IT CAUGHT almost all leaders of the Barisan Nasional component parties by surprise.
Midway through the two-hour supreme council meeting on Tuesday, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad told those present that he wanted the open squabbling among the party leaders to stop, adding that he wanted to see a united MCA.
Turning to MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Ling Liong Sik, the Prime Minister told him that he was revealing Dr Ling’s undated letter of resignation, to which the Transport Minister nodded in agreement.
According to some Barisan leaders who attended the meeting, Dr Mahathir, who is also Barisan chairman, said he did not want to accept Dr Ling’s offer to quit as a Cabinet minister.
“The PM’s message was clear. Most of us understood it although it caught many of us by surprise,” said a leader of a Chinese-based party from Sabah.
The letter was submitted to Dr Mahathir more than four months ago, after the MCA’s “no-contest” elections under Dr Mahathir’s peace plan.
Despite the peace plan, the MCA has failed to resolve the factionalism which split the party into Team A, led by Dr Ling, and Team B, headed by his deputy Datuk Seri Lim Ah Lek.
Dr Ling commands the majority support, with 31 of the 40 central committee members backing him, while Ah Lek has nine on his side.
No one is sure what prompted Dr Mahathir to bring up the subject or why Dr Ling chose to announce to the press after the Barisan meeting his offer to quit when the Prime Minister did not say anything about it at his earlier press conference.
One leader, close to Dr Ling, said he believed that the MCA leader wanted the matter to come out in the open instead of being subjected to more speculations and rumours, adding that Dr Ling’s retirement plan appeared to be the “favourite topic” among his political foes.
Others said Dr Mahathir himself brought up the matter after newspapers had on Tuesday highlighted Ah Lek’s plan to challenge Dr Ling for the top MCA post in the party polls in 2005, despite this being an old topic.
One Barisan leader said Dr Mahathir appeared irked by Ah Lek’s open challenge as the next party polls were more than two years away and the party’s focus should be on implementing the peace plan.
The peace plan had returned all party incumbents for another term until 2005 - it was aimed at mending the rift in the MCA, which came about following a bitter power struggle immediately after the general election in 1999.
The power struggle had caused much damage to the party’s credibility.
Others said it was also Dr Mahathir’s warning to other Barisan parties to stop their open feud.
The latest was the heated verbal exchanges among Barisan component parties following the Penang Outer Ring Road controversy and subsequently the indefinite suspension of two Penang assemblyman from MCA after they did not vote against a DAP motion at the state assembly in November last year
Said one analyst: “No one can blame Dr Mahathir if he is upset. The focus should be to strengthen the Barisan as these open quarrels will only benefit the opposition. I think he wants Barisan parties to get their act together.
“Being a medical doctor himself, Dr Mahathir obviously knew the health risk of having an organ in the body which is not functioning well or being subjected to constant abuse.”
On Wednesday, Dr Mahathir put to rest the speculations in the media over Dr Ling’s quit offer by saying he had rejected his offer twice – in May 2000 and Aug 15 last year.
“Yes, I received the letters a long time ago but I have not agreed with his intention to retire,” he said.
The announcement has certainly boosted Dr Ling’s position, as it will bury rumours fanned by his detractors that the leadership wanted Dr Ling out.
According to sources, the spin doctors of Team B have been planting stories that Dr Ling would be resigning, with even dates given.
This, said the sources, was to keep up the momentum in the wake of waning interest in Team B’s crusade after the many issues they had capitalised on were resolved.
Critics of Ah Lek, on the other hand, blamed him for bringing up Dr Ling’s retirement at the Barisan meeting. But this was not true as some confirmed that he remained silent throughout the meeting.
But again it is an open secret that Ah Lek has been harping on Dr Ling’s retirement plan almost immediately since the last general election, after the latter had casually mentioned that he was happy with the situation in the party and its achievements and ready to call it a day.
“There is a psychological war going on although the position of MCA leaders will remain unchanged for the next three years under the peace plan,” one MCA division member said, adding that nobody could stop some people’s wishful thinking anyway.
The rivalry has, in fact, gone to ludicrous lengths. For example, Wanita MCA chief Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen (Team A) has organised a baju kebaya night on Feb 14 to raise funds for Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman while her deputy and rival, Datin Paduka Dr Tan Yee Kew (Team B), is holding a charity dinner and cheongsam night on Feb 10 to raise funds for Selangor Wanita MCA and a centre for women.
While Dr Mahathir’s announcement is likely to put to rest the speculations over Dr Ling’s position for a while, analysts said these would probably crop up again as the stakes were high.
For instance, if and when any one of the four MCA ministers steps down, there won’t only be a new minister. The chain reaction will lead to a new deputy minister and a new parliamentary secretary – all aspirants will start to calculate their chances.
Unless the factionalism, which actually centres on party and government positions but fought in the name of the Chinese community's interest, is under control, the bitter fight will continue.
MCA leaders need to get their priorities right – redeem the party’s image in the eyes of the Chinese community, help Barisan gear up for the general election due next year and raise funds for Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman.
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