HE NARROWLY won the presidency of the political party Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA). But this is only the beginning, as Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai has several much bigger battles to fight.
“The campaigning has been challenging,” Mr Liow told The Straits Times over the phone after winning last Saturday’s party polls. “But it’s now the beginning of a tough journey. There’s no time to celebrate. I have to put on my thinking cap fast and call for a central committee meeting soon to discuss the way forward.”
Analysts agree that the 52-year-old is heading for a rough time - if he is indeed serious about turning things around for a party that has for decades been grabbing headlines for its very public internal strife.
Once Malaysia’s second-largest political party after United Malays National Organisation (Umno), MCA is today a poor shadow of its past glorious self as a founding member of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN).
The party suffered its worst general election defeat this year, securing only seven parliamentary and 11 state seats - down from its peak in 2004 with 31 parliamentary and 76 state seats. Weary of its long years of infighting and characteristic subservience to the mightier Umno, Chinese Malaysians abandoned MCA in droves from 2008, transferring their allegiance to the vocal opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), which scored a handsome victory this year with 38 parliamentary and 95 state seats.
Given that MCA has failed as BN’s ticket to Chinese votes in the last two elections, many have already written off Mr Liow’s first promise in his manifesto: to reaffirm MCA’s political standing in BN.
“The current MCA is at the mercy of Umno,” said Professor James Chin, co-author of Awakening: The Abdullah Badawi Years in Malaysia. He added that MCA can only be as powerful as Umno allows it to be.
“If Umno refuses to play ball with MCA - which is likely the case - there’s no way MCA can recover Chinese ground,” said Prof Chin. Although aware of the skepticism, Mr Liow, a former health minister, is not about to adopt a tougher stance in his dealing with Umno.
“I won’t take a confrontational approach … It doesn’t work,” said Mr Liow. Instead, he urged the public, including the MCA grassroots, to re-embrace the power-sharing concept of BN during its early days, and move away from pitting one component party against another.
“It doesn’t mean that when Umno is strong, MCA is weak, or the other way round,” said Mr Liow. “The prime minister (Datuk Seri Najib Razak) wants to see a strong MCA, because BN is strong only when all component parties are strong.”
His mild stance, while pragmatic, is unlikely to endear him to the larger Chinese community, which looks up to outspoken personalities like Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat. Mr Ong, a former MCA president, also ran in last Saturday’s internal polls, but garnered only six per cent of central delegates’ votes.
“Tee Keat is much better-received by the public as the Mr Clean Guy,” said Ms Fui K. Soong, chief executive officer of consultancy firm Centre for Strategic Engagement (CENSE). She was referring to Mr Ong’s graft-fighting efforts during his short tenure as transport minister.
“But as party president, he’s failed because he just can’t organise a team,” said Ms Fui, who previously headed the MCA-sponsored think-tank, Institute of Strategic Analysis and Policy Research.
But on the ground, many are likely to see Mr Ong’s exit from the MCA leadership as confirmation that the party has no place for independent-minded reformers. Party volunteers who set up a Facebook page in October to lobby for Mr Ong told The Straits Times they are now convinced that “the MCA founded by our forefathers is dead”, a sentiment widely echoed by other netizens.
In other words, Mr Liow might want to forget about winning back the Chinese community. “MCA will not perform in the next election,” said Prof Chin.
Then, will Mr Liow likely be able to keep his own house in order?
Prof Chin said Mr Liow is still likely to have some difficulties getting consensus, as he won Saturday’s polls by just a nose against Mr Gan Ping Sieu, a former deputy sports minister backed by outgoing president Dr Chua Soi Lek.
“His slim winning margin - just one per cent - means he lacks a clear mandate,” Prof Chin said.
Mr Liow might also face new challenge from his old rival Dr Chua, who tried but did not succeed in removing his deputy from the presidential race in October.
While suffering a low public standing after a sex scandal in 2007, Dr Chua remains popular with many party members. His son Chua Tee Yong is now one of MCA’s vice-presidents, making Chua senior an influential force even after he steps down from power.
“Dr Chua is still the most charismatic leader in our party,” said Ms Chew Hoong Ling, one of the young founding members of the New Movement campaign, which called for MCA’s transformation from within.
“He makes an effort to meet division leaders to discuss party matters over supper, and he returns calls and messages from party members by 11pm everyday, without fail,” said Ms Chew, adding that his easygoing charm has won many hearts in the party.
Mr Liow, however, can take solace in that he is likely to work well with his running mate, Dr Wee Ka Siong, now MCA’s deputy president.
Ms Fui is also optimistic about Mr Liow’s chances at uniting the party, as even the main personalities in his rival camp are “amenable” people. “I don’t think they will work against Tiong Lai and his reconciliation efforts.”