Sex scandal forgiven by a party in peril

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 April, 2010, 12:00am

As the likes of Paris Hilton can attest, it sometimes takes more than a sex tape to end a career.

Anyone seeking further proof need look no further than craggy-faced doctor-turned-politician Dr Chua Soi Lek, who has bounced back from a lurid scandal to become president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, the country's biggest Chinese political party.

Chua was health minister and MCA vice-president in 2007 when his political enemies secretly video-taped and distributed DVDs of him having sex with a young woman - not his wife - in a hotel room. The scale of the campaign to taint Chua was extensive; motorcycle couriers dropped off envelopes of the incriminating discs to media organisations, and the DVDs were hot sellers in street markets.

Forced into an embarrassing public admission of sin with a woman he described only as a 'personal friend', Chua apologised and resigned from all party and government posts.

But in the intervening years he made an unexpected comeback, culminating in last Sunday's victory, with MCA delegates accepting him as the man who just might save the party from oblivion.

'He made a mistake, he apologised and his wife also forgave him. We accept him back as leader, as MCA president,' said Daniel Tan, an MCA delegate giving voice to the general mood in the party.

'He is the best man to lead the MCA out of the doldrums,' Tan said. 'He has the charisma and the leadership qualities.'

Political scientist Dr Sivamurugan Pandyan agrees. 'Dr Chua is popular, he is close to Prime Minister [Najib Razak] and the vote shows the Chinese are willing to put the sex scandal behind them. They see him as a victim of a crime not the perpetrator. If anybody can revive MCA fortunes, it is Dr Chua.'

But Chua faces an uphill task if he is to win back the MCA's former supporters in time for general elections expected next year.

The party is undergoing something of a crisis. For six decades it has represented the interests of Malaysia's sizeable Chinese minority, latterly from within the ruling Malay-dominated coalition. But the Chinese community is now divided. Many ethnic Chinese, apparently disillusioned with pro-Malay government policies, have turned instead to the opposition camp headed by Anwar Ibrahim, who promises a more equitable share of power for minorities.

In his victory speech on Sunday Chua vowed to share power with the defeated factions within the party. 'I will not seek vengeance but I will consolidate and work to revive MCA fortunes, to convince the Chinese community that they can find no better defender of their rights than the MCA,' he said.

Power-sharing talks have just started among the various factions and it is too early to say if Chua will stick to his promise. Chua was also due to meet the prime minister to discuss the distribution of cabinet posts entitled to the MCA as part of its membership of the National Front government, a 13-party coalition led by Najib's Umno.

The party's political fortunes have recently been in decline. Chinese voters make up about 25 per cent of the Malaysian electorate, but several incidents tarnished the government and, by association, the MCA, in the run up to 2008 elections, in which it fared poorly.

In one pre-election incident, a senior United Malays National Organisation leader waved a keris - a wavy Malay dagger associated with nationalist sentiments - and vowed to soak it with Chinese blood if they refused to accept Malay domination of the country.

The MCA lost about 80 per cent of the seats it contested in the 2008 polls. The big winner was the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, led by Anwar and including the Democratic Action Party, the Parti Islam se-Malaysia and Keadilan. Although the National Front retained power - only barely - it lost its coveted two-thirds majority for the first time since independence.

Since the 2008 debacle, the MCA has been wooing Chinese voters by putting some distance between it and Umno. MCA ministers also now boldly rail against government corruption. Ministries headed by MCA members have ordered independent probes that have led to prosecution of several top officials for alleged corruption.

These efforts have burnished the MCA image, political analysts said. Recent opinion polls also show a slight improvement in voter perception of the party.

But the party is still not out of the woods. 'The MCA has to transform itself from a Chinese welfare organisation into a full-fledged political party speaking up for not just Chinese but for all Malaysians,' Sivamurugan said.

'The question is can it end factionalism and can it transform into a party for new generation Chinese? Now the MCA is trapped in its glorious past but all that is over.'

Political analyst and MCA watcher Stanley Koh said: 'There are just too many internal and external challenges facing the MCA.'

Founded in 1949 with the help of departing British colonials in the aftermath of the second world war, the party was founded to shore up immigrant Chinese support against communist insurgents. When the communists were defeated, the MCA inherited the mantle as 'saviour and champion' of the Chinese community.

After independence, the MCA evolved into a party for Chinese businessmen defending economic interests. It was seen by Chinese voters as the pillar of Chinese society in Malaysia. The fact that it was recognised as a partner by the premier Malay party, Umno, was an advantage over its rivals. With that recognition flowed patronage.

While the MCA spoke up for the Chinese big business while rubbing shoulders with Malay ruling class, the DAP party championed the Chinese 'small man' - hawkers, artisans, farmers, labourers and Chinese school teachers.

As a new generation of upwardly mobile Chinese entered political discourse, with the internet the dominant arena, the MCA appeared increasingly outdated.

While the older generation still look to the MCA for direction, many younger Malaysian Chinese turned elsewhere - to multiracial parties that speak for all Malaysians. 'Some Chinese have even taken up with the Islamic PAS party to satisfy their political aspirations for togetherness in a racially divided nation,' Sivamurugan said.

He said that race-based politics was giving way to multiracialism, and 'unless they [the MCA] transform the writing is on the wall'.

Convincing voters that such a transformation is possible in time for the elections may be Chua's biggest challenge.