Although the MCA is not the only party within the Barisan Nasional that faces a dearth of young professionals, it realises it has to inject new blood to keep itself relevant, writes FOONG PEK YEE
ONE pressing question that kept running through the young man’s head was what the MCA could do for the people. But the answer he got when he posed the question was not what he expected.
“Young man, better you join the MCA to look for answers rather than grumble and complain outside,” the former Universiti Malaya undergraduate and student activist was told during a dialogue with MCA leaders at the Bangsar branch.
Taking up the challenge, the kampung boy from Perak not only joined the MCA in 1979 at the age of 23, but brought along 100 final-year students.
That young man was Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting, who rose through the ranks to become the party’s seventh president seven months ago.
Now, he is set to inject new blood into the second largest party in Barisan Nasional.
A national campaign to kick off a massive exercise to persuade professionals aged between 18 and 35 to sign up will be launched at the party headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on Jan 11.
Is this how the 54-year-old party intends to keep itself relevant?
According to central committee member Datuk Dr Chua Soi Lek, who heads a three-man committee handling the exercise, the ground sentiment requires politicians to be more concerned about issues directly affecting the people.
“The general expectation is that a political party should be more attentive, relevant and focused, and there should be greater transparency.
“Politicians have to change their mindset and working style – listen to dissent and criticisms,” said Dr Chua.
Ironically, politicians like to tell people to change their mindset.
This was illustrated when, following poor response from the Chinese community to a national service trial run recently, a Johor MCA Youth leader arrogantly told listeners that the community must change its mindset.
He was taken aback when a listener asked: “Why have MCA leaders not volunteered their children?”
He sheepishly replied: “My children are too young.”
Andy, a 28-year-old MCA member, could not agree more. “We definitely have no time for rhetoric. The young want their opinions to be heard.”
The accountant said many young people placed their hopes more on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) because of the perception that “politicians could not effect much change.”
But he rightly pointed out that recent developments seemed to indicate otherwise, citing the abortive Employees Provident Fund (EPF) proposal to stop contributors from withdrawing all their money on reaching the age of 55.
Millions of contributors had sleepless nights when the controversial idea was published in The Star last Saturday.
There was tremendous relief after Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Ong shot down the proposal the next day.
At a party function last Monday, DAP secretary-general Kerk Kim Hock admitted that the good image and reputation of Abdullah and Ong had received increasing support from the people.
Like Ong, many professionals who had initially harboured doubts about the MCA’s ability eventually realised that “it is better to join the MCA and do one’s best to make a difference.”
A classic example is MCA secretary-general and education bureau chairman Tan Sri Dr Ting Chew Peh, 60.
The former Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) associate professor joined the MCA in 1981 at the age of 38, but continued to be very vocal on issues affecting the Chinese community, particularly on education and culture and the MCA’s role, through newspaper articles.
After being convinced by MCA leaders that the party would be a more effective platform for him to champion the issues, Dr Ting contested and won the Gopeng by-election in 1987 and was appointed Housing and Local Government Minister in 1990, a post he held until 1999.
Subsequently, there was a surge of fresh graduates, particularly from UKM, who joined the MCA in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including Bentong MP Liow Tiong Lai, Youth secretary-general Loh Seng Kok and Ong’s press secretary Boey Chin Gan.
Taking after Dr Ting was party vice-president and Human Resources Minister Datuk Dr Fong Chan Onn who gave up his Universiti Malaya Faculty of Economics and Administration dean’s post to contest the Selandar parliamentary seat in 1990.
“The MCA is the only vehicle for me to articulate my views and the people’s wishes,” said the 57-year-old who joined MCA in the early 80s and was active in the Institute of Strategic Analysis and Planning, MCA’s think-tank, before entering full-time politics.
Another former MCA secretary-general, Datuk Kam Woon Wah, 73, did not discount today’s intense rat race for driving professionals away from politics.
“You must like people and be willing to give them your time, to listen to them.
“I was hardly home before midnight and spent long hours on the road,” recalled the former MP for Sitiawan.
Kam joined the MCA at the age of 27 on returning home from England with a law degree. “It was the right party for the Chinese as we were still fighting the communists then.”
Like Kam, Tan Sri Dr Sak Cheng Lum, who joined the MCA in 1972 at the age of 28, recalled that it was the political scenario then which convinced him of the idea of a coalition for the races to work together on a common platform.
The MCA, being the biggest Chinese-based party, was the natural choice.
“It is better to work within the government to ensure changes,” said Dr Sak, 59, who was active in community service before winning the Bagan Jermal state seat in 1978.
He said his university buddy, Datuk Seri Dr Ling Liong Sik, was another pull factor. Dr Ling, 60, was a student union leader at the University of Singapore in the mid-60s.
Also very active in community work, Dr Ling, immediate past MCA president – who joined the MCA in the late 1960s – saw the turning point in his career after a “surprise lunch invitation” by then president Tun Tan Siew Sin in Kuala Lumpur.
He was appointed a central committee member and subsequently won the Mata Kuching parliamentary seat in 1974 and became a parliamentary secretary two years later.
For Dr Chua, “having my own medical practice meant that my patients looked to me for other forms of help, from welfare to getting licences.”
Now 56, the Johor state executive councillor joined MCA at 32 and became an assemblyman seven years later.
Where the women are concerned, family commitment would seem a major factor in deciding whether to join a political party.
However, Wanita MCA national organising secretary Chew Mei Fun points out that many of the members and leaders were married. Chew, 38 and single, also dispelled the fear that politics might erode women’s chances of getting married.
An MCA leader who declined to be named said one setback was many professionals joined with the hope of fast promotion. The impatient ones would leave after a year or two.
“Some treat the party like the share market – they run if they do not see any immediate gains,” he added.