Monday, March 29, 2010

Can Chua make the impossible dream come true?

Newly elected MCA president Dr Chua Soi Lek, 61, is the living illustration of his own favourite saying: that politics is the art of making the impossible possible and the possible impossible. And the rank and file of his party are now closely watching for his next move.

There was little joy even among those newly elected to the central committee line-up over the weekend, for they are a mixed array of politicians. Some are aligned to Chua, others with Ong Ka Ting, and still others with Ong Tee Keat.

Several MPs elected to the central committee even brushed aside the congratulations extended to them from other BN MPs the morning after the party election. 

Indeed, a concoction of feelings—part anxiety and part emotional uncertainty—has seeped into the mindsets of the newly-elected, especially those who do not owe any loyalty to Chua.

Firstly, there are just too many desperate internal and external challenges facing the new leadership.

Inevitably, political pundits and party watchers are tempted to predict another phase of doom and gloom.

The election results would probably be more widely accepted if the delegates had zoomed their voting preferences toward a single faction dominating the leadership line-up with a winner-take-all scenario.

Who is to be blamed for the complicated factors which have contributed to a “nobody wins all and nobody loses all” situation?

Nobody could have predicted the mosaic of loyalty allegiances in the new line-up.

Room for optimism?

The three presidential hopefuls picked ping-pong balls to determine the numbering of the ballot papers, and it turned out to be “1” for Chua, “2” for Ka Ting and “3” for Tee Keat. And that turned out to be the actual sequence of their election performance. Some quip that this is stranger than fiction.

Some party insiders contend that president Chua has grown wiser, but his critics say the word “crafty” does him better justice...
The delegates did indeed cook a Chua-Liow election dish tasting more like a sweet- and-sour offering, very different from the spicy hot belacan kangkong of Ong and Chua in 2008.    

Is there another leadership crisis on the horizon? Will Chua be able to get along with Liow Tiong Lai, aligned to former president Ong Ka Ting, who was defeated by Chua’s razor-thin majority of 68 votes?

Is there any room for optimism about the new leadership? Perhaps the Chinese saying that former president Dr Ling Liong Sik was fond of  quoting -- jia he wan shi shing (all things thrive when a family is in harmony) -- should serve as a constant reminder to the new leadership.

Some party insiders contend that president Chua has grown wiser, but his critics say the word “crafty” does him better justice, for he has made the impossible possible.

Some pundits say Chua would not commit the same mistakes that Tee Keat did, that he would not walk the path of self destruction or foolishly waste the hard work that has brought him to where he is by creating another party crisis.

A central delegate from Selangor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Chua had definitely become smarter and wiser. “Let’s wait and see how he is going to handle the various party appointments, as well as the Cabinet posts,” he said.

A critic conceded that Chua had definitely bounced back from the grimness of 2008, when it looked as if he was finished politically. He said Chua had, like a phoenix, risen from the ashes, had rebuilt his political base and would never look back.

But his adamant political foes have refused, to this day, to let the public forget and forgive him for his mistakes.

Power play and fair play

It has been an arduous step-by-step political climb since 2008, when he had to resign from all party and government posts. He has been crossing hurdle after hurdle to reach the pinnacle of power again. Many thought it was an impossible task.

Is age an important criterion when Chua appoints his line-up of leaders?

Perhaps there is a hint in an interview he gave in 2008.  Asked whether he still had the stamina to continue with a political career, he said: “I think the age factor is not important.  In Malaysia, the life expectancy during independence was only 57, but now it is 75 and will reach 80 by the year 2020.”
Will he be able to bury enmity and illwill to ensure that his leadership appointments will be “inclusive”?

With the antagonistic Wanita chief Chew Mei Fun vowing to resign and the loyalty of the leadership of youth wing in doubt, can the new president pull through?

He won 38.9 percent of the votes against Ka Ting’s 36  and Tee Keat’s 25.  The figures not only provide evidence of sharp divisions within the party, but also portend fierce battles ahead.

With the internal squabbles already aggravated by the re-entry of Ka Ting—who joined the election fray by recycling his retirement for another comeback—Chua now faces the test of how well he can temper power play with fair play.    

If there is any hint of Chua’s criteria for appointing new lieutenants to his central committee line-up, age is unlikely to be a prohibitive factor.

“There must be leadership harmony on age groups. It is therefore important to have young, middle and older-age leaders.” This position, if Chua really adopts it, will contrast sharply with that of Ka Ting, who during his presidential tenure adopted the so-called rejuvenation process, deliberately marginalising many capable and experienced party leaders.  

True, age is not the most important criterion in selecting members to high party posts. As Chua has said: “Many in their 50s have entered IJN, and even others in their 30s have suffered strokes. So, factors like their health conditions, capability and representativeness are important too.”

But with a new central committee line-up perceived to be divided in their loyalties –11 pro-Chua, nine pro-Ka Ting and five pro-Tee Keat—it is natural that all eyes are now focused on Chua’s next move in his appointment of eight more members in the political balancing game.

A warning bell

The same goes for key official postings to the party headquarters: secretary-general, treasurer-general, national organising secretary and their respective deputies.

Will Chua face the same criticism levelled at Ong Tee Keat? Will he also be accused of favouritism and abuse of presidential powers, of overlooking the urgency of uniting a divisive line-up?

With the antagonistic Wanita chief Chew Mei Fun vowing to resign and the loyalty of the leadership of youth wing in doubt, can the new president pull through?
The next momentous challenging task heading in Chua’s direction is the preparation for the next general election. 

In an interview in 2008, Chua said: “There is a difference between party elections and general elections. Within the party, we call it a captured market with limited support.  If a leader is loved and supported by all segments within and without the party, this is a healthy political party.”

If Chua remember his own words, it should be a warning bell that he had better heed in facing the next biggest hurdle. Winning back public confidence in his party is the toughest part.

Many agree that it is not going to be easy.

Besides the time constraint—many speculate that the next general election is just months away—Chua is staring at the enormous challenge of making his leadership  acceptable to the Malaysian public. No thanks to rivals who, during the recent election campaign, exploited his appearance in a sex DVD. Some have called it the dirtiest tactic ever recorded in MCA election history.

Nevertheless, Chua’s political adversaries are closely watching him. Political pundits speculate that his rivals will not hesitate to exploit this opportunity to weaken the new president’s effort because the next party election is only around the corner. It is due next year.

Critics believe the truce in the party is only transitory and will last only until just before the next general election.

In fact, the Hulu Selangor parliamentary by-election will be the first test of whether the Malaysian public accepts or can re-accept Chua’s leadership. Can the MCA under his leadership deliver the 20 per cent Chinese votes to Barisan Nasional?

Legendary Chinese military strategist and statesman Zhuge Liang, also Chancellor of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms period (181-234), once advised: “Rank and file must be of the same wavelength with the leadership in order to win a war.”

Can Chua perform the brilliant move of uniting a still seriously divided party ahead of the next general election, with the schedule so tight?

Getting the house in order
There is another issue just as serious, if not more so. Political analyst Lim Teck Ghee of the Centre for Policy Initiatives (CPI) sums it up by saying: “MCA is an ineffective political force in part because it has long played only a marginal role in previous Malaysia (Economic) Plans implemented by an Umno-aligned, Malay-dominated civil service that have shaped socio-economic developments in the country.

“Can MCA ever get its house in order so that it can attend to the important affairs of state, especially the economy?”

Some say that Chua, with his impressive return to active politics, must surely be capable of beating the clock to bridge the unity gap within his party and set it on course towards some tangible accomplishments.

Will Chua’s leadership be able to build a lifeboat or institute reforms to the party so that it can make up for almost two years of wasted time under a failed president?

Some are not too sure. They say the MCA has only one life left.

comments by Stanley Koh, who is a former MCA HQ's research and planning department head and continues to observe the party. Courtesy of FMT

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