Chua’s second coming
The post of Barisan Nasional (BN) chief coordinator has been called a “consolation prize” for MCA deputy president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek, who has been sidelined in the party by his boss, Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat.
There’s also talk that the post is a “trap” to make Chua the fall guy if he fails to deliver Chinese Malaysian voters in Pakatan Rakyat (PR)-controlled states back to the BN. As chief coordinator, Chua is expected to revive the lethargic BN machinery in seats lost to PR.
Whatever the speculation, it marks the former health minister’s return to the main stage of national politics, after a year in the wilderness since quitting all government and party posts following a sex video scandal.
Chua paid the price not only in terms of public humiliation, but was given little recognition in the party despite staging a remarkable comeback when he was elected as MCA’s number two in party polls last October.
Chua denies that the specially-created BN post was meant to forestall him from joining the opposition, declaring himself a loyal party-man despite attempts by PR to woo him.
Whatever the case, Chua’s mandate will not be easy. It shows Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s firm resolve in wresting back the PR-ruled states and regaining the parliamentary two-thirds BN had enjoyed before the 2008 general election.
Najib’s latest move in creating the chief coordinator post is a follow-up to earlier decisions that indicate his seriousness about reviving a demoralised BN and winning back voters.
Since becoming prime minister on 3 April, Najib has revamped the Umno state liaison chiefs line-up, to consolidate control in all the states with those whom he trusts and who are popular within the party. These Umno chiefs are also the BN chairpersons in those states.
Najib’s selection of Chua as chief coordinator will likely overshadow any discontent in Umno that the post was given to MCA. It might in fact be a calculated move to show Chinese Malaysian voters that one of the most vocal leaders from the community now stands alongside Umno counterparts at the BN level.
“Umno already holds important posts in the BN like secretary-general and treasurer,” says MCA central committee member Loh Seng Kok. He had recently accompanied Chua to visit PAS vice-president Datuk Husam Musa to discuss the Perak political crisis.
“Najib has to do something about the BN in the seats we lost. There is a lack of zeal in those places, there’s less activity and morale is low. Someone needs to revive the BN there,” posits Loh about the reason for the chief coordinator post. Loh was Member of Parliament (MP) for Kelana Jaya but was not chosen by MCA to defend his seat in the general election last year.
DAP central executive committee member Liew Chin Tong concedes that Najib is a more formidable opponent than former premier Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
“He’s competent and is obviously doing his best to keep the BN together. By putting Johor under the purview of the chief coordinator, he wants to control what we can call the last BN frontier in the peninsula,” notes Liew, who is also MP for Bukit Bendera.
Johor and Negeri Sembilan are also under Chua’s watch even though they are BN states.
Right man for the job?
But why Chua and not anyone else? The appointment reveals the inside track he appears to have with the BN leadership that perhaps not even Ong is privy to.
The straight-talking politician carries himself as beholden to no one, and deals with others openly and frankly. “I’ve nothing to hide,” has been one of his most popular refrains ever since he took responsibility for the sex video scandal.
His no-nonsense style also makes him a match with Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, with whom Chua was said to work well, especially during his days as a Johor assemblyperson and executive councillor when Muhyiddin was Johor menteri besar.
Chua has been openly critical of the way BN campaigns in by-elections, pointing out flaws in Umno’s and MCA’s approach, particularly the lack of multiracial cohesion.
Because what you see is what you get with Chua, Loh believes it will be easy for the Umno state liaison chiefs to work with him.
“He’s got the calibre, capability and good relationship with other leaders. The scandal is past and he’s paid his price for that,” Loh adds.
But Liew doubts that it will be easy-going for Chua in certain states and predicts trouble in places where MCA is aligned to party president Ong.
Liew also believes the larger problem that BN faces in trying to win back PR-controlled states lies with Umno, and assigning Chua to the task is merely missing the point about reforming the dominant party in the coalition.
“Ultimately, it is not the problem of MCA or the other component parties. It is that they have to carry Umno’s baggage. It boils down to the question of whether Umno can transform itself before the rest of the coalition follows suit,” Liew says.
In any case, Najib has to operate on a multi-prong approach to keep the BN intact while checking PR’s advances on voters’ hearts and minds.
And by creating this post, and appointing Chua to it, Najib has someone he trusts in charge of reviving the BN machinery while putting a lid on MCA’s factionalism.
“It’s a sort of message telling the president to close ranks and work together with Chua’s supporters in the party,” Loh says of the rift between Ong and Chua.
Liew calls it a “stop-gap” measure to keep Chua within the BN fold. “If Najib were serious about winning back non-Malay [Malaysian] support, he would have given the BN secretary-general post to the MCA just like in the days of the Alliance.”
Stop-gap or not, nothing is permanent in politics. Time will tell how well Chua performs his new job, whether MCA can close ranks, and ultimately, whether BN can revive itself.