Malaysia: Battle Royal In The MCA


James Chin

While the whole nation is obsessed with the racial riots that broke out in Kampung Medan along Jalan Klang Lama in early March, the real political action in Malaysia is the continuing battle in the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the second most important party in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN).

The conflict is between Ling Leong Sik, the incumbent president, and Lim Ah Lek, his estranged deputy.

The genesis of the fight goes back to 1986 when Ling became party president. Being a member of the minority English-educated faction in MCA (Ling is a medical doctor trained in the UK), Ling’s leadership was never widely accepted by the majority Chinese-educated faction in the party. The Chinese-educated were incensed at Ling for fundamentally changing the party’s political philosophy. Ling formally opened party membership to anyone ’with a single drop of Chinese blood’ and told the party that it must not seek political equality because of the ‘political realities’ of UMNO and Malay political hegemony. Rather Ling argued that the model for the Malaysian Chinese community would be the Chinese in countries such as in the United States where they are regarded as ‘model minorities’.

All these of course did not go down well with the Chinese-educated faction who still dream of setting up a Mandarin-medium university in Malaysia and getting rid of the bumiputera /non-bumiputera dichotomy in the future. They were betting on Lee Kim Sai, then the MCA deputy President and Chinese-educated, to challenge Ling for the presidency. Just prior to the 1995 general election, the various groups in the Chinese faction united under Lee Kim Sai when he indicated that he would challenge Ling. But at the eleventh hour, Ling and Lee stuck a deal behind closed doors. Ling remained president and Lee did not seek re-election. Immediately after the elections, all of Lee’s supporters in the MCA were either completely marginalised or were forced to leave the party. Ling reigned supreme in the party.

This reign was to last until the Chinese-faction found a new champion - Lim Ah Lek. However, before Ah Lek could openly challenge Ling for the presidency, both of them came to an ‘understanding’ before the 1999 general elections. The key elements of the ‘understanding’ were:

  • Ling Leong Sik would set a date for his retirement from the MCA presidency
  • Lim Ah Lek would not seek re-election in the 1999 elections
  • Lim’s protégé, Chan Kong Choy, would be promoted to full minister
  • Ling’s protégé, Ong Ka Ting, would be promoted to full minister.

    After the elections, however, only Ong Ka Ting was promoted to a full ministership while Chan Kong Choy remained a deputy minister. This led to a shouting match between Lim Ah Lek and Ling at an internal meeting in April last year. Lim also put on hold his plans to retire from the MCA deputy presidency.

    In a brilliant tactical move, Ling announced in public that he was resigning and this was an ‘irrevocable decision’. He immediately flew to Perth for a ‘round of golf’. He also admitted openly that since the only way to heal the rift with his deputy was to promote Chan, by resigning Chan could have his Transport Ministry. Obviously this offer could not be taken seriously by Lim Ah Lek, since the MCA president must be in the cabinet. Chan Kong Choy was forced to fly to Perth to ‘negotiate’ with Ling.

    When Ling arrived back in Malaysia, he withdrew his resignation but both sides continued to attack each other through the Chinese press, while planning the showdown which will occur at the MCA party convention scheduled for mid-2002. Both groups have already started campaigning in the various branches. All party posts will be up for grabs. Ling has already announced that he would seek re-election while Lim will have to challenge Ling directly if an understanding’ cannot be reached soon. One formula that seems to be acceptable to both is for Ong Ka Ting to eventually take over the MCA presidency with Chan Kong Choy made deputy president, thus maintaining the current power status quo.

    WATCHPOINT: Expect more fireworks between Ling and Lim and their followers.


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