A Bellwether Election in Malaysia

The dissolution of the Sarawak state assembly today, to prepare for statewide polls, is probably the last electoral stop, and the most significant one, before Malaysia holds elections to see if the ruling national coalition can regain its two-thirds hold on the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament.

The newfound power of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, created by 2008 national elections, has been waning in recent months, brought on by intraparty feuding, the long-running sodomy trial of Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim, and continuing pressure from the Barisan Nasional, as the national coalition is known. The state polls, coming after an interminable string of by-elections brought about by death or scandal, are considered by most observers to be the bellwether for the Barisan's performance and could well determine the timing of the next national elections, expected later this year or possibly early the next. The Sarawak polls must be held within 60 days.

Despite an enormous series of scandals involving the long-serving Sarawak chief minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud, the betting is that Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu, which the 73-year-old Taib heads, will once again dominate the state legislature, as Taib has done since 1981. In addition to serving as chief minister, Taib also heads the state finance and planning and resource management ministries.

Although an NGO, the Sarawak Report, has issued a devastating flock of documents delineating the Taib family's wealth in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, the full impact of the extent to which the family has looted the state was brought home recently when Shahnaz Majid, the wife of Taib's 48-year-old son, Abu Bekir Taib, filed suit for divorce in Kuala Lumpur and demanded RM400 million (US$132 million) as her share of assets the couple have amassed since their marriage in 1991. The couple, according to the suit, owns thousands of hectares of land in Sarawak, shares in 15 companies and seven luxury cars including Lamborghini, Ferrari, Bentley and Maserati makes.

However, it's uncertain what kind of impact that will have. Taib in particular has been flaunting his wealth in Sarawak for decades almost to the admiration of many of his constituents.

"The divorce feud, involving huge amounts of money, makes most people in Peninsular Malaysia livid, but the Sarawakians seem okay with all of it, that's the irony or so it seems," a source told Asia Sentinel.

Last Friday, Transparency International Malaysia President Paul Low issued a rare statement saying the international corruption watchdog "views with grave concern the allegations of extraordinary corruption and abuse of power" against Taib and asked members of the public to come forward with "evidence of corruption and misdeeds."

Taib's numerous concurrent positions in Sarawak earn him an official income estimated at RM50,000(US$16,450) a month. On that salary, he has amassed traceable wealth in the hundreds of millions of US dollars.

Allegations detailed by the Sarawak Report show that property in Canada alone owned by the Taib family concerns are valued at more than US$100 million. In another report, the NGO alleged that Taib and his family acquired a huge mansion in a prestigious section of Seattle, Washington, for US$1 in 1991 from Samling, a company belonging to the timber tycoon Yaw Teck Seng, which is one of the biggest logging concerns in Sarawak. Taib controls all the state's timber concessions and hands out the harvesting licenses.

Total Taib family US property holdings are estimated by the Sarawak Report as at least US$80 million. In London, Ridgeford Properties, controlled by the Taibs, owns 210,000 square ft of prime property, which included 66 flats and four penthouses sold between £1,000 and £1,200 per square foot – giving a total value of well over £210 million (US$324.5 million. The second phase of the project, which is due to be completed in 2012, will consist of another 60 flats for sale, making it almost as lucrative as stage one. There are additional properties in Australia, and untold wealth in Sarawak itself.

The allegations have impelled Taib to say he would step down as chief minister after the elections although many observers believe he will rescind that promise if the Barisan does well. Despite the allegations that the chief minister and his family have been looting the state for three decades, the Barisan Nasional, headed by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, has made no move to usher him out the door earlier, or to bring the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency to bear to charge him with accruing u nexpained wealth. In fact, when the widowed Taib remarried a 29-year-old Syrian woman in December, Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, turned up at the wedding reception in Kuching along with 500 other people, many of them dignitaries.

Given the level of scandal and the fact that Taib's government has wrecked much of Sarawak environmentally to take out timber, it ought to be possible for the Pakatan Rakyat, the opposition coalition headed by Anwar Ibrahim, to make serious inroads in the state. But most observers believe it is unlikely. Taib's Parti Pesaka Bumiputersa Bersatu maintains its strong majority in the state parliament through a stranglehold on the large rural vote among the myriad native tribes in the state.

Chinese dominate Sarawak's few cities. And while they have lately voted with the opposition Democratic Action Party, they are considerably outnumbered electorally. In addition, most recently, the opposition has been beset by infighting, with two opposition parties — the Sarawak National Party and Anwar's own Parti Keadilan Rakyat — apparently at odds over apportionment of candidate seat allocations. Edwin Dundang, the president of SNAP, as the Sarawak party is known, charged that Parti Keadilan "greedy" in seeking to increase its constituencies in Sarawak. That has raised the spectacle that the two opposition parties will be competing for the same seats.

In addition, the Barisan Nasional, which holds considerable electoral firepower through its ability to marshal resources such as transporting voters to the polls as well as delivering sudden spates of construction in critical districts.

Star power goes on display on both sides, with ministers and civil service officials and top opposition figures as well suddenly appear in the deepest reaches of Sarawakian jungle. "Instant noodle projects" for schools, roads, bridges and clinics suddenly spring into being. Taib in particular in the past has always shown a remarkable ability to produce the electorate to keep the Barisan in charge.

"Pakatan really needs to win by at least denting Taib's two-thirds majority there. As usual, Kuching, Sibu – the cities with predominant Chinese populations – may go to the DAP, but the rural populations may stay with the Barisan," an UMNO source told Asia Sentinel.

"Personally I think the Barisan will win big in Sarawak if recent trends are anything to go by but having said that, the discontent with Taib as chief minister may be widespread enough, and the people may just collectively feel the same way to be shown on election day. But whatever it is, the Pakatan really needs to win as a huge loss means the op[position is just one step away from annihilation in Peninsular Malaysia as well."