Looking at UTAR in the mouth


MGG Pillai

The MCA president, Ling Liong Sik, received a standing ovation when he announced on Sunday, at the Perak MCA annual general meeting, the party is allowed, at last, a university. He got more than he dared hope: upgrade Tunku Abdul Rahman College to a university.

Was it, as the Star reported, a "historic moment"? Three men -- deputy president Lim Ah Lek, vice-presidents Chua Jui Meng and Chan Kong Choy, intractible political foes of Ling -- remained seated, did not join in. They read the Chinese mood better than Ling, knew what it meant to the Chinese, a 32-year-old dream come true. A misstep would cause them plenty.  

But they knew what the delegates did not: Ling got the letter about Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman College a year ago, did not inform the central committee, kept it to himself and his cronies for political and financial gain. It was left to him to announce it at his propitious convenience. He could not; he had to shore up his flagging support.

Word is he was to announce it during the MCA party elections next year. The Nanyang Press and the Vision School fiascos combined with his arrogance threw his plans out of gear. The Gang of Eight wanted answers he would not give. The Chinese ground is dismissive of him, as the MCA now. He had to make a dramatic statement. So, he fished out the letter.

Niggling questions

That he did at a state party meeting now and not at the MCA convention next month reflects both worry and fright. Niggling questions remain. When did the cabinet approve it? Did it at all? Did Ling agree to few Chinese language schools in return for a university? Why was Parliament not apprised of it? The education ministry must clear the air. Ling did not expect the Vision School problem to surface so soon, and got caught.

He wants no more, so he told the MCA delegates in Ipoh, than make UTAR come true. He plans for it, even before his central committee knows of it. It is he, not MCA, in charge. He, not MCA, shall discuss the details with the government. UTAR is yet one more reason, in his view, to let him remain in office as long as he likes. The rumour, which Ling has denied, that he wants his vice-presidential and cabinet crony, Ong Ka Ting, as his deputy, cannot be far wrong. He does not want the Gang of Eight or any other who does not share his flawed vision to correct it.

But Ling helps MCA stumble. Chinese educationists, led by the redoubtable (and now octogenarian) Sim Mow Yee, wanted a Chinese-run Merdeka University, and an important demand in the 1969 general elections. The then prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, deflected it by allowing MCA to run TAR College, and it survives with little mentioned government grants and ringgit-for-ringgit contributions.

UTAR would get some, but not all, incentives TARC got. MCA cannot run it on its own and needs the very groups in the Chinese community it opposes. So, when Ling plays hide-and-seek with them, and his party, over it, it faces more problems than it bargained for. A Chinese-run university is anathema to the Malay political community as Chinese-language education is. If MCA wants Chinese community support, it must let go and bring the Chinese educationists in.

Chinese education

UTAR would no doubt be exempted from the high licence fees for private universities, said to be RM75 million. If TARC is any guide, it would get government guarantees, grants-in-aid, and any other help to bring Chinese support back to the government. As events proved, Chinese education will tie the government in knots, as the newer generation of Chinese, the grandchildren of the founding fathers, strengthen their citizenship in their cultural confidence.

The MCA does not fit into this worldview, as UMNO does not to the Malay grandchildren's. Its record in education is patchy. TARC is an exception, with government grants and aid, and was there when the explosion of tutorial classes for foreign degrees was the vogue. It still gets sizeable donations annually, which would trickle when UTAR claims are more pressing.

It cannot be replicated. MCA did, in the early days, do much for Chinese education; ministers sang for their supper, but that is now rare as MCA raising funds for Chinese independent schools. So, Ling, in keeping news of the university secret, is true to form: billions or ringgit would be spent (and made?) in establishing UTAR.

It should not be MCA which should run UTAR, but the Chinese community. UMNO does not run any universities, MIC dabbles in a medical faculty, and MCA now in a university. It is seen as proof of its commitment. It thinks it does the community proud. It does not. It should instead leave it to a high-level committee of community leaders.

Success and failure

Look at how the Chinese community rose in unison, in the 1950s and 1960s, to establish Nanyang University in Singapore: millionaires to beggars, in what is best described as a Chinese gotong royong, contributed their mite to collect hundreds of millions (read billions, in today's devalued currency) of dollars. It was built not to favour cronies, but to the larger ideal of education.

But its failure -- it was eventually taken over by the government -- came when it was seen as a hotbed of anti-government activity. The old stalwarts in the community died, and the newer ones did not support it as their parents did. Funding became a problem, and with its political complications, it could not survive independently.

When the business man Chang Min Thien offered an MCA agency RM10 million to set up a foundation for education, none of it was distributed, before it was forced to return it. In the 1980s, several MCA leaders went to jail, was disgraced, when funds in the Kojadi deposit-taking co-operative, meant to help students with their fees, vanished into thin air. UTAR would be built, but could it last if it is built on shaky foundations as MCA is in?

M.G.G. Pillai pillai@mgg.pc.my