Surviving in MCA within Mahathir's peace agenda

YS Tong

Modified 29 Jan 2008, 10:21 am

As the two feuding factions within MCA openly exchanged fire over the past few weeks, the party election heat was slowly beginning to simmer leading many to visualise either a drastic change of leadership at the expense of Team A or a total wipe-out of Team B.

Contrary to this dramatic ending which the public has anticipated, the grand finale could prove to be an anti-climax, if not disillusionment; especially after Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad decided to step in to arbitrate for what is now termed as an agenda for peace and stability.

That Mahathir, the ruling Barisan Nasional chairperson, had decided to step in was not a matter of choice but more of practicality in the run-up to the next general election which may take place next year.

Though both MCA Team A and Team B are attempting to impress upon the people that the premier is on their side, the truth is quite the opposite if one refers to Mahathirs remark regarding the factional fights within the party.

This is understandable as Mahathir himself had experienced the deleterious consequences of backing a particular faction during the Neo Yee Pan-Tan Koon Swan power struggle in 1980s.

Umno had tried initially to back Neo who called for separation of business from politics but the pressure was accumulating against the acting president who tried to consolidate his power in the run-up to the 1985 party election.

One of his staunch critics was Tan who was not favoured by Umno  he was managing several MCA-linked co-operatives and was advocating Chinese involvement in business through the party  in his attempt to protect the communal interests in response to the rise of bumiputra capital through public enterprises as the fallout of the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP).

It was at this time that the spectre of phantom members reared its ugly head. However, those who claimed phantom members existed were later expelled; thus Tan was ousted, together with 13 other party leaders including (current president) Dr Ling Liong Sik who was then a central committee member and the deputy finance minister.

They were subsequently re-instated at an extraordinary general meeting which they pushed for. They then took the case of phantom members to the Ipoh High Court and exposed some 22,000 fake members in the new membership list.

When the resentment within MCA against Neo grew beyond containment, the then deputy prime minister Ghafar Baba, instructed by Mahathir, had revoked Umnos support and stepped in to propose a formula for clean and fair party polls in 1985. Neo was eventually ousted and replaced by Tan.

Credibility tainted

MCA suffered badly in the general election a year later as it had lost much of its credibility in the eyes of the ethnic Chinese following the internal bickering and expos of phantom members. Its parliamentary seats fell from 24 in 1981 to only 17.

In the same year after the general election, Tan was arrested for criminal breach of trust as he was said to have misused funds in several MCA-linked companies to save his own.

He resigned from his presidents post and was subsequently jailed in both Singapore and Malaysia at different times for several CBT-related offences.

Having learnt from this bitter episode which cost a substantial loss of Chinese support for BN, Mahathir had apparently remained rather neutral in the latest round of power struggle in MCA between Team A, led by president Ling, and Team B, led by Lings deputy Lim Ah Lek.

If there is one thing that resembles Mahathirs approach to the 1980s MCA crisis, it is the assigning of his No 2, this time Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, to handle the matter.

The premier had last month lashed out at the two factions for not willing to work together and to resolve the leadership crisis, in an interview with seven major Chinese newspapers.

Mahathir, the father of BN as referred to by Ling, had also said the government and court cannot interfere in party affairs.

Party sources said Team B had sought separate meetings with Mahathir and Abdullah for arbitration regarding the verification of the controversial membership list containing 138,000 new names of which many were said to be dubious.

Team B knew that if the 138,000 names were translated into the outcome of the party election, it would only mean disaster to key leaders such as vice-president Chua Jui Meng. Thus, Mahathirs non-interference declaration was interpreted as a gesture in favour of Team A.

But on the other hand, the National Registration Department under Abdullahs Home Affairs Ministry had also been given the membership list which was denied to Team B so that it could run a check in response to the allegation about phantom members.

As it seems now, Mahathirs criticism last month of both Team A and Team B was not without basis. It was probably his annoyance with the constant pestering by both sides who could not be satisfied that had led to that spur of the moment.

To expect Mahathir, who is now overseas, to take sides with either Team A or Team B to crush the other opposing faction would seem unlikely, considering the possible backlash to the ruling coalition in terms of Chinese votes in the next general election.

Ling, who has been the MCA president for 16 years, no doubt has the strength in number among the party delegates. Although the takeover of two Chinese newspapers last May had sparked off protests from even some pro-government Chinese associations, Ling who initiated the deal still enjoys a fairly good standing within the ethnic Chinese through the patronising role of MCA and many of the partys projects, such as the setting up of Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (Utar).

To put it simply, the ethnic Chinese, particularly the business circle comprising the older generation of Chinese entrepreneurs, would still prefer stability and order and vote for the person they deem fit for the job.

In that respect, Ling obviously has a more senior track record than that of his opponent Lim who only became the party deputy chief in replacement of Lee Kim Sai in 1996.

Chinese votes

In addition to that, Umno is no longer as strong as it was during the 1986 general election when MCA had just gone through a severe crisis.

Mahathir would not want to risk the pivotal Chinese votes in the next national polls. There is, therefore, little possibility for Lings departure, as an MCA which is engaged in dealing with internal wounds and squabbles will disrupt Chinese support for BN.

Yet, Lim is not to be written off, considering his influence in Pahang  evident in the recent Ketari state by-election which witnessed a 10-fold increase in the majority vote obtained by the BN candidate.

Pahang is, however, not only Lims home base  it is a state where the opposition PAS, Keadilan, and DAP won eight state seats out of a total of 38 in the last general election.

Though Umno is said to have gradually regained its footing among Malay Malaysians in recent years, it is difficult for the party to forget how it lost Terengganu to PAS in the last general election, leaving Pahang as the sole surviving east coast state which was not captured by the Muslim opposition party.

Furthermore, Chinese votes for BN will ensure a larger victory instead of what may be a narrow majority vote should the coalition only depend on the unpredictable Malay voters.

Apart from that, numerous police reports had been made regarding people being signed up as MCA members unwittingly.

Team B claimed to have gathered evidence on this and will spill the beans before or at the extraordinary general meeting fixed for April 21. Some may cast doubt on their claim of evidence but one should also take into consideration the possible damage to MCA should their allegation hold water.

Above all, the coming election means more than any previous ones to Mahathir. A known political survivor, Mahathir is embarking on what observers describe as an effort to restore his old days of glory when BN scored a landslide victory during the 1995 general election.

Mahathirs determination was apparent in a statement he made during his 76th birthday celebration recently that he had not thought about retirement, as opposed to his words several years ago that he would not serve beyond 2003.

According to party sources, the so-called agenda for peace and stability proposed by Mahathir to MCA Team A and Team B recently was none other than a power-sharing formula which will maintain the status quo  that is a mixed composition of central leaders from both sides.

That means while Ling and Lim remain the party top leaders, their supporters should also be left untouched, at least until the next general election.

It is believed that in order to persuade Lim to work with Ling  since the former had openly regarded the latter as a foe  assurance will be given that the party will not go on a purge of dissenting leaders. Ling will also be made to give up his ministerial post after the next general election but shall remain MCA president until his successor comes in three years from now.

As for Ling, the thing to make him accept and abide by the peace agenda, a party veteran leader said in a cryptic manner, is to ask him to look into history and learn from what had happened to Tan (Koon Swan).

Again, those who have anticipated a dramatic ending to the MCA feud, may ask, Is it possible for the two factions that have collided to reconcile and work together after this?

The answer is (un)surprisingly, yes. After all, who ever said politics is all about a fight for changes and principles? Love it or loathe it, at the end of the day, it all boils down to the simple question of survival.