Sunday, March 25, 2007

Sarawak Politics 2006: 'Wake-Up Call' and 'Withering Dayakism'

Dr Neilson Mersat Ph.D (ANU), M.A. (UKM), B.A. (Hons) (UKM)
Department of Politics and International Relations
Universiti Malaysia Sarawak

The defeat of nine candidates from the Sarawak Barisan Nasional (SBN) coalition in the Sarawak state election held in May 2006 was regarded as a 'wake-up call' for the SBN. SBN was returned to power but with its pride dented. In fact, opposition inroads surprised even those in Sarawak. Prior to the dissolution of the State Legislative Assembly, SBN controlled 61 out of 62 seats. The defeat was, to a certain extent, a humiliation for SBN which has been long known as the bastion for the ruling [federal level] Barisan Nasional coalition in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak. For a component of the SBN, the Sarawak United People Party (SUPP), which lost eight seats to the opposition, it was a disastrous outing. Moreover, four of the defeated candidates were the party's top brass: one minister, one assistant minister, a mayor and a political secretary to the Chief Minister of Sarawak. In fact, SUPP supporters concurred that it was the hardest blow for their party since it was established in 1959. This prompted SUPP's chief, Tan Sri Dr George Chan, to make a public apology to the Chief Minister, Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud and also to the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi for SUPP's dismal performance. George Chan himself won, but with a majority sliced by half. For SUPP leaders, the tremendous decline in support for the party was due to their failure to address several important issues, which affected urban voters. For example, one of SUPP's defeated candidates attributed the party's defeat to the announcement made by the federal government just prior to the state election, regarding the sharp increases in oil prices. Another issue involved landowner concerns over the renewal of sixty-year land leases, mostly in Kuching and Sibu, which were about to expire within the next five years. They were also concerned that they would have to pay a high premium to renew their leases. They even asked for automatic renewal of land leases and that such leases be converted into grants in perpetuity. However, their requests were rejected.

Meanwhile, the 2006 election was considered the best outing so far for the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP). The party was established in Sarawak in 1978 and only managed to make a breakthrough in the Sarawak State Legislative Assembly in 1996 when it won four seats. Support for the party, however, has been far from consistent, and in the 2001 state election the party only managed to win one seat. The electoral swing in the 2006 election meant that the DAP's six seats were now only two seats less than those held by the SUPP. The DAP claimed that it had regained support among urban voters who are predominantly Chinese. The SUPP, however, was subsequently penalized for its poor performance. On 25 September 2006, the Sarawak cabinet made an 'out of the norm' decision by appointing a civil servant to become the mayor of Kuching South City Council, a position which was 'traditionally' given to a SUPP member. The former mayor, Chan Sheng Kai, from SUPP had resigned in June 2006 after he lost to a DAP candidate. Unlike in urban areas, the political landscape in rural areas did not change much. As usual, election candidates capitalized on the Native Customary Rights (NCR) issue with the opposition claiming that the current practice of land development did not really benefit the landowners. However, SBN candidates argued otherwise. Ethnic passions were heightened using so-called 'Dayakism' sentiment to galvanize the Dayak voters. If the election results in the rural constituencies is anything to go by, then one can argue that rural voters remain loyal supporters of SBN except in the constituencies of Engkelili and Ngemah, where the SBN lost. Candidates from Barisan Bersatu Sarawak (BBS), which promised 'to build a new Sarawak', performed badly. SUPP's candidate in Engkelili lost to a candidate from Sarawak National Party (SNAP), while in Ngemah, an independent candidate trounced the SBN candidate from Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS). The two candidates who won against SBN candidates in the Dayak heartland were reportedly contemplating joining BN parties. It is not difficult to understand why they want to join SBN. They need to hook themselves into the patronage networks in order to serve their constituents more effectively. By providing them with those tangible benefits, which are known as 'development projects' (In Iban: projek pemansang), enables elected representatives to sustain their political support.

The significant increase in the number of opposition representatives in the State Legislative Assembly has created an excitement of sorts among the people in Sarawak. The stronger opposition presence was definitely welcomed by those who, for too long, felt that their voices have not been heard in an almost unanimously SBN state assembly. The State Legislative Assembly, which convened in July 2006 was very 'colourful' with nine opposition members representing three opposition parties: one from SNAP, six from DAP, one from Parti Keadilan and one independent. Indeed, the opposition members tried to make their presence felt by raising several issues pertaining to development in Sarawak. The NCR land issue was raised several times. The formerly 'quiet' state legislative assembly is no longer so. For example, all the DAP representatives refused to wear ceremonial dress for the opening ceremony of the State Legislative Assembly attended by the Governor. They claimed that the dress was too expensive and they did not want to burden taxpayers with the expense.

The election also saw an increase in the number of women representatives from two to six. Initially, there was strong opposition to the attempt to increase the number of women candidates among SBN members. For example, when a woman candidate was nominated for the Bekenu seat, she was opposed even by some of her own party supporters, who argued that the geographical nature of that constituency does not allow a woman representative to serve the people. Nonetheless, she managed to pull through and get nominated. She contested and won the seat for SBN.

Apart from the increased number of opposition members in the State Legislative Assembly, the ever-volatile nature of Dayak politics is also making Sarawak politics more exciting. On 25 July 2006, the Registrar of Societies (ROS) rejected the application to register another Dayak-based party, the Malaysian Dayak Congress (MDC). One reason cited by the ROS is that MDC, if approved, might have security implications. The decision by ROS not to register MDC as a political party also surprised many in Sarawak. The party was established and submitted its application to ROS in May 2005. Ironically, the new party claimed to be 'pro-BN' and indicated that they would join BN once registered. Earlier, in their attempt to get the party registered, they had also asked the Prime Minister to intervene and a human rights body, the Malaysia Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM), to help. Nevertheless, their appeals fell on deaf ears. One of the implications of this decision is that Dayak leaders feel that their rights to establish a political party to champion their ethnic group are being denied. This decision might have some far reaching consequences. For example, a significant number of former Parti Bangsa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) supporters are now 'party-less', after they had announced their intention to join MDC once it was registered. Thus, with the rejection of MDC's application, it will be interesting to watch the realignment in Dayak politics especially when the 'party-less' Dayak leaders make their move.

Meanwhile, the newly formed, Dayak-based party, Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), is now facing a leadership crisis. The PRS was formed by former PBDS leaders in 2004 after the PBDS was deregistered. The party was admitted to the BN coalition in 2005. There are two factions in PRS and both claimed to be the rightful group to lead the party. ROS had sent a show cause letter seeking explanation as to why the party should not be deregistered. Prior to that, PRS had agreed to merge with the SPDP. In the words of another PRS leader, the merger would mean the 'empowerment of the rural communities'. Since PRS is in political limbo, the attempt to merge the two parties, PRS and SDPD, which was ostensibly to strengthen the voice of the rural voters, especially the Dayaks, has now been put on the back burner.

While Dayak politics remain volatile, the state leadership remains intact. When Taib Mahmud was sworn in again as the Chief Minister on 26 May 2006, he made a record of sorts by becoming the longest serving Chief Minister in Malaysia. He was appointed in 1981 by his uncle, Tun Abdul Rahman Yaakub, who was then the Chief Minister of Sarawak. This is his seventh term. Surprisingly, the succession issue, which was a 'hot issue' before the state election, no longer takes centre stage. A senior party leader, who was tipped to be his successor, was not even included in Taib Mahmud's new cabinet line-up. What is obvious is that Taib Mahmud is now set to bring Sarawak into the second phase of his 'politics of development'.

Among the rural voters who gave unwavering support to SBN, it is only logical that they should anticipate more intensive rural development, especially under the Ninth Malaysia Plan. Besides, they want to see the slogan 'more seats, more power, more development' (In Iban: mayuh kerusi, mayuh kuasa, mayuh pemansang) materialize. In their attempt to push for more development in the rural areas, several elected representatives from SBN have suggested that the government should propose more development in rural areas, where the actual strength of SBN lies. Of course, such a call is nothing new, as similar calls have been made many times in the past. Whether SBN is going to reciprocate the support they received in the May state election by intensifying more development, as expected by the rural voters, is yet to be seen. There is a lot that needs to be done in the rural areas. Despite having successfully 'leap-frogged' from being one of the three least developed states in Malaysia some twenty years ago, to now being one of the three most developed states, Sarawak has today the fourth highest number of hard core poor after Sabah, Kelantan and Terengganu. The hardcore poverty line in Sarawak is RM482 per month a family.

WATCHPOINT: Points of interest will be how SUPP strategizes to win back the support of urban voters who are predominantly Chinese and how the Abdullah-Mahathir spat in Kuala Lumpur will impact Sarawak politics.

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