The challenges facing the new MCA leadership are more complex than those faced by Datuk Seri Dr Ling Liong Sik when the latter tookover the helm,argues DR HENG PEK KOON. Globalisation and Islamic resurgence present Malaysian Chinese with new vulnerabilities.
IN this year of transition for Malaysian politics, the MCA marked a historic watershed on May 23. Datuk Seri Dr Ling Liong Sik’s statesman-like transference of power to Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting not only ensured a smooth leadership transition for a party wracked by faction fighting over the last 17 months, but it also positioned the MCA well for Umno’s power transition in October when Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi will succeed Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad as Malaysia’s Prime Minister and Umno president.
New president Ong and his new deputy, Datuk Chan Kong Choy, confront a political landscape that is radically different from that faced by the party’s founders 54 years ago.
At that time, the foremost task was to define the political, economic and cultural roles that Chinese would play in the new Malayan nation state.
Despite the momentous achievement of obtaining citizenship based on jus soli for non-Malays by MCA founding fathers – Tun Tan Cheng Lock, Tun Tan Siew Sin and Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu – the party was widely criticised for failing to secure the recognition of Mandarin as an official language and the abolition of Malay special rights.
However, these concessions lay well beyond the ambit of what Umno was willing to concede to non-Malays. As far as Umno was concerned, Malay special rights were completely non-negotiable since that privilege was already enshrined in the Malayan Federation Constitution of 1948. Thus, citizenship for non-Malays became a pragmatic trade-off for acceptance of Malay cultural dominance: recognition of Malay as the sole national language and Islam as the official religion.
The constitutional limits set on Chinese aspirations by the Merdeka Bargain and the party’s desire to participate in the Alliance and, after 1971, the Barisan Nasional coalition government, have seriously crimped its ability to articulate Chinese interests as openly and forcefully as Chinese-based opposition parties such as the DAP and the Gerakan (before the latter joined the Barisan government).
Even though Tan Siew Sin, party president from 1961 to 1974, actively advanced Chinese business interests in his capacity as Finance Minister, that feat in itself failed to arrest the MCA’s declining popularity.
The trauma of the May 13, 1969, race riots and implementation of the New Economic Policy lowered Chinese expectations even further. The MCA regained some political footing by focusing on realistic objectives, particularly those affecting Chinese education.
Tan Sri Lee San Choon, party president from 1974 to 1983, navigated the party through the most challenging period of the NEP, one in which Chinese avenues for economic advancement, as well as educational, cultural and political expression were seriously curtailed.
Lee’s unexpected resignation and failure to provide a clear succession precipitated a bitter and acrimonious 20-month-long power struggle between rival factions led by Datuk Dr Neo Yee Pan and Tan Koon Swan.
The virulence of the leadership slugfest generated widespread Chinese disapproval, and the MCA’s image plummeted to a historic low when Tan was arrested on charges of illegal business practices soon after he bested Neo to become party president.
In the wake of these serious setbacks, Dr Ling took over a party that was rudderless and demoralised. His immediate agenda was to rebuild party unity, rehabilitate its reputation, and respond anew to Chinese economic and education concerns.
Dr Ling’s unique contribution in the education field was to gain Umno approval for the MCA to operate a private university, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman. In addition, his unflagging and hugely effective fundraising campaign for TARC has resulted in the opening of a third campus, with two more campuses planned for the near future.
The “Unity Team” put in place by Dr Ling and former deputy Datuk Lim Ah Lek brings together their respective protégés from the rival factions they had earlier headed. Both Ong and Chan bring solid credentials to their new jobs. Their working class origins and Chinese-education background are indispensable assets in a party dominated by Chinese-educated members from middle and lower income groups. In addition, their complementary character traits reinforce their effectiveness as a team: while Ong is more the strategic thinker, Chan is a stronger administrator and policy implementor.
Their fluency in English and Malay, and the high-profile government jobs they have held – Ong is currently Minister of Housing and Local Government, and Chan is Deputy Finance Minister – have given them access to constituencies well beyond the usual parochial confines of MCA party politics.
A full generation junior to Dr Ling, they are more attuned to the mindset and aspirations of younger Malaysian Chinese. Last, but not least, both enjoy good relations with top Umno leaders, a prerequisite of effective Chinese leadership in Malaysia.
The challenges faced by Ong and Chan are more complex than those faced by Dr Ling when he took over in 1986. Over the last two decades, the Chinese proportion of the Malaysian population has declined from one-third to one-quarter.
At the same time, the impact of globalisation and Islamic resurgence present Malaysian Chinese with new vulnerabilities, as evidenced by the Asian financial crisis and PAS’ call for an Islamic Malaysian state based on syariah law.
The MCA’s immediate task is to strengthen party unity to ensure a credible performance in the next general election, expected in mid-2004. For the Barisan, getting the Chinese vote will be as crucial then as it was in 1999 when, due to a sharp fall-off in Malay support for Umno, it retained its two-thirds parliamentary majority on the back of the non-Malay vote.
The new leaders should ramp up the party’s electoral odds through more effective mobilisation of the Chinese female vote. Wanita MCA members already made up 37% of the party’s 900,000 total membership in 2001, larger than the all-male youth wing’s share of 32%.
Malay women have played a central role in buttressing Umno’s electoral appeal and the new MCA team would similarly benefit from more skilful courting of Malaysian Chinese women, and more strategic utilisation and mobilisation of their political resources and skills.
The MCA new leaders should also demonstrate their appreciation of female party workers and the causes they represent by promoting women to more leadership positions within the party.
In the area of Chinese education, the new team has to reconcile the contending priorities of Chinese educationists with the heavy stress on English in the latest Umno education agenda.
Chinese educationists and their supporters expect the MCA to strongly defend the existence of a distinct Chinese schooling system, from state-funded Chinese primary schools and private Chinese secondary schools to the MCA-operated colleges (TARC and UTAR).
The abysmally low level of Chinese enrolment in Malay-medium national primary schools – less than three per cent of the total intake of first year primary school students in 2001 – attests to the persistent salience of Chinese education as a top-priority Chinese political issue.
Unfortunately, the concentration of Chinese in Chinese primary schools has impeded socialisation across ethnic lines, thus further complicating the task of nation building.
In the belief that common English usage would narrow the Malay and non-Malay inter-personal gap – as well as give young Malaysians a competitive edge in a global economy dominated by English-speaking interests – Dr Mahathir has made English the language of instruction in Mathematics and Science in all schools.
Although the MCA initially backed Chinese educationalists in resisting the measure, the new leaders wisely supported a compromise where both Mandarin and English are used in teaching those subjects.
Given the fact that young Malaysian Chinese are more fluent in Chinese and Malay than in English, it is entirely appropriate and (politically advantageous) to help them gain increased fluency in the dominant language of global commerce and higher education.
With regard to Chinese business interests, the new team needs to ensure that Malaysian Chinese businesses, particularly small and medium enterprises, as well as Malaysian Chinese professionals, have unimpeded access to opportunities opened up by globalisation.
Even under the NEP, Malaysian entrepreneurs have shown great resilience and versatility in their ability to succeed domestically and to network internationally. The MCA should capitalise on these hard-earned entrepreneurial skills to help them capture a greater share of the global market, particularly in China.
Most importantly, the new leaders must deal effectively with the issue of resurgent Islam in the country. Both Umno and PAS have presented Malaysians with different visions of a Malaysian Islamic state.
The new MCA leaders must remain alert to the fateful consequences of moves toward an Islamic-centred Malaysian nation state such as that articulated by PAS.
Should our country reach a stage where there is serious discussion of re-negotiating the 1957 Merdeka Bargain within an Islamic framework, the new MCA leadership must be prepared to intercede forcefully to safeguard bedrock non-Muslim political, economic, cultural and religious interests.
o Dr Heng Pek Koon is Assistant Professor at the School of International Services, American University, Washington. She is author of ‘Chinese Politics in Malaysia: A history of the MCA’, Oxford University Press, 1988.
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