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Aliran: The Nanyang Takeover Crisis
By Dr Francis Loh
15/7/2001 1:12 am Sun
Highlights from Aliran Monthly
The Nanyang Takeover Crisis:
by Dr Francis Loh
Now that its EGM is over, MCA's takeover of Nanyang Press
Holdings Bhd is a fait accompli. MCA will probably follow the
Prime Minister's advice and shed part of its Nanyang shares to
some 'strategic partners'. The financial burden of assuming 72%
of Nanyang shares alone should persuade MCA's Huaren Holdings Sdn
Bhd to do this, and sooner rather than later.
Only 53 per cent of those who voted at the 24 June EGM favoured
the takeover. Even so the 'Gang of Eight' led by Lim Ah Lek and
Chua Jui Meng have declared that they will accept the EGM's
decision. Their road-shows will stop. The party will close ranks.
But for how long?
Even if there's no mud-slinging within MCA, there is still a
storm of protest in the Chinese community against the Nanyang
takeover. The protest will not die so quickly but will probably
haunt MCA. Indeed Ling Liong Sik's slim victory suggests MCA is
so split that it will only be a matter of time before another
round of intra-party feuding occurs with even higher stakes. Then
the Nanyang takeover which has united Ling's rivals as never
before will gift them with a critical issue at the MCA party
elections due next year.
Perennial Succession Feuds
MCA has had a very fractious past, not always because of
substantive differences, but because of fierce contests for top
positions (see accompanying box).
Consider the party feud that has festered in recent years between
MCA president Dr Ling Liong Sik and his deputy, Lim Ah Lek.
Ling's allies include two vice presidents, Ong Ka Ting and Dr
Fong Chan Onn, secretary-general Dr Ting Chew Peh, Wanita chief,
Dr Ng Yen Yen, and Penang MCA leader, Dr Sak Cheng Lam. Closely
linked to Lim are his protégé, vice-president Chan Kong Choy, and
Fu Ah Kiow and others from Pahang.
What is the basis of this dispute? Essentially it involves
succession to the party leadership, an issue that goes back to
Ling's call to older MCA leaders at the 1998 Annual General
Assembly (AGA) to vacate their ministerial appointments and party
posts to make way for younger figures. When Lim declined to
contest the 1999 general election, it seemed that the two top
leaders had reached a 'gentlemen's agreement', which included
Chan Kong Choy's replacing Lim as a federal minister.
Two other ministerial positions were then occupied by Ting Chew
Peh and vice-president Chua Jui Meng. Ting contested the 1999
general election but was persuaded to step down as minister.
Being younger than Ting, Chua didn't think he was due for
retirement. Indeed, some said that Chua had cast his eyes on the
But when Dr Mahathir reshuffled the cabinet after the November
1999 general election, Ling and Chua were re-appointed as
ministers while Ong and Fong replaced Ting and Lim.
Ong's promotion was predictable: he is Ling's former political
secretary, his protégé as well as his unannounced successor. Ong
has a reputation for being a capable administrator and maintains
good rapport with the party rank-and-file, Chinese associations,
and the community at large, as well as with UMNO leaders.
However, Lim didn't expect Fong to be MCA's fourth minister.
At MCA's 47th AGA, in June 2000, Ling claimed that his 'hands
were tied': there were four vice-presidents but only two vacant
ministerial posts. So he considered seniority and popular support
in deciding who to promote.
A year earlier, five candidates had vied for the four
vice-president's posts. Fong had the highest number of votes,
followed by Chua, Ong and Chan. Yap Pian Hon, vice-president
since 1990, came last. So, Ling kept Chua and promoted Fong and
Ong, evidently in accordance with the general assembly's
But this decision apparently didn't honour the 'gentlemen's
agreement' reached between Ling and Lim. Lim had stepped down.
However, someone from Ling's team, and not Lim's protégé, had
Had Ling applied the correct criteria? Was Lim resorting to
In fact Lim had followed party tradition. MCA had not, at least
not recently, allocated its ministerial posts, or top party posts
for that matter, according to the 'more democratic' principles
which Ling was apparently upholding.
For example, Yap Pian Hon had polled the highest vote of all the
vice-presidents in 1996 and had been a vice-president since 1990.
Yet Ling had not recommended Yap for a ministerial appointment -
as a delegate to the 47th AGA pointed out.
The intra-party differences developed in a peculiar manner in May
2000 (see AM, 20, 4). Ling suddenly announced his resignation as
a minister, ostensibly to allow Chan to replace him: 'He (Chan)
was the only vice president without a ministerial position.' In
the event, Ling withdrew his resignation after two weeks'
The feud reared its head again in early 2001. Lim apparently
pressured Ling to set a date for the latter's retirement as
minister. Simultaneously it was proposed that Chan should be
appointed acting deputy president if Lim were to vacate his party
position. There was a precedent for this proposal: in 1996 MCA's
presidential council had arranged for Lim to succeed Lee Kim Sai
as deputy president without contest, while Ting was promised the
position of secretary general.
These decisions were subsequently endorsed by the MCA central
committee and touted as evidence of MCA's 'culture of smooth
Maybe Lim meant to invoke this 'culture' but it looked as if the
proposals only provoked demonstrations and counter-demonstrations.
Ongoing Ling-Lim talks were suspended in February 2001 'to avert
instability'. At any rate, the Ling-Lim dispute over party
succession hardly excited other MCA factions, let alone the wider
Anti-Ling Factions Unite
The Nanyang takeover is a wholly different episode. The
controversial takeover has galvanised Lim's faction and other
anti-Ling groups into a formidable force.
The 'Gang of Eight' now included Youth leader, Ong Tee Kiat, who
was previously political secretary to Lee Kim Sai, Ling's old
foe; Yap Pian Hon, the former three-term vice-president whose
popularity brought him no ministerial post; deputy Wanita leader,
Dr Tan Yee Kew; perennial Ling critic Wong Mook Leong, and
others. To everyone's surprise Health Minister Chua Jui Meng, a
former Ling associate, joined the 'Gang of Eight'.
The Nanyang takeover had given the anti-Ling group a significant
issue to legitimise its challenge. During their road-show, Lim
repeatedly declared, 'It is the duty of all party-loving members
to ensure that the party leadership listens to the sentiments and
voices of members and the Chinese community.' Should the
leadership fail to do so, he argued, MCA would be set on 'a
collision course with the Chinese community which might have an
adverse effect on the BN'.
Chua Jui Meng argued that politics and business shouldn't mix,
that MCA shouldn't become 'MCA Sdn Bhd'. Instead MCA should focus
on the political management of the affairs of the nation.
Never mind that MCA is already involved in business, and, through
Huaren Holdings, owns 66.34 million shares of Star Publications.
Chua was particularly concerned that MCA had 'mortgaged' away its
Star Publications shares, and would be saddled with a RM230
million debt to pay for its Nanyang acquisition. Never mind that
Chua himself is a trustee of Huaren Management Sdn Bhd. He was
worried that such 'a huge debt' would distract the MCA from
serving the Chinese community. Never mind Chua's political
But all this was heady stuff - no longer a petty fight by
gentlemen over an unfulfilled leadership succession agreement. At
one of the road-shows, Ling was reminded of the promise he made
in 1986 - upon becoming president after the Tan Koon Swan debacle
and deposit-taking co-operative scandals - that he would divorce
MCA from business.
From Honeymoon to Disillusionment
In the background is the political ferment within the Chinese
Malaysian community. The mid-1990s saw the Chinese community
rallying behind Barisan Nasional and Dr Mahathir Mohamad when BN
polled 53.2 per cent of the Chinese popular vote in 1995 compared
to 41.5 per cent in 1990
These past couple of years, however, rumblings of dissatisfaction
It's widely believed that the Chinese gave overwhelming support
to MCA and Gerakan in the 1999 general election, allowing MCA to
win 12 seats and Gerakan 3 out of the 24 Chinese-majority
constituencies, and thus helping BN retain its two-thirds
Yet, the situation was more complex. In the 6 seats (in the
peninsula) having more than 80% Chinese voters, BN only polled 45
per cent of the average popular vote and won just 1 seat while
DAP captured 53 per cent of the vote and 5 seats. In fact
BN/MCA's share of the Chinese vote in the 24 Chinese majority
seats declined slightly between 1995 and 1999.
Besides, several new groups and coalitions emerged before the
1999 election. The best known of them was the group of 11
organisations which sponsored the '17-Point Election Appeal', or
Suqiu included typical 'Chinese demands' such as fair and
equitable economic policies and multiculturalism as the bases for
national unity, the development of Chinese schools and the
improvement of Chinese new villages.
But Suqiu also wanted to restore constitutional democracy,
maintain professionalism in the police force, protect human
rights and justice, advance the rights of women, workers and the
indigenous peoples, and to provide housing for all. Moreover,
Suqiu wanted the government to curb corruption, review
privatisation policies, protect the environment, repeal the ISA
and safeguard press freedom.
Such demands were made in the spirit of reformasi.
Thus Suqiu created a stir among the Chinese community.
Subsequently 2095 (out of an estimated total of 4000) Chinese
organisations endorsed the '17-Point Appeal'.
But it was also evident that the community was split between
pro-BN organisations like FECAM and ACCIM (the Federation of
Chinese Associations in Malaysia and the Associated Chinese
Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Malaysia) and organisations
such as Dong Zong and Jiao Zong who thought it opportune to
support a 'two-coalition system' without specifically endorsing
There was a smaller group of Chinese organisations that supported
BA. And although they endorsed the '17-Point Appeal' they
separately launched 'The People are the Bosses' declaration.
The implications of these political developments, not widely
noticed because of the more dramatic reformasi, were serious
enough to compel MCA, Gerakan and SUPP to support Suqiu. Indeed,
in September 1999, Ling Liong Sik proudly announced that the
Cabinet had considered the '17-Point Appeal' and appointed him to
head a special team of Chinese ministers to meet the
organisations. He added that 'none of the issues had caused any
controversy or were rejected by the Cabinet outright' (The Star
23 Sept 1999).
Controversies and Disappointments
Since November 1999 the political ferment has taken on other
First, UMNO Youth leaders had alleged in August 2000 that an
ACCIM leader, and then Suqiu, had questioned Malay special
rights. On Merdeka Day, Dr Mahathir even likened Suqiu to
'extremists', 'communists of the past', and even the alleged
Al-Ma'unah militants. He claimed the Chinese media had 'sowed
misconceptions among moderate Chinese'.
In September 2000, Ling lamely attempted to alleviate Chinese
anxieties by claiming that the prime minister had not referred to
But the Chinese community was incensed that MCA and BN's other
'Chinese parties' which had supported Suqiu barely a year ago now
sang a different tune. Many regarded Ling's advice - 'Listen to
the PM', 'Don't be extreme in your demands', 'The PM's advice is
pertinent, mature and borne out of his vast experience in
governing the country' (see AM, 20, 7) - to be patronising.
The disillusionment grew when the government insisted on
implementing the 'Vision Schools'. Despite BN's repeated
assurances that the objective of Vision Schools is to promote
interaction and unity among children of different ethnic
backgrounds, the vast majority of the Chinese majority were
unconvinced that the manner of implementation of the 'Vision
Schools' would not change the character of Chinese schools.
Many community leaders criticised the inadequate consultation
between the government and the Chinese schools. Some Jiao Zong
leaders were adamant that the government's assurances would end
up like past unfulfilled promises to Chinese schools. They
demanded that written clarifications of the Vision School concept
be made available for prior and comprehensive discussion. The
government refused. At which point the Chinese educationists
proposed that the 'Greater Interaction Programme to Promote
Unity', agreed by all BN parties in the mid-1980s, but shelved
due to the recession then, be implemented instead .
As it turned out, a by-election in Lunas, Kedah, became a testing
ground for Chinese voters' discontent over Suqiu's treatment and
the Vision Schools. That discontent joined with Malay voters'
continuing dissent over the Anwar Ibrahim affair, the
government's withdrawal of Trengganu's oil royalty, and the
'character of our leader, Dr Mahathir' (according to a Johor UMNO
leader). The result was BN's stunning defeat in November 2000,
which critically lost BN its two-thirds majority in the Kedah
Meanwhile, other controversies have emerged. One important
controversy had to do with the relocation of SRJK Damansara (C)
Primary School which many parents and students opposed. This
issue once again highlighted long unresolved Chinese concerns
over the construction and expansion of Chinese primary and
secondary schools. Another emotional issue surfaced when
approximately 500 Chinese 'top scorers' in the government
examinations weren't admitted to public universities.
Consequently the prevalent perception in the Chinese community
has it that BN has ignored Chinese requests, not adequately
consulted the community, and reneged on electoral promises. Along
with that is the assessment that MCA had insufficiently
championed the rights of the community.
And then came Nanyang.
Dong Jiao Zong and FECAM criticised MCA. Surprisingly even ACCIM
did so. These three principal Chinese organisations joined
hundreds of others to establish CAT (The Committee of Chinese
Organisations Against the MCA Takeover of Nanyang Press).
CAT refused to accept that the acquisition was a 'purely business
deal'. CAT declared that, 'It is the responsibility of every
party to ensure the independence of the media from partisan
control or intervention.' More than that, CAT insisted that, 'The
MCA as a member of the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, which
has accepted Suqiu in principle, should not directly or
indirectly intervene in media operations.'
The Malaysian Chinese Newspaper Editors Association urged MCA to
rescind the sale. In protest, some 90 columnists and contributors
to the Nanyang Siang Pau, China Press, Sin Chew Jit Poh and
Guangming decided to stop writing for the dailies. They condemned
the takeover for 'pushing through a scheme that runs counter to
democratic principles' and which spelled 'the end of the
independence and autonomy of Chinese dailies'.
What was Ling Liong Sik's response? He repeatedly stated that the
character and identity of the dailies would not change. He added
that MCA would relinquish management of the papers to Star
Publications or other 'strategic partners'.
As MCA's EGM split and the continuing protests in the Chinese
community show, either the MCA president is naïve or he considers
the Chinese community to be naïve. By holding up Star
Publications as an example of how MCA would guarantee the
acquired newspapers' independence, Ling has in fact confirmed the
protesters' worst fears.
The widespread protest against the takeover among the Chinese
community can be located within the context of the political
ferment that has been occurring. In part, the ferment is related
to the economic uncertainties which characterise the current
period. But it is also, no doubt, related to the Anwar factor and
the growing disillusionment among Malaysians of all ethnic groups
with the BN government and Dr Mahathir's leadership.
This ferment probably involves one half of the Chinese community.
Of this one half, only a small group openly identifies with the
Barisan Alternatif, while a larger proportion is drawn to the
prospect of a two-coalition system, without necessarily endorsing
the BA. There are at least two reasons for the ambivalence
towards the BA.
First, there is a fear of PAS and its agenda of an Islamic state
- a fear that is only partly due to the propaganda of the BN
parties. Indeed, the contradictory statements and often
unnecessarily moralistic policies introduced by Pas-led Kelantan
and Terengganu have also created alarm - despite Pas' regular
assurances that non-Muslims would not be discriminated against
and its sincere efforts to reach out to the Chinese community.
Second is the uncertainty over what Pas, indeed the BA, stands
for. There is already much anxiety if not criticism of Pas'
overly moralistic stance over what are considered personal
matters like dress, gambling, the role of women and other
cultural issues. Yet there is little information on its
educational, finance, industrialisation and investment policies.
Disillusioned with the BN/MCA, fearful of PAS, and unsure of what
the BA stands for, the Chinese community appears to have recoiled
inwards to protect its current interests - its schools, its
businesses and associations, and of course, its media. It would
not be surprising if the Gang of Eight tries to capitalise on the
community's uncertainty and disenchantment.
Quick off the Block
With the MCA gobbling up two relatively independent Chinese
dailies, independent journalists and contributors have turned to
the Internet in search of media freedom. Within weeks, several
Chinese news-websites have sprouted and chalked up thousands of
hits. Check them out.
Mytianwang - http://www.mytianwang.com/
Berita Generasi - http://www.suaram.org/generasi/
Freemedia - http://www.freemedia.f2s.com/