Racial politics: where it all went wrong for the Malaysian Chinese Association?

MCA youth members bow in apology to voters after the party’s disastrous election.
PHOTO: MCA HQ

For a political party that was once a force to be reckoned with, the figures aren't flattering. The Malaysian Chinese Association accounts for just one of Malaysia's 222 members of parliament, six of the 70 senators and two of the more than 500 assemblymen in state seats.

And if social media is the future, the figures look even worse: it has just 6,135 Twitter followers, compared to 142,000 for the Democratic Action Party - its chief rival for the ethnic Chinese vote - and 100,000 for its fellow opposition party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno).

Its outlook wasn't always so grim. As recently as a year ago it was flying high as part of the governing Barisan Nasional coalition and was able to count upon three cabinet ministers, full coffers and a seemingly assured place in government thanks to its membership in the coalition, despite flagging support from the ethnic Chinese community.

MCA's support base had, for generations (bar a slight blip in the 1969 election), been rock solid, stretching back to the party's very creation in the 1950s, and when, in 2016, it became the first foreign political party to publicly support China's Belt and Road Initiative, it seemed like a political masterstroke - a move that would appeal to both its voters and the pro-China prime minister of the time, Najib Razak.

To the sharpest observers, there were signs things weren't entirely right, with the MCA's public support beginning to droop a little after 2008 - the same year a sex tape featuring Chua Soi Lek, the party's then 61-year-old president, emerged. Still, few would have guessed then that in 10 years' time the party would be dumped from power, feuding with its former ruling coalition partner Umno and largely abandoned by its voters.

But then few people foresaw the watershed election victory last May that saw the nonagenarian Mahathir Mohamad lead the Pakatan Harapan alliance to victory over the Barisan Nasional, ending its more than six decades of uninterrupted rule.

GOODBYE GLORY DAYS

Experts say that key to understanding the party's fall from grace is to recognise what had made it so popular in the first place, when it was created nearly 70 years ago as the first party to represent the Chinese minority in a multiracial country where nearly seven in 10 people are Bumiputra (a term for ethnic Malays and indigenous people).

The MCA did urgent welfare work in the New Villages where Chinese Malaysians were resettled by colonial powers and championed the formation and upkeep of Mandarin-language schools, excelling in its task so much so that even to this day the schools are consistently ranked among the best-performing in the nation. It also represented the Chinese community in crucial constitutional talks held in the months leading up to independence.

"Its work in the new villages - where there was an MCA branch in every one of those places - as well as its early role helping thousands to gain citizenship were its sources of political strength," says historian Dr Lee Kam Hing of New Era University College. "Earlier in 1952, the party formed an alliance with Umno, the major Malay political party, partly in response to British insistence that there must be inter-ethnic co-operation before discussion of independence. Thus when independence talks were eventually held leaders of this new political alliance were ready to agree to major compromises over contentious matters so as to achieve a united front."

But if these compromises were a source of the MCA's strength, some experts - including present party leaders - believe they also helped sow the seeds of the party's downfall.

Schoolchildren with Malaysian flags. Photo: Malaysian Chinese Association

In Malaysia, the Bumiputra are entitled to a host of privileges including scholarships, easier access to business funding, and trust funds, and this has long been a source of tension between them and the historically more wealthy Chinese community.

As the MCA was by far the junior partner to the Malay dominated Umno in the Barisan Nasional coalition - Umno had more than 20 cabinet members compared to the MCA's three, voters disillusioned with the uneven distribution of power may have seen Pakatan Harapan as a way to get their voices heard.

Political analyst Dr Oh Ei Sun puts it bluntly, saying the MCA's current problems are because it "increasingly acceded to Umno's racially supremacist stances and policies over the years and was ineffectual in protecting Chinese rights". He adds that there was a "perception that [MCA's] own members were preoccupied with advancing their own interests, often in collusion with the insidiously corrupt Umno regime".

Malaysia’s disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak . Photo: AFP

The perception that the MCA is the "younger brother" of Umno, a party currently under siege with several of its top-ranking leaders - including the former prime minister Najib - under investigation for corruption, is pervasive among voters and was another key part of its fall from grace, experts say.

The MCA has responded by turning on its former ally, blaming its corruption, arrogance and racism for contributing to the coalition's electoral loss.

In turn, that has left the MCA with a problem: looming irrelevance. Since the election, Umno has formed an unofficial partnership with the right-wing Islamic party, PAS, and turned its concentration to its Malay vote bank. The MCA's dwindling share of the Chinese vote (it now accounts for about 5 per cent) has rendered it of little value to the coalition. Indeed, Umno leaders have responded to its jibes with the suggestion the MCA "just leave" the coalition.

70 YEARS YOUNG?

Grappling with this looming irrelevance, and with being out of government for the first time in the party's existence, the MCA's president - and its sole member of parliament - Wee Ka Siong has embraced opposition politics, consistently criticising the Pakatan Harapan government for alleged financial mismanagement, suspect academic credentials, and misleading voters.

Cynics point out that similar complaints were once made against the MCA by the Democratic Action Party. They also question whether a party so long in the tooth - this month it marks its 70th anniversary - can rebrand itself as a "young, vibrant and energetic" opposition voice, as its latest campaign promises.

But the party's secretary general Chew Mei Fun, 54, is confident.

"The MCA and Barisan Nasional have to recognise our shortcomings. Having been in power uninterrupted for 62 years, we may have fallen into a comfort zone, and failed to fully comprehend the people's grievances," she says.

"[The elections] showed that the voters' rejection of us was not race-based but over common dissatisfaction felt by all."

Seventy is an auspicious age for Chinese. Pictured: Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed at the Malaysian Chinese Association's Lunar New Year celebrations in the 1990s. Photo: AFP

Recovery is not impossible, she says. "Why not? The seventh decade of MCA is also a turning point for the party," she says, noting that the Chinese see turning 70 as auspicious. "We are grooming young adults to be the next torch-bearers. But this does not mean that we are negating the contributions of veterans. Both play complementary roles."

The plan to attract youth includes embracing social media - those 6,135 Twitter followers might be a start - and work on the party's public image.

Party president Wee Ka Siong, at an event on Saturday, said the party would form government monitoring groups to observe federal ministries, as part of its "MCA 2.0" push. He said he would call for the opposition coalition to meet to decide whether Barisan Nasional should be dissolved.

"Last year, Malaysia experienced the first change of government since merdeka (independence), which also started a new chapter in the nation's history. In the face of an all-new political landscape, we are now shouldering a completely different political landscape," he was reported as saying in local media.

The rebrand also tries to draw a line under its long history in power, casting it instead as an opposition force.

"'Provide Checks and Balances, Prioritise Public Opinion' is our party anniversary theme," says Chew.

She says "unlike the DAP" - which now holds 90 per cent of the Chinese vote - "we will not simply shout and oppose for the sake of opposing. Instead, we will serve as a constructive and an effective opposition".

Crucially, the rebrand also includes engaging non-Chinese voters, though party leaders are less keen to abandon the race-based communal politics of yesteryear.

MCA vice-president Ti Lian Ker is critical of the party's long time rival, the DAP, for an about-turn on the issue. When the MCA was in power, the DAP often criticised it for not protecting the Chinese community; now the DAP is in power, it emphasises its multiracial focus, says Ti.

He also believes the MCA is needed to keep right-wing religious extremism at bay in the Muslim majority country.

"Perhaps we are conservative compared to the liberal DAP, but we walk the talk of tolerance. These liberals do not walk any talk," said Ti, who is also a senator.

"The pressure should not be on MCA to become a multiracial party when there are other mono-ethnic parties that need to be held in check so that all our interests are brought to the table."

BEYOND RACE

For many observers, the party's efforts are too little, too late. Criticising other opposition parties and the government will do little to erase the public perception of the party as weak and willing to compromise. That perception may have taken hold relatively recently, but it has long been in the background. In the 1960s, before Singapore and Malaysia separated, Lee Kuan Yew attacked the MCA for its communal politics and failure to represent less well-off Chinese, promising that his People's Action Party would do more for ethnic Chinese voters and make multiracial Malaysia a success.

"There is no way this rebranding will work," says analyst Dr James Chin, who heads Tasmania University's Asia Institute. "MCA's image is like Umno's - expired, old. Unless the entire leadership resigns and is replaced by new people. The Chinese voters still cannot forgive MCA for selling them out politically over the years. It will take at least two or three general elections for the Chinese to forgive MCA."

That may sound like a long time frame, but some see that as working in the party's favour. "Blessed with abundant party assets, MCA could conceivably become resurgent after a few decades in opposition to repent and when a new generation of leaders emerge," says the political analyst Oh, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

https://twitter.com/MCAHQ/status/1098845203736055813

If predictions like those of Chin and Oh are correct, it may well be people like Alex Fong, 29, of the MCA's Youth Central Committee, that hold the key to its future fortunes - though they show little sign of deserting the party's roots.

Fong and other young MCA politicians say the idea of blanket racial equality in multi-ethnic Malaysia - which last year refused to ratify a United Nations treaty banning discrimination - is a pipe dream.

"The non-Bumiputras who voted for Pakatan Haparan did so in the hope that every race in Malaysia will be 100 per cent equal. And this has proven to be unachievable. So MCA will stick to our core value, which is that we protect and fight for the interests of the Chinese community based on our national Constitution which also protects the freedom of non-Malays in education, religion, language, economy.

"The MCA needs to educate the Chinese community about fairness and we will not lie that we can achieve total equality just to win votes. We can only tell the voters that we can do the best for them based on reality instead of selling fake dreams."

Fong, Chew and other MCA leaders say Pakatan Harapan's multi-racial credentials are exaggerated, given it contains Bersatu, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, which only allows Bumiputras as members.

Vice-president Ti says the DAP's promise of equality for all is not possible as long as there is legislation in place ensuring affirmative action for Bumiputras. "Now that MCA has lost power, there is no longer anyone who represents the Chinese in government. This will be a serious problem in the future," he warns.

Perhaps inevitably, the MCA's detractors claim such comments only underline the party's resistance to change and will consign it to history.

"Malaysians, especially Chinese Malaysians, want to move on from the communalist politics of Umno and Barisan Nasional," says DAP stalwart and deputy youth and sports minister Steven Sim.

"MCA obviously still has not learned the lesson of election day."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post