KUALA LUMPUR - A year after suffering massive voter rejection at the polls last May, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) is struggling for a meaningful existence as the leading Chinese party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
MCA's share of Malaysia's 222 parliamentary seats plunged to just seven, from 15 in the 2008 elections.
Other Chinese-based BN component parties suffered too. Gerakan lost one of two seats it had in 2008. The Liberal Democratic Party in Sabah lost its sole parliamentary seat, and the Sarawak United People's Party lost five of the six seats it held.
But the rebuff was particularly stinging for the MCA, a founding member of the Alliance which later became the BN.
Analysts say the fundamental problem for the MCA is its unequal relationship with Umno. It is seen as subservient to the dominant Malay party, making it unable to effectively safeguard Chinese interests. Meanwhile, Umno pushes an exclusive Malay agenda, such as the perpetuation of affirmative action policies for bumiputeras, the country's indigenous people.
"The fundamental challenge for the MCA is how to deal with Umno," said political analyst Wong Chin Huat, a fellow at the Penang Institute. Chinese voters, he noted, "keep saying there is a need for BN to be more inclusive and Umno less domineering, but that makes no sense from Umno's position".
The MCA has tried to appear more assertive after the drubbing last year. Its youth wing, for instance, has organised an anti- hudud campaign, starting on May 8, with street assemblies and forums nationwide.
The campaign follows a move by the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) to introduce the draconian Islamic penal code in Kelantan. Prime Minister Najib Razak has not rejected hudud outright, and that has not gone down well with the Chinese.
"MCA must be bold enough to tell Umno not to support hudud law," said the Chinese-language newspaper Sin Chew Daily News in an April 26 commentary.
But it is hard to be bold with no representative in Cabinet.
The MCA had pledged to refuse Cabinet posts if it fared worse in the 2013 elections than in 2008. So two portfolios traditionally held by the party - Transport and Health - went to Umno and the Malaysian Indian Congress.
With no minister from the party, MCA is left with its public complaints bureau to give it some sort of a public presence. It has also taken some measures to address its shortcomings, Last December, it elected a new party president, Mr Liow Tiong Lai, and deputy Wee Ka Siong.
Mr Wong Nai Chee, the Prime Minister's political secretary on Chinese affairs and an MCA leader, said the party has also moved to change the rules so that its rank and file have more say in decisions such as selection of candidates for elections.
While reforms may restore some faith among party members, analysts say so long as the unequal relationship with Umno remains, BN's Chinese parties will find it hard to win over Chinese voters, even if the latter become less enamoured of the opposition.
Professor James Chin from Monash University Malaysia believes this rejection will carry over into at least the next two general elections. "There is too much accumulated anger within the Chinese community, which sees the MCA and Gerakan as being unable to stop Umno's right-wing agenda," he said.
This article was published on May 4 in The Straits Times.
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