Face to face: Phoenix rising

  • Focus
  • Sunday, 19 Jan 2020

EXACTLY one year ago, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad stingingly told MCA to “close shop” after this Chinese political party suffered its worst-

ever electoral defeat in the May 2018 General Election (GE14), losing all but one of the parliamentary seats it contested.

Many voters who hated the previous Barisan National coalition government, in which the MCA was a senior partner, echoed this contempt ruthlessly on social media.

From May 2018 to early last year, the MCA underwent the lowest point in its 70 years of existence. Spirits were low as many members could not see any light at the end of the tunnel.

However, one year on, not only has the MCA not closed shop, it is recuperating well and re-emerging from the GE14 humiliation.

The leadership of Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong, who became MCA president after GE14, is a key factor that is giving hope to this party with one million registered members.

Dr Wee – the only MP from MCA before mid-November 2019 – is giving the government hell by exposing wrongdoings, criticising bad policies and poor governance, and deriding new ministers for their ignorance.

The 52-year-old – who is a fiery orator fluent in Malay, Chinese and English – articulated important national and communal issues well, and his performance in Parliament as an opposition MP impresses even his critics.

He reacts quickly to bad government policies, and he shares his views on Facebook and Twitter for the media to pick up.

Though slow-moving, other MCA leaders have also begun to be vocal on issues that matter to the people, such as the mandatory introduction of Jawi into the Primary Four Bahasa Malaysia textbook in Chinese schools and the drastic cut in government funds for the Tunku Abdul Rahman University College (TAR UC) that serves the Chinese community.

But the real boost to low morale came after MCA’s Datuk Seri Dr Wee Jeck Seng won the Tanjung Piai parliamentary by-election in Johor with a shocking majority of 15,000 votes on Nov 16 last year.

“Many people now see there is an urgent need for checks and balances, and that MCA is playing an effective role in checking the government.

“Now people cheer us on: ‘MCA work hard, get more talented people, we need you to check the government’, ” says Dr Wee in an exclusive interview with Sunday Star.

More people have signed up as MCA members in the last six months compared with the first half of 2019, according to MCA figures.

While spending a lot of time in Parliament, Dr Wee has not neglected rebuilding MCA.

He has gone round the country to identify young talented professionals who are also good orators in preparation for the next general election – possibly two to three years away.

So far, he sees 16 professionals as good candidates to contest in the next general election (GE15).

“If GE15 were to be held tomorrow, MCA will win back some seats and Barisan may win back some states.

“For now, Barisan politicians should forget about regaining power and forming a government via the backdoor. Our MCA target is clear: provide checks and balances and play this role well, ” says Dr Wee emphatically.

In the three-hour interview at the Royal Lake Club in Kuala Lumpur, the energetic white-haired leader – whom many analysts see as one of the most outstanding political leaders – talks about his party, the government and governance, national issues and GE15. Below are excerpts:

> What have you done as party chief to strengthen MCA and prepare it for the next election?

I have been MCA president for 14 months, since the early November 2018 party election.

We should forget about returning to power (as still dreamt of by some Barisan leaders); we should focus on checks and balances.

Our great victory in Tanjung Piai shows that people want checks and balances in government. After the present Pakatan Harapan coalition ruled for 18 months, people started to realise that life is not as rosy as promised before the election.

The Pakatan government should realise they cannot be playing politics in government, like what they used to do while they were in Opposition.

When you promise as a government, you have got to deliver. You cannot play politics with your own people. You have to issue clear policies and provide leadership.

In the MCA, we are stronger now. After the party election in November 2018, there is less friction and people from different camps are returning to the fold of the party.

We have also learnt from Tanjung Piai, when all Barisan parties came together, raised people’s issues and won the election.

For the party, we have groomed many young people to be candidates for the next election. There are about 16 people who can speak Bahasa fluently in Malay areas. In the past, hardly any.

We also want them to think independently and provide leadership in their states or divisions.

These young people will replace the existing leaders if the present leaders cannot perform. I reckon half of our old candidates could be replaced in the next election.

We have also identified some parliamentary seats and seven to eight marginal seats that we can work in with other Barisan parties. Our work has only just started.

We cannot be complacent after Tanjung Piai. We won handsomely mainly because there was a lot of anti-government feelings at that time, so the voters gave us their support. Some DAP people even came to support us.

Many people were and are unhappy with the cut in allocation for TAR UC (founded and managed by the MCA). They raised funds to support TAR UC.

In the last two months, people from all walks of life have donated a total of RM1.2mil for the university college.

> Do you think you will win your Ayer Hitam constituency easily in the next election?

There is no safe seat now.

The political scenario is very fluid now, as shown by the Tanjung Piai by-election. (The MCA lost the seat in the last election, but regained it last November.) We did not expect to win so big and Pakatan did not expect to lose so badly.

The by-election also showed that the government of the day can promise projects and developments but money cannot guarantee votes.

In Ayer Hitam, it is tough for me as Opposition as we lack resources.

The Pakatan government went back on its word. The Opposition MPs are not given allocations to operate our service centres, whereas a Pakatan MP receives RM300,000 annually.

While a Pakatan MP gets annual development funds of RM3mil, an Opposition MP like me only gets RM100,000 per year.

I use my own resources and my MP allowance to finance the MCA service centres. I also cannot use halls of schools and New Villages for our CNY open house and other functions.

This is ironical. When I was in government as Deputy Education Minister and later Minister in the PM’s Department, I had helped to get RM100mil government funds to build facilities for schools and New Villages. Yet today, I cannot use these facilities.

Anyway, just obey the rules lah!

> What have you achieved as an Opposition MP?

As an MP, I am quite happy and satisfied with my performance. I adjusted well in my switch to Opposition MP. In the whole of 2019, I had not been absent for even a day in Parliament.

This is similar to my attendance in government from 2004 to 2018. I attended all sessions and sittings in Parliament, except when I was overseas on working trips.

As a matter of fact, I enjoy my participation in Parliament and the whole process. Before each session, I spend one month to prepare 30-40 questions and motions, drafting written and oral questions.

We are now preparing the questions and motions for the March session of Parliament.

I am proud that I have raised in Parliament important national issues such as RM1.4bil Nafas scandal (contracts given to cronies), third national car and flying car projects, and participated in hot debates.

I also enjoy pointing out to the Entrepreneur Development Minister the difference between a flying car and a drone. Malaysia cannot do a flying car if there is no satellite support.

Some Cabinet ministers simply talk without a policy and without considering the viability of the projects they propose.

This government seems to be run by cowboys. There is no collective decision. Cabinet ministers leave meetings saying they do not agree with some decisions.

I can understand many issues and point out wrong doings in government because I have forced myself to learn various subjects since I became a backbencher. Due to this, I have adjusted myself very well as Opposition MP.

For my performance, I give myself 80 marks upon 100. There is still room for improvement.

> What are the main national issues now?

The government has failed miserably in uniting Malaysia. We have wasted a lot of time talking about small matters, and focussing on religion and race.

All MPs should play a role to promote muhibbah. The tanglung incident in a school in Puchong should not have happened.

Racial tension is terrible on

the ground. People have become very intolerant. People are sensitive to jokes. Since when have Chinese New Year decorations become a religious matter offensive to Islam?

We need to salvage the situation now.

From both sides of the political divide, we have to bring about unity in our country.

The other big issue facing the country is the economy, which has gone from bad to worse.

Go down to the ground. SMEs, retailers and hawkers will tell you their business is bad. The cost of doing business is high. Some want to close down businesses or relocate to Vietnam.

People don’t see hope in the economy. They cannot feel there is political stability.

Although commodity prices have picked up, the yield is poor.

For ordinary people, the cost of living is the biggest problem.

The country is spending so much time on politicking. The Finance Minister and Economic Affairs Minister spend more time on politics than managing the economy and addressing the real issues in the economy.

On tourism, we should ask why Thailand can lure 12 million tourists from China annually, and we could only bring in three million last year. Bear in mind, China’s outbound travellers total about 180 million annually. Tourism is important because it has an impact on airlines and other transport, retail business, hotels, and food and beverage.

> Let’s talk about assets of MCA. Is there a plan to redevelop Menara MCA in Kuala Lumpur?

At the moment, the status quo will remain.

We did think of redeveloping Menara MCA to raise its plot ratio to 18-19 (similar to the other buildings in the area), from the current four, as mandated by the MCA central committee in 2017, but the Pakatan government only approved a new plot ratio of slightly more than 10.

It is not worth the time and money for us to redevelop the property with such a low plot ratio.

> While in government, you used to be close to Chinese associations. How is your relationship with them now?

Initially, they felt uneasy when we became the Opposition. But now they have begun to invite us to closed-door dialogues and hope we can help to highlight issues of concern.

Since we are no longer in government, we will not talk about politics at their open functions. If they invite us to attend cultural events and functions like a CNY open house, we will go.

> What is your rating of the government?

I give 26 marks out of 100 to the Prime Minister (Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad). This rating is equivalent to the 26% votes garnered by his party candidate in the Tanjung Piai by-election in November.

His government has spent so much time stirring up conflicts in race, religion. They have spent more time on politicking and issues of least importance, such as flying cars.

Many pledges made before the election are not fulfilled. They promised transparency with no direct negotiation on government contracts, yet the RM1.4bil Nafas contracts show they don’t walk the talk.

Dr Mahathir’s Cabinet is inexperienced, with many ministers making announcements without any clear policy and deeper thinking.

In the interest of the nation, we in MCA are prepared to share our expertise by giving our input in governing the country.

They say the civil servants cannot get along with them, we can share our experience.

> What are your views on Opposition parties?

The unity of Umno (the main party in Barisan) is at stake. It cannot afford to have more crossovers and lose more MPs. They must restore unity in the party. They should forget about the reverse takeover of government, as people don’t like this.

More moderate leaders in Umno should be portrayed.

The Opposition parties need to have greater coordination so that we are seen as a team.

In Tanjung Piai, we practised mutual respect and demonstrated our unity.

We focused on talking about people’s issues and not about race and religion. We saw crowds of 3,000 people from different races.

The Opposition parties also need to come out with new and younger leaders. People want to see new leaders and new faces.

> What can you expect from the next election?

Voters’ sentiments could change in a matter of one month.

Take the examples of Ayer Hitam and Bentong parliamentary constituencies (previously held by former MCA president Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai).

One month before the last election, our surveys of 500-600 voters showed the support for us was overwhelming. But day by day our support dropped, and the fall was significant.

The election scene has changed a lot, as shown by Tanjung Piai. The dynamics on the ground and chemistry of people can change very fast. The winning formula of GE14 cannot be fully applied in GE15.

The group of fence sitters used to be 5%-15%, but now it is raised to 30%-35%. These people can influence the election’s outcome.

The hardcore supporters of Pakatan are around 20%, but if the government keeps hurting people with their policies, they will have to pay a price in GE15.

I am not optimistic about our chances in the next election, but I am not pessimistic either.

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