in Malaysia. At this convention, it should reorient itself with the changing facets of Malaysian politics. Anything less than a total soul searching which includes a sincere and open assessment of its party's direction, sense of purpose and place in the political milieu will not help to change its fate.
MCA can redeem itself only by being truthful. Not even a Ong-Chua strong partnership can help the party although it might keep the party focused on the challenging tasks at hand.