About 15 years ago, the Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce (MCCC) had to amend its constitution to allow incumbent president Tan Sri Ngan Ching Wen to lead for another term. No one wanted to head the MCCC then as it meant having to cough up a lot of money to modernise its old-fashioned operation and fund its activities.
On top of that, the chamber was largely an unknown entity among business organisations and government circles - partly due to its weak secretariat headed by an elderly retired headmaster and mainly due to inaction by its Chinese-educated leaders who were contended with status quo.
But since the MCCC was reorganised by the bilingual Ngan and activated on the back of the emergence of China as a global economic power, the importance of the MCCC in respect of its key role to promote bilateral trade and investment has been enhanced and noticed.
And although the tri-annual election of the chamber will only be held in June 2016, preparations on the ground for top positions in the chamber have begun.
To the surprise of many, the current president Datuk Bong Hon Liong fired the first shot in his attempt to stay for another term. As he is serving his second term, he must step down by the end of his term next June as the MCCC constitution stipulates that a leader can only serve two terms.
But three months ago, he stated he would stay for another three-year term if a "ground proposal" to amend the MCCC constitution to let him serve after June 2016 could be adopted at a proposed extraordinary general meeting (EGM).
However, on May 6, his fellow council members overturned the proposal to amend the constitution to legalise Bong's stay. The reason is obvious: several vice-presidents are eyeing the top post.
Unlike previous elections where suitors for the top positions were discussed and agreed to behind closed doors, a fierce contest seems inevitable in June 2016, according to MCCC's current and former council members.
"Datuk Bong should not overstay his welcome. The chamber is not short of talents who can to take over the top post. During Ngan's era, no one was keen so he was persuaded to carry on. Now, there are capable people waiting in the wings. With the rising influence of China, it is definitely more glamorous to head this organisation than other Chinese associations," says one council member.
"Bong's intention to stay on as president is understandable. He has been treated like a VVIP in China for the past five years. Surely he wants to enjoy this privilege for a longer time. He might have contributed a lot to the chamber, but he is handicapped by not being able to speak English and Bahasa Malaysia. Hence, he should make way for the bi- or tri-lingual, particularly with the chamber membership getting more multi-racial," says a former council member.
This former council member notes that the MCCC is in the limelight due to its important role in promoting business with China, China's rising influence and the MCCC's close association with the Chinese Embassy.
When the MCCC was first set up in the 1960s by traders headed by old timers like Tan Kai Hee of Hai-O Enterprise Bhd, it was mainly to safeguard the interest of members importing Chinese herbs, tea, canned food and wines from mainland China. But over the years, this single-way trade has given way to bilateral trade and two-way investments, particularly after the governments of Malaysia and China established formal relations in 1974.
For the past six years, China has been the largest trading partner of Malaysia. Last year, trade with China accounted for 14.3 per cent or RM207.85bil of Malaysia's total trade, according to the Malaysia International Trade and Investment Ministry (MITI). In comparison, trade with China was under RM1bil in 1974.
And with the chamber now playing a key role in helping local businessmen to explore multi-billion dollar trade and investment opportunities under the Chinese government's one-belt-one-road initiative, the MCCC now stands out among the herd of 5,000 Chinese guilds.
Supported by a much stronger secretariat, the MCCC has now established close ties with the Prime Minister's Office, MITI and MIDA (Malaysian Investment Development Authority). Its leaders are often invited the join business missions to China led by national leaders.
Leaders from the chamber are also often given VIP treatment in China. And the Chinese embassy here would introduce important business deals to MCCC leaders. One recent example is the one billion renminbi desert-greening job offered to Global Green Synergy Sdn Bhd, co-owned by two vice-presidents of the chamber.
In fact, the MCCC president was the only Malaysian in the private sector invited to attend China's two most important political meetings this year, according to Bong when he spoke at the chamber's dinner on June 25.
After the refusal to let the current president over stay, several vice presidents (VPs) in MCCC began to express their desire to lead the organisation next year. In previous elections, the top post was often left uncontested. But this legacy is likely to be ignored.
Among those who may stand a chance to win the top post are MCCC vice-presidents Tan Yew Sin (who controls Inti Universal Holding Bhd), Datuk Joseph Lim Heng Ye (of Global Green Synergy) and Liew Choon Kong of Kong Wooi Fong Tea Merchants Sdn Bhd.
In an interview with The Star, Lim confirms that potential candidates for the top posts are now sounding out support among members.
Lim, 41, declines to confirm talks that he is aiming for the presidency. But he says: "I have confidence that I could win the First VP post if I go for it. But there are many young members pushing for me to go for the presidency as they want more life and creativity in the chamber. As my relations with the governments and Chinese Embassy are strong, I believe I can lead the chamber to forge for closer bilateral ties."
Before being a VP, he was an active youth leader and secretary-general of the chamber. These positions had given him opportunities to get in touch with the grassroots and close to government officials.
In addition, Lim is also a business partner of another vice-president, Ngan Teng Ye. Lim believes Teng Ye will rally behind him.
But Lim may be disadvantaged by his youth. This is because many MCCC old timers may prefer someone who has more experience.
On the contrary, Tan and Liew appear to be the more favoured candidates among the old timers. Both are engineers by training.
Tan, 60, who owns Inti University College, became known in the community after he led the youth movement of the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall to speak up against China on the massacre of pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. He just stepped down as president of SCAH.
But in recent years, the controversies he courted have not put him in good light. These include the current leadership crisis in Dong Zong, in which he supported the rival group. The Securities Commission Malaysia's 2014 report, released earlier this year, has dealt a huge blow to his integrity and image. The regulator revealed in the report that Tan had been fined RM778,258 for "breaches of the insider trading provisions in the Securities Industries Act 1983" relating to shares of Inti in September 2007.
Tan, in response to The Star's question for comment on the MCCC election, says in a text message: "It is premature to talk about this sensitive issue. It's better for me to show my performance as chairman of the organising committee of Malaysia-China Entrepreneur Conference on Nov 7 this year."
Liew, 58, is seen as a vice-president who is careful about his speech and demeanour.
He belongs to the fourth generation of a prominent tea merchant family and his father was a founding member of the chamber in the 1960s.
"He is a low profile, but steady and committed vice-president," says an observer.
In a phone interview, Liew says: "If I have the support of members, I will be willing to lead the MCCC next June. I have spent a lot of time doing work for the chamber, as my father did."
Liew's recent contributions to the chamber include leading Malay and Indian business delegations to China to explore opportunities and attend trade expos. He has also brought in investors from China.
He reckons the chamber's role in the Malaysian economy will be heightened by China's one-belt-one-road strategy as the latter will create vast business opportunities for local corporations and SMEs alike.
While it may be too early to gauge who will take over MCCC's coveted top post in this seemingly neck-and-neck race, it will not be wrong to state that all potential candidates are working very hard to win the hearts and minds of the chamber's 1,400 members, who include Malay and Indian traders, and investors doing business with China.