Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai pokes his head through the door of his office which is located on the grounds of Parliament Building and smiles broadly at an assortment of people in the room. He looks slightly harried and who can blame him? Up since 6.30 am, he must have had a gruelling day thus far – parliamentary meetings, Q&A sessions and the odd interview or two. But he’s in good form and looks raring to go.
A firm handshake accompanied by a direct gaze and it’s down to business. He’s not one for small talk and there’s definitely no dilly-dallying. The current President of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), MP for Bentong as well as the Minister of Transport has plenty on his plate and I get the feeling he’s determined to polish off every single morsel.
He breaks the ice by telling me about his childhood days growing up in a rubber estate in Merlimau in Melaka. “I’m from a very poor family,” he says unashamedly. “My father was a lorry driver and my mother was a rubber tapper. I have five siblings – three brothers and two sisters – and we all have a very good relationship.”
This lack of sibling rivalry must have fostered in him the ability to get along with others, a trait which has obviously come in handy in his job today.
He recalls doing his homework by candlelight as they didn’t have electricity in their home. But dim and flickering lighting wasn’t an excuse he could use for not completing his school assignments. “My parents were very strict when it came to education. They focused on our studies and wanted all of us to be well educated to break out of the poverty cycle ... I must thank them for that.”
Graduating from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) with a Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition is surely proof of his gratitude to his parents, and later, an MBA from Universiti Malaya put the cherry on his cake.
Recalling his boyhood days playing by the river in the rubber plantation where he grew up must have been a pleasant experience because now he’s more relaxed and his affability index rises several notches. Liow got his first taste in politics when he received a job offer after Form Six and before entering university, at then MCA exco member Tan Sri Tee Cheng York’s office as a secretary. However, he insists that he never harboured any ambitions of becoming a politician.
“To be honest, I really didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was young,” Liow admits. “My favourite subjects at school were science and maths so I chose to study nutrition at university.”
It was at UKM that the seeds of Liow’s future political career were sown. He became the leader of the Student Union and that itch caused by being bitten by the political bug has never gone away.
Youth to the fore
He started getting involved with youth groups, culminating with his position as the MCA Youth Chief back in 2005, so who better to voice out what the youths of today want?
“Young people are very energetic and enthusiastic and have a lot of ideas and aspirations, and the government must listen to them and engage them. They want the government to hear their concerns.”
He’s spot on but how does he plan to make this happen?
“We plan to provide plenty of platforms for them to share their ideas and views so we can tap their energy and use their ideas for the good for the community.” And to back up what he says, he quotes the example of the transport ministry setting up the Skuad Muda JPJ, a youth volunteerism group for the under-40 demographic to participate in.
Putting his money where his mouth is, Liow says there will be more young candidates which MCA will nominate for the forthcoming general election. “We will nominate more than 50% for those below 50 years old and more than 30% for those below 40.” He appears to be well aware and fully in touch with the needs of Gen Y and the millennials and why shouldn’t he be? At 56 years old, he’s not that far off chronologically plus he has three children aged between 20 and 28 years old to keep him constantly reminded.
“In terms of material needs, young people need security; they want to buy a house and car, and have a steady job. On our part, the government needs to ensure economic growth and a stable environment to provide them with these basic needs.”
But what about intangible needs? “Young people need faith, not just in themselves but through religion or moral fortitude. They seek a value system for guidance in their lives; freedom of expression, where they feel safe to voice their ideals to us is also vital.”
By now, Liow is warmed up, and I feel comfortable enough to venture onto rocky terrain. What does he think about the current state of politics in our country?
“We have come to a serious political situation where there is mud-slinging and a lot of rhetoric,” he says, after careful thought. “There are populist agendas rather than policies that will help to build the economy or the country. I am worried about this because if all parties are trying to outdo each other by being popular, then our country will go down the drain.”
He illustrates what he means by giving an example of Western countries where one political party will promise workers two days off a week and another party will promise them three days off and become more popular but as a result, the productivity of the country deteriorates.
The room we are in is nondescript by any definition but there’s an elephant in here which I have to address – what is MCA doing about the criticisms that has been levelled against it?
“I want the Chinese community to know that we welcome their criticisms,” he says magnanimously.
“I want to invite them to join us in resolving these issues together. I admit that MCA is far from perfect and I know there are a lot of criticisms about us and I accept them but we want to do better and do more.”
Liow solicits ideas and suggestions from the public but with a caveat. “We welcome constructive criticism. Don’t attack us unnecessarily. If it’s given with good intention, we will be able to work together.”
He elaborates on how he goes about helping those who seek him out.
“When someone comes to me for help and it’s a serious problem, I will raise it to the Cabinet and let the person know what I have done to help him. Even if his problem is not solved, at least he will know that we have tried our best by bringing it to the highest level and he will know the process we employ in this country to solve issues.”
He says this is very important as every government has a due process and proper procedures to follow.
“In the past, MCA would bring it up to the Cabinet but didn’t tell the complainant what was discussed or the process of negotiation and this created dissatisfaction because they felt their complaint wasn’t dealt with. So now I have become very transparent and let them know what we discussed in the Cabinet pertaining to their problem.”
He’s quick to add that once the complainant has become aware of the process, they feel satisfied, regardless of the outcome.
Having spent almost his entire life scaling the heights of the political ladder and now at the summit, Liow is more than qualified to give his opinion of what he thinks MCA has done for the Chinese community in Malaysia.
“Despite what some people think or say, they cannot deny that MCA has done a lot for the Chinese community. If not for MCA, Malaysia would not be this multiracial, multicultural and multireligious society today. We are different from countries like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.
“That is why we can continue to learn Chinese in the government education system. We have the most comprehensive multiracial and multilingual education system here. This is because we have a Chinese political party and that has made a difference.”
It is well past the hour and Liow’s assistant reminds him of a vote he has to cast in Parliament. It’s evident that he holds all these topics close to his heart because his eyes are now ablaze and he’s fired up yet he still retains a cool composure.
As a parting shot, he says: “I want to tell the Chinese community that MCA is a party that is still very relevant to them. We are able to protect their interest and position in this country and we will strive to continue to make Malaysia a racially diverse, inclusive and moderate country.
“I want all Chinese to know we are part of this country and that we belong here.”
Liow’s advice for today’s youth
“I would like to see young people be more enthusiastic about life and participate more in volunteerism. They should try to contribute to society and when they become successful, they should remember to give back. This is very important.
“Don’t be selfish and just think of your own interests. On the government’s part, we are equipping young people with knowledge and experience by giving them the opportunity for self-development. Even after graduating from university, they can still continue lifelong learning if this is what they want. It doesn’t have to be academic or in the form of another degree. It can be in the form of vocational training. I joined Toastmasters International to improve my communication, public speaking and leadership skills, and I joined a swimming club to learn how to swim better.”
Eating healthy and keeping fit
“My parents are vegetarians because of their religion (they are Buddhists) while I have been a vegetarian for over 30 years (Liow is an ovo-lacto vegetarian which means he doesn’t eat meat or seafood but does consume some animal products like eggs and dairy) because I feel it is good for my health. My wife and children are also vegetarians. It all ties in with being fit. I do planking exercises every morning and play badminton three times a week. I don’t have time to cook but my favourite dish is a vegetarian Chinese herbal soup my wife makes.”
Biggest challenge on the job
“Without a doubt, it is transforming and unifying the party. It’s a big challenge and when I became the President and took over the task, there were a lot of factions within MCA. But now I have managed to unite most of them and we are more cohesive. In MCA, we have to subscribe to the notion that its members own the party and only then can we unite. We cannot unite based on personalities. We must unite based on the philosophy of the party. There must be a common goal that every member can work toward achieving.”
What keeps him up at night
“I face a lot of issues every day and these are big issues. If those issues are worsening and I can’t find any solutions in the short term, that keeps me up. But I am thankful I have a calm personality and so far I have managed to handle most things that are thrown at me. I believe that there always is a solution to any problem that arises. I have faith in myself and my abilities and that gives me power. I always believe that I can do better. I am generally a positive person and therefore I am able to sleep well most nights.”
Dreams for MCA
“As the president I would like to galvanise the strength of the entire Chinese community within the government.
“By giving strength to the party inside the government, we can resolve more problems and get more resources for the Chinese community. We will disintegrate if we are on the outside and we will be at the losing end. The Chinese community needs to understand that they need an effective party to represent them, not a populist party. I still believe that the Chinese have a lot of hope for MCA.”