OVER the past week, the handphone of Datin Seri Ena Ling has been ringing non-stop. Unable to reach her husband Datuk Seri Dr Ling Liong Sik, MCA members and friends have instead attempted to call her for information about his intention to resign from his party post.
Dr Ling had remained tight-lipped on newspaper reports that he wanted to step down after leading the MCA for 17 years, making him the longest-serving party president.
But yesterday, the Transport Minister finally broke his silence. He walked over to the hordes of reporters waiting outside his ministry in Putrajaya and told them that he would not change his mind.
“I have made up my mind. My decision will pave the way for younger leaders to move up,” he said after meeting grassroots leaders from Kedah, Perlis, Terengganu and Malacca.
Over the past few days, delegation after delegation of MCA leaders had turned up at his office after hearing talk that he would be calling it a day after heading the second-largest Barisan Nasional component party since 1986.
For many of his supporters, the decision appears sudden and even abrupt but unknown to many, negotiations for a truce between the feuding factions have been going on for some weeks.
The party has been embroiled in a power struggle for over 14 months with open bickering between Team A headed by Dr Ling and Team B led by his deputy Datuk Seri Lim Ah Lek.
The ugly public mudslinging eroded the integrity and credibility of the party but with a general election looming, it was clear that patience was running thin among the Barisan Nasional elders.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, when opening the MIC general assembly on May 10, ordered bickering component parties to get their act together. For many, the message was directed at the MCA. The capital was soon abuzz with talk of high-level meetings in Putrajaya and purported visits by Dr Ling and Lim to the Prime Minister’s office but no one was prepared to talk.
The press soon got wind that serious negotiations were taking place between both sides and that an amicable solution to end the crisis was in sight. MCA politicians, who are always ready to comment on anything, were soon switching off their handphones.
As the speculation gained momentum, the grassroots insisted on hearing from Dr Ling. They wanted to know whether the media speculation was true.
Under the MCA constitution, the central committee, which meets today, will have to decide on Dr Ling’s decision and, presumably Lim’s as well, to step down from the two top posts.
They have two options – reject the resignations and give time to Dr Ling and Lim to reconsider, or accept their decisions and immediately vote for their successors. Under the MCA rules, the central committee, through voting, can make the change.
The 40-member central committee has four vice-presidents to pick as successors – Datuk Dr Fong Chan Onn, 58, Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting, 47, Datuk Chua Jui Meng, 60, and Datuk Chan Kong Choy, 48, – but the speculation is that Ong and Chan are in the lead.
Ong and Chan are protégés of Dr Ling and Lim respectively and are said to have long been groomed for these roles. Being aligned to Team A and Team B respectively, the proposal to pair these two leaders is also seen as a compromise to reach a deal.
Both Ong and Chan have refrained from making harsh criticisms about the other side, perhaps fully aware that they would one day have to be team members. The two leaders are said to have supporters on the opposing sides, making the job of pairing them easier.
But supporters of Chua were busy telling their listeners yesterday that the Health Minister was tipped to be president, citing his close ties with Umno leaders and his seniority in MCA. They pointed out that Chua, who was returning to Kuala Lumpur from a meeting in Geneva, had served as vice-president for four terms.
Still, the media considers the Ong-Chan team to be the best bet at this point.
Apart from their ages, there are other similarities between the two. They started off as educators – Ong was a teacher at the Petaling Jaya Catholic High School while Chan was a tutor at the Chinese Studies Department in the then Universiti Pertanian Malaysia. The two Universiti Malaya graduates were also students of Tunku Abdul Rahman College.
They also received their education in Chinese schools, a departure from past MCA top leaders who were English-educated, and thus enjoy strong endorsement from the powerful Chinese guilds and education movement. With the exception of former president Tan Sri Lee San Choon, the rest were English-educated.
Ong and Chan grew up in new villages from humble beginnings. Ong’s rubber tapper mother raised the family in Perak as his father died when he was very young while Chan’s father was a hawker in Pahang. They also practically spent their entire adult careers as politicians. Both are true-blue MCA men, who had worked their way from the bottom.
While it has long been an open secret that their names have been tossed around as prospective successors, the first clear indication that the move would become a reality was at the official opening of the Kampar TAR College branch campus on May 18.
Ong and Chan were both on the stage at the official opening ceremony by Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. They were joined by Dr Ling and Lim.
There were more hints – the disciplinary committee put off its decision on MCA Youth chief Datuk Ong Tee Keat, who faced charges of tarnishing the party’s image with his allegations of triad involvement while many vocal Team B leaders stopped their almost daily criticism of the leadership.
But as the events unfold over the next 48 hours, the political scenario in the MCA will become clearer.
One thing, however, is certain – the transition of power has started and a new generation of leaders is poised to take over.
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