KUALA LUMPUR- A close result for the leadership of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) indicates that the group will likely remain divided for years to come, diminishing any efforts to revamp the party and regain crucial Chinese voter support.
Against a backdrop of bitter infighting between factions led by former deputy president Liow Tiong Lai and the incumbent, Datuk Seri Chua Soi Lek, delegates yesterday opted to promote Datuk Seri Liow to the top post along with his running mate Wee Ka Siong, the former Youth chief.
"Though they have government experience, it is difficult to imagine how they can focus on winning back Chinese support votes in the years to come with factionalism still rife," said political analyst Oh Ei Sun from Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
In a close race, Mr Liow won with a mere 26-vote majority over his two opponents who polled a combined 1,160 to his 1,186.
Mr Gan Ping Sieu, a former deputy sports minister who got 1,000 votes, is seen as a proxy for the faction linked to the former president, Dr Chua. Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat, who was party president from October 2008 to March 2010, garnered only 160 votes, as members rejected Mr Ong who is often described as a "lone wolf".
Datuk Wee, who is aligned with Mr Liow's camp, fared better for himself in securing the deputy president's post with 1,408 votes against former deputy finance minister Donald Lim's 927 votes.
With one of the highest turnouts ever for the MCA party elections, observers expected the assembly for the senior Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition partner to be a crucial moment for the party to start turning its fortunes around after increasingly dismal showings in the last two general elections.
The MCA, formerly Malaysia's second-largest political party, has struggled to regain Chinese voter support following years of criticism that it has become a stooge to the dominant Umno party.
In the May 5 general election, the MCA suffered its worst election outcome as the 15 parliamentary and 31 state seats it won in 2008 were further reduced to seven and 11 seats respectively.
Keeping to its pre-election promise, the MCA had declined all Cabinet positions, and its customary transport and health ministerial portfolios were given to Umno and the Malaysian Indian Congress.
Under pressure, Dr Chua was forced to keep his word to step down if the MCA performed worse than it did in 2008.
One of the first things the new MCA leadership needs to do is find a way to boost party morale and activities and engage the Chinese community, according to analysts.
A key resource is the party's impressive wealth, estimated at nearly RM3 billion (S$1.2 billion). It includes land, buildings, fixed deposits, companies under its flagship Huaren Holdings and a 42.4 per cent stake in The Star, Malaysia's largest English daily.
But besides the expectations that factionalism will persist in the party, Mr Liow and Dr Wee are not seen as strong leaders able to stand up to the might of Umno.
"They're too deeply tied in with the BN establishment," said Dr Oh. "Therefore you can hardly expect them to bring changes to the MCA."
A total of 2,352 delegates voted for 72 candidates vying for the posts of president, deputy president, four vice-presidents and 25 central committee members in the first party election since October 2011.
The junior wings' contests yesterday and last Friday were no less heated, with narrow margins.
Party education bureau chairman Chong Sin Woon, 39, won with a 93-vote majority to become the new MCA Youth chief, taking over from his predecessor Dr Wee. He polled 794 votes over Datuk Goh Gaik Meng's 701.
Datuk Heng Seai Kie, a former deputy minister for women's affairs, also narrowly won the Women's chief post with 978 votes over her sole opponent Tan Cheng Liang's 841.
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