(Book) Chinese Politics in Malaysia: A History of the Malaysian Chinese Association

By Heng Pek Koon

I spent CNY Day 1 to Day 3 reading this book, Dr Heng Pek Koon’s Chinese Politics in Malaysia: A History of the Malaysian Chinese Association”.

The book was published at the height of Ops Lalang in 1988, chronicling MCA’s founding in 1949 until the eighties.

My interests are really to trace the beginning of a Malaya-centric nationalism among the Chinese and the Malay-Chinese relation throughout history in this land. I wrote at length about this two themes in my upcoming book.

Someone asked if reading a book about MCA is my way of Suntzu’s Know Thy Enemies. I think it was more of finding oneself than one’s opponent. MCA today is a far cry from MCA of Tun Tan Cheng Lock’s time. But reading the history of MCA with the political history of Malaysia at our Independence in the background was an enlightening experience to say the least. One learns past mistakes and successes to one’s own advantage.

Can we really draw lessons from history? While interactions in our human society cannot be observed in a regular lab for patterns to form scientific theories, history becomes like a lab to see how people and nations act and react to certain issues. More so with political history, where lessons can certainly be drawn from the rise and fall of political entities.

MCA was created to fill a vacuum in the local Chinese activism in the postwar period. It was highly popular at its inception because 1) the party was the first of its kind among Chinese in Malaya hence it received support from almost all key Chinese components in the country, 2) although communal in natural, its leadership was not parochial in that while second tier leadership and grassroots were almost only Chinese-speaking, the top echelons were English-educated leaders who could interact comfortably with both the colonial authorities and the traditional Malay leadership, 3) it represented the Chinese populace in Malaya in various economic, political and social issues at a time when they “lost” their traditional champions due to the Chinese civil war in China, 4) the welfare function of MCA through generous donations from patrons and its lottery game endeared it to a Chinese population struggling during the Emergency period.

The party however had its baggages from the beginning. First it was perceived as a taukehs’ party, and indeed down to the branch levels, the capitalist class and petite bourgeoisie dominated and even used MCA’s platform to their personal advantages. Secondly, the party was seen as condescending too much to UMNO. On this point, I think the biggest problem is not really cooperation with a Malay political party (the truth is, from the beginning, political parties in Malaya were set up along communal agenda, whether de jure or de facto) or even concessions to some issues such as protection of Malay special position, but rather MCA’s inability to bargain on behalf of the Chinese and non-Malays as well as their inability to keep UMNO to its promises. For example, many issues close to the Chinese such as Chinese education were not resolved in black and white from the beginning because MCA took UMNO’s words for it and believed that the situation will change once power is won. They almost all never happened. Finally, perhaps being a party of its time, or whatever limitations it faced, MCA was highly tolerant of abuses of power within the party. Almost immediately after the formation of the party, reports of abuse of power, and corruptions were received from grassroots members against party “warlords” from the branch level onwards. In 1952, a report was made against the Singapore MCA leadership for the misappropriation of $37,575 from its lottery game. No one went to jail. The then MCA chief executive secretary, TH Tan writing to President Tan Cheng Lock, warned almost prophetically, “…unless the Singapore branch is handled firmly, the whole future of the MCA is at stake…A political association of our size if it is incapable of taking firm action within its own house cannot hope to achieve anything outside.”

One interesting section for me was the part on “The Alliance Election Manifesto of July 1955”, for two reasons, one, I am involved from DAP’s side in the drafting of the Pakatan Harapan GE14 manifesto, and two, the Alliance Election Manifesto of 1955 for all its weaknesses did work. I recalled some of our conversations in the last party meeting on the PH manifesto just weeks ago and found affinity in the process (rather than content) of the drafting of the Alliance Manifesto.

Overall, it was an enlightening read from Dr. Heng. This is now already an old book, I am not sure if it is out of print, but a copy was donated recently to the Penang Institute Library.

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