Abdullah Ahmad Badawi publicly humiliated Koh Tsu Koon, then Penang chief minister, in 2006 in “an ironic exercise in hypocrisy and political expediency” just before Umno divisional meetings, according to the US Embassy’s political officer, Mark Clark, in a secret diplomatic cable published at Malaysia Today through WikiLeaks.
The cable said Abdullah, then prime minister, “echoed the earlier remarks of his son in law, Khairy Jamaluddin”, and publicly charged Koh Tsu Koon “with systematically marginalising [Penang] Malays and demanded immediate action to address the needs of the marginalised Malay community”, the cable said.
Penang executive councillor Dr Toh Kin Woon, sometimes called the conscience of the Gerakan, later told Mark Clark privately that Abdullah thoroughly humiliated Koh, who was caught unprepared and unable to respond “although Malays in Penang have a higher per capita income than Malays in many other states”.
The irony noted by the cable stemmed from a political controversy sparked by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew statement that Malaysian Chinese had been systematically marginalised by the ruling coalition, principally by Umno.
Koh Tsu Koon faced further lambasting from Najib Tun Razak, then Abdullah’s deputy, who called on Koh to more equally divide his executive powers with the deputy chief minister (an Umno man), and Hishamuddin Tun Hussein, the education minister then, demanded Koh take unconditional immediate action to address the needs of Penang Malays.
“According to sources who attended the meeting, Koh was dumbfounded and unprepared to respond to the Prime Minister’s accusations,” the cable noted.
Mark Clark said in the cable that Gerakan deputy secretary-general Lee Kah Choon told him that Koh was viewed by the whole Chinese community as weak: “it is just his personality, and everyone comes to expect it.”
Dr Toh Kin Woon stated that it was this type of weakness that placed Barisan Nasional’s Chinese component parties (the MCA and Gerakan) in danger of losing ground to DAP or Party Keadilan Nasional in more mixed constituencies. In another meeting he faulted Koh for not standing up to Abdullah about the Chinese marginalising Penang Malays. Such weakness opened the door for the opposition to make significant gains at the next general election, Dr Toh said.
(In the 2008 election, MCA and Gerakan were wiped out in Penang by the DAP-PKR-PAS coalition. Lee Kah Choon agreed to serve as chairman of a state government agency under the DAP-led administration. He left Gerakan when criticised for doing so.)
Mark Clark also commented that Koh Tsu Koon “is an intellectual” with a doctorate in physics from Princeton. “His technocratic style makes him popular with corporate leaders, who appreciate his business friendly approach to governing, but is ill-suited to the cut-and-thrust of party politics.”