THE Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) has been in the news lately for its sharp criticisms of Minister of Tourism and Culture Nazri Aziz over his attack on Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok, including calling the businessman a "sissy".
What caught the eye was the charge by MCA President and Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai over the weekend that Mr Nazri was "colluding with the opposition".
The public spat between two ministers from Barisan Nasional has laid bare the rifts within the ruling coalition on the race issue.
It has also underlined how weak MCA is in BN.
Despite MCA going on for days about how Mr Nazri's derogatory remark had hurt the feelings of the Chinese community, the dispute has hardly affected Mr Nazri, who remains defiant.
He has even accused MCA of not representing Malaysian Chinese, having done badly in the last general election.
Mr Nazri clearly has the backing of United Malays National Organisation leaders, who are likely using the attack on Mr Kuok to whip up anti-Chinese sentiments ahead of the coming general election.
This fits in with Umno's narrative of being the defender of Malay Muslim rights and its characterisation of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) as one which would take away those rights if it comes into power.
The Liow-Nazri-Robert Kuok saga is clearly an unnecessary embarrassment for MCA, coming just a few months before the election.
On the other side, the DAP will look to consolidate its position as arguably the strongest party in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition pact.
Still, the two predominantly Chinese political parties are facing challenges in strategising their election campaigns within their respective coalitions.
MCA's performance in the election is crucial as it relates to the survival of the party.
The Malaysian Chinese community has long questioned the relevance of the party, while Prime Minister Najib Razak has challenged MCA to win 15 parliamentary seats, after winning only seven in the last election in 2013.
Desperate to win more seats, MCA has launched a direct attack on the DAP and the opposition.
MCA leaders have been criticising DAP for not doing enough for Chinese schools. For instance, Mr Liow claimed that Chinese education was hampered during de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's term as the Minister of Education.
MCA's attempts to portray itself as a champion for the welfare of the Chinese community is, however, a double-edged sword, as it cannot overplay the race card.
For one, MCA cannot claim credit for any contributions to the Chinese community, including improving Chinese education and schools, as one party official admitted to me.
MCA does not want to displease the ultra-Malays within Umno by overemphasising Chinese interests. This is why it has trained its guns on Mr Nazri, and not on Umno itself, in the Robert Kuok saga.
Indeed, when talking up what it has purportedly done for the community, MCA often has to attribute those efforts to BN instead.
For instance, Mr Liow had stated that BN under Mr Najib's leadership had implemented "inclusive policies" which helped to ease certain restrictions on Chinese education.
Mr Liow also stated that Umno is BN's backbone, which contributed much to Malaysia's progress.
However, these statements reinforced perceptions that MCA is subservient to Umno, further worsening the ethnic Chinese electorate's low regard for MCA.
Despite attacking Mr Nazri, MCA's failure to address corruption and cronyism within BN over the years has largely disappointed the Chinese community.
DAP does not see MCA, nor its alliance with Gerakan — the other Chinese-majority party in BN — as a big challenge as the opposition party still enjoys strong support among the majority of ethnic Chinese, especially in Penang.
Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng's prompt responses and willingness to work with BN ministers during the flood that hit Penang in late 2017 has strengthened support towards DAP among its voter base.
However, a big concern for DAP would be its collaboration with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his Bersatu party.
Several DAP members have questioned the choice of the 92-year-old as the opposition's candidate for Prime Minister.
Some of them told me that they are concerned that the decision to work with Dr Mahathir will affect support for the party among Chinese voters, given that the core agenda of his Bersatu party still lies in pushing for Malay supremacy.
Besides, there are segments among the Chinese community who still vividly remember the Operasi Lalang incident in 1987, when some Chinese activists — including DAP leader Lim Kit Siang and former MCA vice-president Chan Kit Chee — were arrested for protesting against the appointment of non-Chinese senior assistants and supervisors to Chinese-medium schools.
The recent #UndiRosak campaign, which encourages young voters to spoil their votes, is believed to be fronted by Dr Mahathir's critics.
Besides, the future of the PH after the election remains a concern for DAP.
While PH may present a united front with its "Save Malaysia" strategy for now, DAP leaders, including Mr Lim Guan Eng, have repeatedly stated the party has not fully forgiven or forgotten Dr Mahathir's past deeds.
As the DAP's "Malaysia for Malaysians" agenda and PPBM's "Malay supremacy" are essentially incompatible, one may question the durability of their partnership within PH.
Besides, the PH's parliamentary seat allocation in Peninsular Malaysia — DAP was allocated only 35 seats compared to the Malay-dominated parties, Bersatu (52 seats) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (51 seats) — also displayed a pattern of high reliance on ethnic politics within the coalition, raising the concern of equal partnership among the parties.
If PH fails to kick BN out of power, it is questionable what will keep it together.
In conclusion, MCA and DAP are struggling to maintain their parties' core agenda while adjusting to accommodate contradicting ideologies upheld by different political parties under their respective coalitions.
As Malaysian politics still revolve mainly around ethnicity, it remains a challenge for both parties to maintain an equal partnership with their coalition allies.
In the upcoming election, both parties will need to do deep calculations about accommodating their allies to keep the alliances intact while not displaying a submissive image within the coalition, which will cost them support from Chinese voters.
At stake is a ruling multi-ethnic alliance to serve the interests of all Malaysians.