The most senior Chinese minister in the Malaysian government has secretly offered to resign, revealing deep division over key issues within the ruling 14-party National Front coalition. Ling Liong Sik, who has been transport minister since 1983 and president of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) for as many years, gave Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad an undated letter resigning as minister last August, but they both kept it a secret until Wednesday. Dr Ling had asked Dr Mahathir, who is president of the Umno (United Malays National Organisation), to put in any date on the letter and announce his (Dr Ling's) resignation. Dr Mahathir revealed its existence at a closed-door meeting of National Front leaders, forcing Dr Ling to go public within an hour to confirm he was prepared to step down immediately. Although on Thursday Dr Mahathir was quick to assure that he had rejected Dr Ling's resignation 'for the moment', the incident has sent shock waves across the political establishment. Speculation is rife that the differences that were brewing between the MCA and Umno for many months have now come to a head. Political observers said it was extremely rare for a close Chinese political partner in the government to protest in the manner Dr Ling had done. They see Dr Ling's move as risky but calculated to express the MCA's unhappiness with Malay pressure to comply with new government policies that affect Chinese vernacular education, party discipline, power sharing and a host of other long-standing issues. By offering to resign, observers said, Dr Ling has also cleverly disarmed his critics in the MCA who accused him of being 'power crazy', and unwilling to step down for new blood despite enjoying power for 15 years. Relations between the Umno and MCA had soured after the 1999 general elections where Umno fared poorly, losing seats to the Islamic opposition PAS party. The MCA performed extremely well, winning nearly all the seats it contested. Since then the MCA has been more confident and assertive, the observers said. In recent months the MCA strongly opposed the government's move to teach science and mathematics in English in Chinese schools. A special formula was finally worked out for Chinese schools before the MCA agreed. Dr Ling's supporters in the MCA also feel betrayed that Umno leaders are openly backing MCA deputy president Lim Ah Lek, who leads a rival faction and is challenging Dr Ling for the president's post. A general election is widely expected before Dr Mahathir retires in October. There are fears that the coalition's chances will be adversely affected if the major differences between coalition partners remained unresolved.