Face to face: The accidental leader


  • Focus
  • Sunday, 13 Oct 2019

NEWLY-elected president of Huazong, Tan Sri Goh Tian Chuan, likes to tell everybody he became the top leader of this important national body representing most Chinese associations in the country “by accident”.

He is right in many aspects.

One year ago, when he tested the waters by asking immediate past president Tan Sri Pheng Yin Huah for his blessings to run for the NGO’s presidency, Pheng told him he preferred his deputy then, Datuk Cheng Lai Hock, to be the future leader of the Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia (Huazong).

Respecting the chain of command – an ingrained value after 13 years in the police force – Huazong’s vice president then followed Pheng’s advice to go for the No.2 post. But this move was rejected by Cheng, who wanted another person to run as deputy president alongside him.

This “humiliation” angered the Federation of Chinese Associations Sabah (FCAS) that Goh headed. The FCAS then passed a fiery resolution at a general meeting, forcing their leader to go for broke.

Without Pheng’s backing, there was little hope for Goh. But one month before the Sept 8 election, he travelled to all 13 states of Malaysia to campaign and to impress.

But still there was no guarantee of success on the Peninsular for this “unknown” from Sabah. One of the questions Goh was forced to answer was how much time could he devote to the Kuala Lumpur-based Huazong?

In addition, he has a background that most Chinese are uneasy with: He had served in the Royal Malaysian Police’s Special Branch which was known to spy on vocal Chinese leaders in the 1970s and 1980s when the communism threat was taken seriously.

By tradition, he also suffered a disadvantage. His rival was Huazong’s deputy president, “destined” to be the natural successor.

However, the emergence of DAP’s secretary-general and Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng ahead of the Huazong election altered the equation.

Lim’s perceived support for Cheng and his caustic remarks at a Huazong cultural festival in Alor Setar put off many delegates. Cheng’s own undiplomatic pre-election speech also angered some of Huazong’s leaders.

Pheng reveals that he and some leaders then changed their minds and cast their votes for Goh.

Goh beat Cheng 67-62 in a straight fight in the Sept 8 polls, in Cheng’s home state, Kedah. It was a narrow win for Goh, but a strong victory and breakthrough for Sabah’s FCAS.

“When I was not accepted as deputy president, I had no choice but to contest for the presidency – and accidentally, I won. From being the underdog, I ended up here as Huazong president, ” Goh says with a wry smile at an exclusive two-hour interview with Sunday Star.

For someone who is relatively unknown in Peninsular Malaysia, Goh’s win was a spectacular surprise.

The trilingual (he speaks Chinese, English and Malay well) leader has vowed to stay vocal about Chinese-linked issues and make a difference in leading Huazong.

On Oct 8, he issued a timely statement in English saying that two “racial” resolutions passed at the controversial Malay Dignity Congress had ignored the feelings and dignity of the Chinese.

Going forward, Goh wants Huazong to improve relations with the present government and organise exchanges with non-

Chinese groups to promote unity.

Past leader Pheng, an MCA member, has been given the cold shoulder by many current government leaders for supporting the past regime.

But will Goh be as committed and devoted as Pheng to Huazong? Pheng had even neglected his steel business in the past 10 years in favour of focusing on Huazong, managing to raise RM100mil to build Menara Huazong in Seri Kembangan, Selangor.

And Globaltec Formation Bhd, controlled by Goh, incurred losses in the year running up to June 2019.

But Goh maintains he is ready to take up the challenges. The following are excerpts from his interview.

> What will be Huazong’s direction under your leadership?To continue to speak up for and unite the Chinese community, and to act as a bridge between the community and the government, particularly when there are issues affecting the Chinese in politics, the economy, culture and education, as stipulated in our Constitution.

In terms of politics, Huazong as an NGO needs to take note of political developments but we must be above party politics. We will never be involved in (those sorts of) politics.

Huazong already has a grand building (Menara Huazong). I plan to strengthen our secretariat and administration by introducing greater professionalism in management. We have to put in a proper system of management.

> Are there any projects you will undertake soon?In my election manifesto, I said I would set up two funds. One is to help Chinese youth. The other is an education fund of RM10mil.

Our past president concentrated on building a home for Huazong. Now it is time to organise some talks and forums for the youth on career, business, culture and education.

The other important project is to raise money for an education fund. One of Huazong’s key objectives is to promote education.

Many associations out there give small loans and scholarships with the condition that the recipients cannot go for a second loan.

The new education fund will be for the Chinese, but not necessarily for Chinese education. Recipients can study any subject, overseas or locally.

I want to give out scholarships without any conditions attached. The recipients don’t have to return the money.

> What other work will you do be doing for Huazong?When you talk about the Chinese community, you can’t run away from Chinese culture and education.

In Huazong, we have a Chinese museum that I want to promote harder. We have students, visiting delegations, diplomats and tourists who come to the museum to learn about the tough life of our ancestors from China, how these early immigrants worked in the tin mines and about their contribution to the economic development of Malaysia.

On the business aspect, Huazong has also encouraged its members to seek opportunities under (China’s) Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This effort will be continued under me.

> On BRI, what are you going to do?

I hope Huazong will work closely with the ACCCIM (Associated Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia), whose main focus is on business and economics.

We also wish to work with the Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce and other associations specialising in BRI set up by various communities.

> How do you see yourself handling relations with the government?Huazong as a national body is always ready to work with the government of the day.

We are not the proxy of any political party, or of any political leader, as alleged by some quarters in the past.

Yes, during the time of the past president we were branded as somebody’s proxy. This is wrong. Huazong has always worked closely with the government of the day.

Those days when we were building Menara Huazong, we worked closely with the previous government, especially in funding. So we had to respect the government then.

After the May 2018 General Election, we have showed we are willing to work with the new government. Tan Sri Pheng led a delegation to meet with Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in January 2019.

Please don’t look at us through tinted glass. We are not the proxy of anybody. I will hold very tight (to the course) that Huazong is politically neutral.

> How do you negotiate the fine line between supporting political parties and working with the government?Yes, we are supporting government of the day. We are working closely with the government of the day, but that does not mean we will always say “yes” to the government.

If a policy is not good and does not benefit our community, we will raise our voice to object to it.

“We hope the government will listen to voices on the ground. It is our right to speak up, but it is their choice to make the final decision after listening to the people on the ground.

> Racial issues are often played up by some quarters. Do you find it a challenge to voice out Chinese concerns?Malaysia is for Malaysians. Malaysians of many races. Each and every one of us must respect each other, in terms of religion, race and activities.

If you visit Sabah, you will see the best race relations in action. All ethnic groups can work together, eat together and stay together. We respect one another. I hope this practice can extend to Peninsular Malaysia.

> You have lived in Sabah for a very long time, do people often forget that you were originally from Melaka?

I always say this: I was made in Melaka, modified in KL and utilised in Sabah.

I grew up in Melaka, after that I went to KL to attend the police college, and then was sent to Sabah. I am now 58. I have been in Sabah for 37 years, so I say I am a Sabahan.

I feel more like an East Malaysian. I know their culture. I am working with them. I know the East Malaysian feeling.

I can understand the unhappiness of Sabah and Sarawak. They have plenty of natural resources to contribute to the national coffers, yet development there is slow.

When they ask for something more from the Federal Budget, they are being reasonable.

> What is your style of leadership?If you are good, you are good. I will put the right people in the right places.

My emphasis is to revamp the management of Huazong and place the right person in the right place. I want to have an open heart to get every one involved in strengthening Huazong.

At the leadership level, all state leaders will have to show sacrifice and contribute towards building up Huazong further.

This ship (Huazong) will continue to sail in the same direction. As a new captain, I am not going to make the ship change its course, but it must move forward.

> In the last 10 years, Pheng spent so much time on Huazong that he neglected his own business. Are you likely to repeat that?

Actually, it’s also my concern. I am a substantial shareholder and chairman of a listed company called Globaltec. I will try my best to strike a balance.

Maybe when I complete my three years as president of Huazong, you can then ask me whether I neglected Globaltec (laughs).

In Chinese there is a phrase that says you cannot dictate your destiny once you have immersed yourself in an organisation. You may have to follow what your supporters want you to do.

> How are you going to work with other associations with overlapping objectives?In most major Chinese associations, the Constitutions carry objectives on politics, economics, culture and education. But we are not geniuses. For certain topics, we have to work together with experts.

When it comes to business, we have to respect the ACCCIM because they know economic policies better. We can work together for one objective – to benefit our members and the Chinese community.

For Chinese education, Dong Zong and Jiao Zong are the experts. We will support them.

In the Chinese community, each has a key role to play. We should complement, not compete with, each other.


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