Undoubtedly, the 60-year-old MCA, just like the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), its senior partner in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), has had a long history of conflict. The current split, however, comes when the party is at its weakest; and BN, the coalition that had always been the vehicle for the MCA’s success, is facing the strongest opposition it has ever known, having lost its two-thirds majority for the first time in last year’s general election.
One quick look at relevant tables shows that the MCA today has substantial support only in semi-rural and rural states.
Indeed, despite being allocated 40 parliamentary seats by the BN to contest last year, it won only 15. Twelve of these are in Johor, Pahang and Perak.
In clearly urban states like Penang, Selangor and the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur, it was wiped out, with the exception of one seat in Selangor. Urbanity and urban voters are a problem for the MCA, as it is for the BN and Umno.
Given such a thrashing, one would have expected the MCA to suffer an immediate meltdown. That did not happen, partially thanks to its former president Ong Ka Ting retiring and thus taking part of the blame for the defeats.
However, this paradoxically passed the buck to his successors. With the pyramid of power so much narrower at the top, tolerance for opposition within the party has become a luxury it could not afford.
Dr Chua Soi Lek, the former Health Minister who resigned before the elections in the aftermath of a scandal where he was caught on video with his mistress in a hotel room, received formidable support in the subsequent party election, and emerged as deputy president. He has now been surprisingly sacked by the new president Ong Tee Keat. The old video was re-used to justify Ong’s desperate move.
Such a sudden disposal of a popular leader leaves those of Chua’s supporters, whose political future depends on their man being ahead, understandably angered. They have vowed to challenge the president’s decision. A nasty clash is imminent.
What this reflects is the unease spreading through the party, as it is spreading within Umno as well, that the political future of many who wedded their lives to their party is in jeopardy. The cake has shrunk and its eaters are hungrier.
The MCA’s fate and fortune cannot be separated from Umno’s. It is, after all, BN that brings power, not each member party by itself.
With the weakening of race-based parties like MCA, Umno and their old ally, the Malaysian Indian Congress, it is tempting to conclude that even if ethnic identity remains strong among Malaysians, the willingness to let personal sentiment decide national politics is not as intuitively given a thing as it used to be.
There are certainly signs suggesting such a development. A row of attempts to rouse racial feelings against the opposition — many done on the front pages of Umno’s newspaper, Utusan Malaysia — have had limited success. Even the bizarre use of a cow’s head by some Malays demonstrating against the building of a Hindu temple in their neighbourhood failed to anger Indian Malaysians into action.
The inability of BN to regain voter support, as painfully revealed through its loss in all by-elections held on the peninsula since the general election, makes its leadership extremely uncertain about which card it can play.
Should Umno spin itself as protector of Malayness, guardian of punitive Islam or custodian of secular governance?
The danger here is that Umno/BN, left at its wits end, will get ever more desperate. Rumours are rife that Prime Minister Najib Razak is planning the fall of the Pakatan Rakyat government in Selangor.
These are nourished by Najib’s expressed wish to bring the state back into the BN fold and his becoming the Umno liaison chief in Selangor. After all, the BN regained Perak state soon after the PM moved in as Umno liaison chief there.The key question for MCA members to ask today — be they supporters of Ong or Chua — is whether or not the dubious recovery of power by Umno/BN through intrigues will make it impossible for the party to ever regain voter sympathy, and national relevance, no matter who is running the party.