Malaysia’s Warring Chinese Politicians

Chua Soi Lek, until last week one of Malaysia’s most powerful Chinese politicians, likely owes his downfall to internecine warfare within the Malaysian Chinese Association, the country second-biggest political party. The wrangling has grown so intense that it could threaten Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s plans for an early election.

Chua was forced to resign from his position as Minister of Health on Jan. 2 after confessing to being filmed surreptitiously in a 56-minute sexual tryst with his “friend,” an unidentified young woman. In a press conference acknowledging he was the man in the video, he told reporters: “I would like to emphasize that I did not make the tape. Who has done the tape and why is obvious.” He did not name the person or persons he suspected, and so far whoever recorded the action remains undetected.

Nonetheless, political analysts believe Chua is pretty sure who made DVD. Two factions, known by the prosaic names Team A and Team B, are jockeying for power within the MCA, which controls the second-largest number of cabinet positions among the ethnic parties that make up the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

A former psychiatrist, Chua belonged to what is known to insiders as Team A, whose unofficial leader is Ling Liong Sik, the former MCA president and a UK-educated medical doctor. Team B is headed by Chan Kong Choy, a protégé of Lim Ah Lek, a former MCA vice president who has carried on a long-standing feud with Ling.

With newer generations of politicians joining in the feud, the squabbling between the two teams and subdivisions of the teams has grown so poisonous, according to sources within the association, that many believe Team B planted as many as four cameras in the room where Chua was having his fun. Others think Chua’s rivals inside Team A may have taped the indiscretions.

The fallout is damaging enough that it almost makes the identity of the film-makers irrelevant. The party’s organizational machinery is crucial to the Barisan’s electoral structure because it delivers the Chinese vote – 25 percent of the population and about 60 percent of the country’s economic power. The unease comes at a time when many believe that middle-class ethnic Malays may stray from the United Malays National Organisation, which has led the Barisan since independence, to other parties including Partai Keadilan Rakyat, led by the former deputy premier, Anwar Ibrahim.

Few analysts expect the opposition to actually overturn the Barisan stranglehold on power, but some believe they could finally end the dominant two-thirds majority in parliament that allows the Barisan to rule unchecked. This makes it vital for the coalition to hold onto as many Chinese and ethnic-Indian voters as possible.

UMNO has always counted on the MCA to keep Chinese voters solidly aligned behind the coalition. That has become steadily more difficult as Malaysia’s ethnic divide has widened in recent years, with ethnic Malays becoming more vocal in their insistence on Malay dominance of the political infrastructure.

Most recently, during the annual UMNO general assembly, some youth leaders waved kerises, the ceremonial Malay sword, and threatened to bathe them in Chinese blood if their rights were trampled on. That and a series of religious and ethnic issues have generated anger and anxiety in the Chinese community. In particular, concern is rising among the Chinese electorate over the MCA’s timidity in the face of UMNO rhetoric.

In the meantime, the MCA’s factional fighting is distracting Chinese leaders. And it seems likely to continue as the organization recently passed internal guidelines bar is allowing any politician from holding the party presidency for more than nine years, or three consecutive three-year terms. Ong Ka Ting’s presidency ends in 2011 and the field is open, presaging a three-year squabble that could continue to destabilize the organization. Chua’s abrupt fall from national politics – he was replaced in the health minister job by Ong, as well – may be just a small dose of what the future holds for the embattled party.

Critics also believe that many MCA leaders are more interested in making money than watching out for their constituencies. The ministries the party holds are considered lucrative for party wheelhorses. One third-generation Malaysian Chinese, who did not want his name used, said, “The MCA are only concerned with business. What have they done for the Chinese community? All the national issues have been handled by UMNO and there is no higher position for Chinese politicians so why bother?”

Just how heavily the Barisan has relied on the MCA’s political muscle is exemplified by the elections of 1999, after Anwar was sacked as deputy prime minister by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in a struggle within UMNO itself. Muslim-Malay voters were split, with many voicing support for Partai Keadilan Rakyat.

With many ministers in Mahathir’s cabinet nearly losing their constituencies, the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party and Keadilan created a formidable alliance that looked like it might shake the Barisan’s two-thirds grip. The alliance garnered 23.5 percent of the seats in the election, a big win by Malaysian standards, but the Chinese electorate, unnerved by unruly illegal street demonstrations and instability, fell in line behind the MCA.

The Chinese, having tipped the scale in favor of the ruling coalition, expected more clout in determining policy, but that did not happen.

Today, Anwar says, “Chinese support for the opposition has surged in the last 12 months despite the rhetoric from MCA leaders that they are still popular with the majority. The scandal involving former Health Minister Chua demonstrates both the decadence and lack of moral compass which has routinely been put on display by BN leaders. It also shows the intense infighting and internal chaos that is pulling apart political alliances in the ruling coalition. The MCA is in the midst of an internal crisis and we can anticipate that upcoming elections will result in significant losses for both at the polls.”

It could be wishful thinking, as MCA leaders have always believed that the way to secure the interests of the Chinese community is through quiet negotiations with UMNO leaders. That strategy has worked somewhat, with the Chinese community continuing to enjoy significantly greater per capita income than Malays despite the rhetoric of firebrand UMNO politicians. Whether the compact will continue to work in the face of a weakened and squabbling MCA remains to be seen.