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Dr Ling Liong Sik is certainly right. Every time he stated the obvious, he could not be wrong. Last week, the MCA president said it again. "The Chinese community wants to see a strong and united MCA. They do not want MCA leaders and members to bicker and quarrel. We must listen to the people."

And listen to the people Ling must. The onus is on him to act sensibly and responsibly because as the MCA president, he is considered the paramount Chinese Malaysian leader in the government.

That position carries with it the heavy burden of putting everything else above self. The MCA presidency demands that of its holder. Anything else is unacceptable by the Chinese Malaysian.

The MCA will hold its party elections in June. The signals from the two bickering factions are quite clear. The campaign in the run-up to the polls is expected to be intense.

Although both sides had adopted an uneasy truce for Indera Kayangan, the public mudslinging surfaced as soon as the by-election was over. Things are expected to worsen in the days and months ahead.

Ling is preparing for battle. Although he did not declare publicly that he would be defending his post, his actions gave him away.

In an unprecedented move, Ling announced recently that the inspection period of the party's membership list had been extended to 21 days against the usual five to six days. This will paint him as a fair and transparent leader in the eyes of party members.

Later he fired a familiar sound bite saying that "the essence of democracy is that the losers must cooperate with the winners and failure to do so was tantamount to practising double standards". That carries the familiar ring of a warning too.

Serious challenger

Not since the Tan Koon Swan-Dr Neo Yee Pan tussle for the MCA presidency in 1983 has the party seen a worse crisis that what it is going through now.

Tan eventually became the MCA president the following year and Neo's political career ended.

However, Tan did not last a year as president. He fell flat with a financial predicament and subsequent conviction in Singapore. His deputy, Ling, took over as MCA president and has been at the helm of the party ever since.

Ling has faced many challenges to his leadership in the past but none was as serious as the current one led by party deputy chief Lim Ah Lek.

In 1994, Woon See Chin, a former deputy minister, only managed a feeble challenge when he contested against Ling for the party presidency. Woon was soundly thrashed.

In 1997, Lee Kim Sai (then deputy party president) aborted his attempt to take on Ling after he discovered that he did not stand a chance at all. Lee, as has been said, was then forced into retirement.

Now, Ling is facing the toughest challenge to his leadership. The feud with Team B first surfaced in June last year with the party's controversial purchase of the Nanyang Press. Team B strongly opposed the takeover and Ling, sensing trouble ahead, called for a party's extraordinary general meeting.

Ling and Team A won. The EGM endorsed the Nanyang Press purchase with a simple majority vote. But things have never been the same again in the MCA since then.

It has now been acknowledged that Ling's mistake was that he underestimated the widespread opposition from the Chinese Malaysian community over his desire to buy the Nanyang Press.

Things got more messy when the open challenge in the parent body boiled over to its Youth section.

The fracas at the MCA Youth annual general meeting last August became a focal point as both camps continued their public mudslinging.

Youth chief Ong Tee Keat, aligned to Team B, was subsequently relieved off all his duties after he was officially found guilty of instigating the August brawl. And naturally, the defiant Ong fought back.

Dr Ms advice

BN chairperson and Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad was very annoyed at one stage over the MCA problem.

He asked MCA leaders to "swallow their pride" and resolve their internal dispute in the interest of the Chinese Malaysians and the BN.

Mahathir said he had spoken to both sides and had asked them "not to be too hard" on each other, saying "they may have their reasons for their differences of opinion but it is not doing the MCA or Chinese Malaysians any good".

Calling on both sides to compromise, Mahathir added that people had to realise that "if you start something like trying to bring down any leader, he is bound to fight".

From the BN chairperson's remarks, it is quite clear that he is fast losing his patience with the developments in the MCA.

Describing the feud as serious, he is also obviously worried over the ugliness of the daily mudslinging by the factions in the party.

With four months to go before the party polls, the long-drawn in-fighting will not only hurt the MCA but smear the coalition as well.

Victory for Ling

The ball is now in Ling's court. He is the party president and wields much clout and influence. He is the only person who can and should take concrete steps to heal the wounds among the feuding factions.

I expect Ling to be re-elected as president should any of the Team B leaders challenge him at the forthcoming party polls.

Victory is assured for several reasons. Firstly, he has the majority support in the party's presidential council and central committee.

Secondly, as party president, Ling also has the party's machinery at his disposal. This is a vital asset in an election.

Thirdly, the majority of the second echelon leaders in the party are also his men. One example is the Ong brothers, Ka Ting and Ka Chuan, who wield considerable influence among the grassroots and virtually control the MCA headquarters.

With what Ling has at his disposal, coupled with his political shrewdness and experience, it will take nothing short of a miracle for any challenger to unseat him.

But it is important that Dr Ling bear in mind that he can win the battle but lose the war.

In six months' time, after the party elections, I would not like to see leaders like Lim, Chua, Dr Chan Kong Choy, Ong, Yap Pian Hon and others in Team B being sidelined and forced into retirement.

I think Chua is one of the better health ministers we have; Ong has quite an impressive record when he was Dewan Rakyat deputy speaker while Yap, now a four-term member of parliament, is an energetic and hard working representative. These Team B leaders still deserve a role in the party and government.


It is true that the stakes are high in this winner-takes-all fight but sometimes there has to be a certain degree of magnanimity in victory, particularly when there are claims that "it's a friendly fight within the family".

The party leadership must realise that MCA members and supporters do not even form 50 percent of the Chinese Malaysian electorate. Any so-called leader who wishes to represent the Chinese Malaysian must first earn their trust and support.

Those who do not display personal integrity or bend rules and those whose personal handicaps obstruct their ability to represent the community should not be given full support.

The MCA must also remember that 51 percent support is not enough for it to be an effective voice of the Malaysian Chinese.

Ling can continue to state the obvious as well as issue polite warnings to his opponents. But he should also know by now that he holds the key to resolve the current malaise in his party. He alone has the answer.

Above all, he must listen to the people.

FRANCIS SIAH is the secretary-general of the opposition State Reform Party of Sarawak formed 1996.