Sarawak at the crossroads

Taken from, May 25, 2006.

By Bridget Welsh and Ong Kian Ming

In a decisive victory, the opposition won eight seats (excluding one independent seat) in the May 20 polls, a record not seen in Sarawak since the 1987 elections and in Chinese areas since the 1974 polls.

The opposition won 35.9% of the popular vote in an electoral contest tied to machinery and financing that is skewed heavily in the favor of the incumbent regime. This is an increase from 33.5% in 2004 and 28.3% in 2001 a 7.6% gain between both state contests.

Even with a plethora of electoral complaints, which included a police report of vote buying in Opar and a prominent picture of a grave of a registered voter, and a climate of fear amidst threats of reprisals and project withdrawals for voting against incumbents, the opposition has been revitalized in this frontier state.

DAP led by Sarawakians with their own roots in the state – won the lion share of the new seats, although both Snap and PKR united under the BBS banner won seats by candidates with strong performances.

On the surface, the resounding message is that the 25-year tenure of 70-year-old Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud has gone on too long voters protested the record of alleged corruption, apparent dominance of Taib’s economic interests in the state economy and perceived centralized control which has stifled the Sarawakian entrepreneurial spirit and created a climate of discontent.

Rising costs, especially petrol prices, which are even more acute due to the distances in Malaysia’s largest state (and where inflation is well beyond the Consumer Price Index calculations) clearly contributed to a broad sense that things were not right under Taib’s current management, especially in the urban areas where access to information is high and costs increased sharply over the past few months. With the bread and butter issue of land rights especially lease holdings and the charges for new rents unresolved, more voters opted for a check on government with a louder opposition voice.

Obstacles for the opposition

A closer look at the election suggests that the mandate was not just a protest vote, but a sea change in Sarawak politics. Individual voters may have come to the polls in protest, but collectively they opted for a different future in a state at the crossroads. Foremost the May polls point to the reconfiguration of the opposition in Sarawak. No opposition party contested against each other. Although the DAP remained unallied, the common agreement to create straight fights significantly increased opportunities for victory at the polls, as did the predominance of locally-based campaigning.

The DAP gained the most. The party fielded an impressive slate of candidates all young professionals and dynamic individuals who brought record attendances to ceremah, even in the rural towns of Bintangor and Sarikei. The palpable energy and excitement that included a record crowd at King’s Center in Kuching on election eve – inspired voters, who came to the polls to support the opposition.

Voter turn-out in urban areas effectively remained the same, 61.5 % in 2006 (compared to 61.3% in 2004), yet the DAP captured a larger number of voters. Urban voters opted for a locally-born, respected and scandal-free slate of candidates who collectively stamped a Sarawakian identity on the DAP, removing the ‘Malaya’ label that has haunted the party at previous polls.

Their campaign deftly combined local and national issues, from urban land leases and charges of BN candidates living abroad to the need for a watchdog on development allocations and corruption and was manned by a larger cohort of local volunteers as part of a party regeneration. Exhausted candidates, even those without voices such as Chong Chieng Jen left to speak in the final days of campaigning, vigilantly walked markets and streets in the ten-day campaign for which they had set in place years of groundwork.

The DAP’s share of the vote in seats that it contested increased to 50.1%, up from 28% in 2001 (where there were considerable number of multi-corner fights), and showed impressive performances in all of their contests, including those deemed completely “white (BN controlled)” near Miri (Pujut).

Supp, factionalised by infighting and increasingly marginalised in cabinet reshuffles by the PBB, lost ground as the representative of Chinese voters. Illustrative, Supp president Dr George Chan in Piasau, where voter turn-out dropped considerably from 61% to 54% from 2001 to 2006, only managed to win a 42% majority compared to a 60% majority in 2001. Overall the DAP made the most inroads from the defection of Chinese support to the opposition.

While an impressive performance, DAP victories were primarily concentrated in Chinese- majority and urban seats, which only comprise a small share of Sarawak’s seats (11 out of 71 at the state level 15.5%) and a shrinking number in Malaysia as a whole (20 out of 219 parliamentary seats 15.5%).

The victory in largely rural Meradong, half an hour north of Sibu, shows the most promise for possible electoral expansion. Yet, the peculiarities of this contest riddled by infighting within the Supp and national attention to the contest may have affected the outcome to skew results. Until the DAP effectively reaches out to rural areas, across races, then it will only be confined to a watchdog role and a core of supporters, who are historically perceived to be the critical swing voters in elections.

Infighting in Supp

While DAP’s revitalisation in Sarawak will dominate the opposition in the state and create the most waves, on the surface PKR’s victory in the urban Padungan seat in Kuching in a Chinese dominant area is a breakthrough for the party and arguably has the most ripple effects outside of Sarawak.

Winner Dominique Ng will be showcased as a Chinese face as the party develops the image of itself as a multi-racial party. Yet the Padungan victory had less to do with PKR’s multi-racial message than would appear on the surface. While PKR ceremah were more multi-racial than others, speeches in English and Malay did not always resonate with the local Chinese crowds who made up 92% of the voters.

Ng benefited from infighting in Supp, which weakened his opponent Lily Yong, and the groundswell of urban discontent that brought Chinese to the polls. His margin was narrower than the DAP candidates in similar Kuching constituencies (except in Kota Sentosa which had over 10% of postal votes). Ng’s victory primarily reflected his local roots and persistent campaigning.

PKR’s real gains were in Malay/Melanau seats, where margins in contests against PBB were reduced. One of the closest contests was in Saribas near Betong, which pitted PBB supreme council member Dr. Haji Wahbi Haji Junaidi against former civil servant Abang Zulkilfi Abang Engkeh.

Not coincidentally, this was one of three Malay/Melanau seats in which Anwar Ibrahim visited (the others were Samariang where their share of the votes majority increased from 25.4% in 2001 to 34.5% in 2006 and in Pantai Damai 30% in 2001 to 36.5% in 2006, although these contests in 2001 were multi-corner fights).

Overall the BN margins in the Malay/Melanau seats was reduced to 74.2% in 2006 from 81.4% in the 2004 polls and 75.5% in the 2001 polls. While a majority of Malays/Melanaus in Sarawak clearly still strongly support the BN and PBB in particular, this small reduction points to the “Anwar factor” in the Sarawak campaign the affect was evident in the crowds at the few ceremah he spoke yet, at best, electorally ambiguous.PKR share in the vote in seats it contested only increased from 22.2% in 2001, 19.2% in 2004 to 25.8% in 2006, a small increase. The results point to a strengthening of PKR after its pitiful performance in the 2004 election, yet suggest that this party still has a long way to go to win seats.

It is important to note that Malay/Melanau contests involved issues beyond PKR. Within Malay/Melanau Sarawakian communities, there was a perceived negative reaction to the strong Umno presence in the 2006 campaign on the ground. Semanunjung heavy-weights DPM Najib Tun Razak and Youth Chief Hishamuddin Hussein – among others – did not yield the gains as expected. This was not directed at specific individuals, but reflected concerns on the ground about a possible Umno entry into Sarawak politics, which remained ambiguous in an election seen as Taib’s last term.

Malay/Melanau still back BN

Sarawakians remain suspicious of parties from the peninsula, PKR included. Thus, one finds wide variation in PKR results, with local candidates with strong local roots such as former school teacher Piee Bin Ling in Sadong Jaya winning sizeable percentages (40% in this case) and others wiped out, notably in the chief minister’s constituency, Balingain.

Yet, it was the lack of resolution in the leadership transition within PBB that created the most uncertainty among Malays/Melanaus, who have traditionally supported the BN in higher numbers in Sarawak than in the peninsula. They remain concerned about the long-term representation of the communities and internally fragmented. It is in this context where PAS gained votes in the sole seat it contested, increasing its share of votes from 23.6% in 2001 to 40.1% in 2006.

Peninsula-based parties have made inroads into the Malay/Melanau areas, albeit limited. This change, however, raises the question of the future of Malay/Melanau political parties in Sarawak, especially PBB, which is likely to undergo further infighting as a result of a leadership struggle ahead.

On the surface the gains by the opposition did not extend to the Dayak community. The pattern of a weak opposition among Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu communities persisted in the 2006 polls. Each of these communities voted strongly for the BN, 63.8% in Iban area compared to 61.3% in 2004, 70.1% in 2001, 68.8% in Bidayuh areas compared to 75.1% in 2004 and 66.1% in 2001 and 57.6% in Orang Ulu state constituencies compared to 57.8% in 2001.

While Snap contested twenty-nine seats, it only won 29.3% of the share of the votes in these seats. Clearly locally-rooted Snap is stronger than its BBS partner PKR, yet the party captured less than a third of the vote in Dayak communities. The BN won 64.6% of the Dayak vote in 2006, down only slightly from 68.3% in the 2001 contest. Snap only managed to win one seat, Engkilili largely the result of dissatisfaction with the selection of the local BN candidate, Jonathan Krai Pilo.

Snap lacks a clear campaign focus among splintered Dayak communities and rests on the force of personalities with their social networks. The relatively longer campaign in the state polls worked to the BN’s advantage in Dayak areas, where its greater resources allowed for more effective mobilization. The dominance of incumbency and charges of vote buying remained the most pervasive in Dayak areas, although the variation in the results suggest that other factors were also at play, namely the selection of candidates and patronage.

Local connections within extended family and longhouse networks also had an important affect, as did personality. Gabriel Adik’s victory in Ngemah, for example, was directly the result of social ties and his persona. His BN opponent Alex Vincent, a forestry specialist, was a relative unknown and perceived as somewhat distant, who could not overcome the incumbent’s popularity despite intensive BN support. The Dayak community remains divided politically, primarily the result of regional differences as well as effective splintering during the Taib era.

The real sea change

The gains in opposition politics remained a largely urban phenomenon or minimally along the coastline. Rural Sarawak – with monthly incomes of less than RM$500 pervasive remained supportive of the BN. The eight victories need to be put in context. The most important lessons for the opposition in the 2006 Sarawak polls are that fewer multi-corner fights, locally grounded respected candidates, locally-staffed machinery and steady campaigning can make a difference.

Yet, the gains individually by party are minimal and will only evolve slowly. The waves have solely extended to urban centers, with only the DAP capturing a majority of votes in the seats the party contested. Although rejuvenated, the DAP faces the obstacle of limited seats to contest.

With even further to go, the PKR has yet to establish deep local roots in Sarawak and overcome suspicions surrounding the peninsula base of this party. This will take time to dissipate. Snap similarly has to move beyond personality to harness issues and concerns that unite the Dayak community. Each of these parties should articulate more than watchdog roles to voters across races, to offer alternatives to the “project” development that has been the thrust of progress in Sarawak under Taib to be more viable, more representative.

The sea change in the May 20 polls is that a basis for a serious discussion of electoral alternatives for Sarawak has germinated. Whether it can take root through cooperation in the state legislative assembly or will dissolve by infighting and ideological differences as occurred post-1999 remains to be seen.