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Articles, Commentaries, TODAY Newspaper

Can the MCA reinvent itself?

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By OOI KEE BENG, for TODAY Newspaper, Singapore: 30 December 2013

Finally, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) is displaying signs that it now realizes what a sorry state the once powerful party now finds itself in. This it managed to do at the party elections held on 21-22 December.

In the general elections held in May this year, only about 15% from its traditional Malaysian Chinese constituency had supported it; and in the process, it saw the number of parliamentary seats it held in 2008 more than halved, from 15 to 7. To press home the seriousness of its fall from grace, in the 2004 general elections, it actually won 31 such seats.

Whatever compromises may have been made behind locked doors before voting began for the party leadership last weekend, MCA delegates did show that there is now sufficient unity within the party for it to begin planning its future.

Optimism is running higher within the party than it had done in a long while. Newly elected president Liow Tiong Lai, though winning only by a margin of 185 votes, is supported by his long-time ally Wee Ka Siong, who became deputy president with a decisive majority. At the same time, polling for the women’s wing also showed impressive accord among the delegates.

However, in planning for the future, Liow and Wee will find their options rather limited. For one thing, the party took a long time getting its act together after the disastrous 2008 elections. This naturally undermined its credibility as a Chinese-based party able to argue its case against the Malay-based UMNO, the dominant party in the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN). UMNO, in the meantime, has been growing in parliamentary size.

What has also been happening is that the opposing coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR), especially its largely Chinese-supported member, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), has shown a surprising ability to retain support and to expand its influence, especially in urban areas.

With the MCA playing possum since 2008, Malaysian politics has changed dramatically. The BN has been shifting to the right, led by UMNO members fearing loss of power and privilege. Today, it is the traditionally Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) that styles itself as the moderate Malay party, and it is UMNO that has lost the all-important middle ground that the BN once commanded.

Whatever the degree of ethnocentrism or religious fundamentalism declared by right-wingers, the fact remains that Malaysia is a very diverse country, ethnically and religiously. This acts as a check on the practice of extremism. No doubt, cultural tolerance has dropped in recent years, but resistance to that tendency has also grown to counteract it.

The revealing question is, what are the coalitional contexts within which the MCA can try to regain ground?

First, it can try to revive the Alliance Model of the 1960s, when the MCA was the alter ego of UMNO. Together with the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), they formed a unique compromise within which each community’s ethnocentrism could live on within a multi-ethnic umbrella of race-based parties. As long as each party could maintain its reputation as champion of its own community, and as long as enough voters supported each of them, the model worked. But once that model was reformed into the Barisan Nasional in the early 1970s, the dominance of UMNO became a reality, and it was only a matter of time before the hollowing out of MCA and MIC influence within the BN became irrefutable.

For Malaysian Prime Minister and UMNO president Najib Razak to tell MCA delegates last week—be it in jest or not—that the MCA was in need of a dose of Viagra was not only in bad taste but was seen by many as the rubbing of salt into the party’s gaping wound. The MCA’s present sorry state is after all due to its continued subservience to UMNO, and for it to rebound will no doubt mean a heightened level of activism, but that activism, to be effective, will have to be aimed largely against UMNO’s present unhampered ethnocentrism.

Only if Najib is able to rein in extremist elements within his administration and his party, can pro-activism on the part of the MCA win it seats in the next general elections. Otherwise, the BN will continue to evolve as an UMNO-East Malaysia creature, with no need for the MCA.

Second, the MCA can refuse the Viagra and continue accepting the BN Model. But that is to go further down the route that ruined it in the first place. As it is, the BN is definitely not a coalition of equals, neither in name nor in practice. Strangely, it may only be the MCA, if it plays hardball, which can force UMNO back towards the middle ground.

Third, the MCA can accept the present state of play, which is a struggle between race-oriented politics and governance-oriented politics. Being essentially a race-based party, just like UMNO and the MIC—and PAS—, the party will find it arduous to compete on opposition territory. Despite its many weaknesses, the PR has the dynamic advantage where political discourses are concerned.

Lastly, a radical option for the MCA would be to restyle itself as a small party with strong principles on inclusive growth. Whether it will need to exit the BN to do that is an open question. But by placing itself in the liberating space between being NGO and political party, it could contribute greatly towards pulling the country back unto the middle ground.

I know it sounds idealistic, but this is after all the time of year for wishful thinking.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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