BY DAVID CHEW Special to The Japan Times SINGAPORE — The defection of key politicians from one to the other of the two main Chinese components in Malaysia’s ruling multiparty coalition has caused bad blood and made the role of mediator difficult for the coalition’s Malay leader.

Two members of the Malaysian People’s Movement, or Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan), abandoned the party and joined the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) shortly after the National Front coalition’s strong win in Malaysia’s 10th general election.

The Gerakan is a Chinese-based party with a multiracial orientation. The MCA is an exclusively Chinese party championing the rights of the community, which accounts for 30 percent of Malaysia’s 20 million multiethnic population.

The defections took place in the state of Penang, gateway and hub to economic development in the northern part of the country. It is also the only Chinese-majority state in Malaysia where both parties play a leading political role. In other parts of the country, they have played a supporting role to Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO), whose support comes from the 55 percent politically-dominant Malay-Muslim community.

Lim Boo Chang and Lim Chien Aun contested the Nov. 29 polls in Penang under the Gerakan banner despite a quarrel with party leaders who would have excluded them had they not been incumbent assemblymen capable of beating back the opposition. But both quit the party three days after retaining their state assembly seats, saying that they had lost confidence in its leader, Penang chief minister Dr. Koh Tsu Koon.

They became “independents” in the NF-controlled assembly, and the Gerakan-led state government treated them as opposition members before they joined the MCA a month later.

Had they been just ordinary party members, the Gerakan would have let them go without a fuss. But both were part of the Gerakan representation in the Penang assembly and their defection altered the power equation between the two party components in the NF-dominated state assembly. It reduced the Gerakan’s 10-member representation to eight while increasing the MCA’s 9-member representation to 11. The MCA became the largest component in the 33-seat assembly, followed by UMNO with 10 members. The Gerakan has dropped to 3rd place with eight members followed by the Malaysian Indian Congress with one. Three opposition parties, the National Justice Party (NJP), the Islamic Party (PAS), and Democratic Action Party (DAP) have one seat each.

Although Mahathir had decided that Dr Koh should continue to lead Penang on behalf of the Gerakan, the MCA could argue it was entitled to lead the NF state government and, come the next polls in 2004, lay claim to the lion’s share of state ministerships by virtue of being the largest component in the state assembly.

The Gerakan suspects, not without reason, that the defections were orchestrated by the MCA — exploiting their unhappiness with Dr Koh and inducing them to cross over as part of a longer-term plan to replace the Gerakan as the leading player of the NF in Penang.

A war of words in the media has broken out between the two NF Chinese components, with Gerakan Secretary General Chia Kwang Chye accusing the MCA of “an unfriendly” act while the latter’s president Dr Ling Liong Sik insists that it practices an “open door” policy that welcomes any Chinese able to contribute to the party.

Their escalating feud however has roots dating back 30 years. The MCA, formed in 1949 by Chinese businessmen, was traditionally the Chinese partner of the NF’s predecessor, the tripartite Alliance, whose two other partners were the UMNO and MIC during the early days of Malaysia’s independence in 1957.

Owing to unwritten rules of UMNO-dominated race-based politics in Malaysia, an MCA chief minister, Wong Pow Nee, led the Alliance in Chinese-majority Penang from 1957 to 1969 while UMNO chief ministers played leading roles in the other Malay-dominated states.

In the strong antiestablishment mood of the 1969 polls, which made serious dents in the Alliance’s power base nationwide, the MCA lost Penang to the Gerakan, a Chinese-based multiracial party formed by elements from various opposition parties, professionals and trade union leaders the previous year.

The 1969 racial riots in Kuala Lumpur and a period of emergency rule however gave new direction to Malaysian politics when UMNO expanded the Alliance to include opposition parties like the Gerakan in a broader-based NF.

The MCA, which fared badly in the 1969 elections, meanwhile underwent a revamp that went offcourse when so-called young reformists were purged by the more established old guard. But rather than have the reformists join the ranks of the opposition DAP, UMNO under the leadership of Tun Abdul Razak persuaded the Gerakan to open its doors to them.

Thus top Gerakan leaders like present president Dr Lim Keng Yaik and former president Dr Lim Chong Eu (a former chief minister of Penang) were previously from the MCA. Dr Lim Chong Eu had been a former president of the MCA who tried unsuccessfully to reform the party in 1958-9, then quit to join the opposition and finally became one of the Gerakan’s founder members in 1968.

When Gerakan captured Penang in the 1969 polls, Dr Lim Chong Eu became its chief minister. A close friend of Tun Razak, he continued to hold the chief minister’s post after Gerakan became part of the establishment in 1972. Incidentally Lim Chien Aun is the son of Dr Lim Chong Eu, while the father of Lim Boo Chang, is Lim Ee Heong, a close associate of Dr Lim Chong Eu. It was on the grounds that top Gerakan leaders were once from the MCA that has made the party regard the Gerakan as no different from its dissidents, although the Gerakan also has members like Dr Koh who were never in the MCA.

Being a larger Chinese party, the MCA has scorned the Gerakan’s multiracial orientation as impractical in Malaysia’s race-based political system. It wants to absorb the smaller party, which is only strong in Penang. If the MCA sees the defection of the two former Gerakan assemblymen as paving the way for this goal, Gerakan is quick to remind the MCA that it had been rejected by the Penang Chinese not only in 1969 but also 1990. The MCA had to come back to power “through the back door” on both occasions by inducing disgruntled DAP assemblymen to defect to its ranks. The Gerakan has canvassed support among sections of UMNO who do not view kindly the “Chinese unity” approach of the MCA to assert itself so that it could bargain more effectively with UMNO. It has stressed to UMNO that in accepting Gerakan dissidents into its ranks, the MCA has damaged the spirit of goodwill among NF components. But much as the UMNO would agree with the Gerakan on that score, it could not chastise the MCA publicly without being accused of taking sides, since it encouraged the Gerakan to admit purged MCA reformists into its ranks in the 1970s.

UMNO has also been involved in inducing defections from Malay opposition parties like PAS and the NJP to its ranks. Although the rules of the NF prohibit components from intervening in one another’s internal affairs, UMNO has had to play the role of mediator by virtue of its position as the backbone of the NF. In trying to patch up their quarrel, UMNO’s initially advised the two assemblymen to return to the Gerakan. But UMNO appears content to let the matter rest since the power equation between itself and the Chinese components in Penang has not been affected.

Gerakan president Dr Lim Keng Yaik has meanwhile likened the defections to a situation where a “woman divorces a man to marry his brother.” As head of the house where all three live together, UMNO is understandably embarrassed by the messy state of affairs.

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