Malaysian Swan Song in Sarawak By-Election

The Sibu by-election in Sarawak on 16 May is a test on several fronts. A win for the Barisan Nasional, which appears likely, would put the Barisan within striking range of taking back its two-thirds majority in the national parliament.

Beyond that is the old rivalry between two sworn enemies – the Sarawak United Political Party for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and the Democratic Action Party for the opposition Pakatan Rakyat banner. As with all of the by-elections that have occurred since the national elections of March 2008, it is being hard fought, even harder perhaps.

As an indication of the importance the government places on the seat, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak recently made a second appearance in Sibu, a picturesque town of about 250,000 people on the upper reaches of the Rajang River, offering his hand of friendship to the Chinese community and proclaiming, "As prime minister, I want to deliver. You can trust me that this government will deliver to the people of Sibu."

He might as well have said, "Trust me. I am a politician."

The people of Sibu must have wondered if Christmas and Gawai, the harvest festival, had come early. The campaign circus has breathed a short-lived booming economy into the town, nestled on the banks of the river. Hotels and restaurants are fully booked. There is free karaoke and beer. Food has been ordered for the various meetings in the longhouses. Election bunting, banners and billboards are everywhere. Boats going up-river are filled to capacity. And best of all politicians are promising building projects, more development and they are signing checks, with the promise of more.

But the reality is far from rosy. There is cyclical flooding, poor infrastructure, a lack of social services, rising prices, declining business and employment. In addition, the people are furious about the mismanagement of resources by Sarawak’s chief minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud, who has run the state since 1981 and has been accused perennially of lining his pockets through resource-extraction companies owned by his family.

When the Chinese Foochow clan settled on the shores of the Rejang at the beginning of the 20th Century, there were visions of agricultural prosperity and trade with the interior. But the dream soon became a disaster. Development was sluggish, just like the boggy marshland surrounding Sibu. Only a handful of hotels, mansions, shopping malls and office blocks owned by the timber giants, thrived.

Improbably, the swan is depicted as the town symbol despite the fact that swans are not a naturally occurring species there or anywhere else in Malaysia. The majority of the community especially its indigenous people, have no strong attachment to this adopted ‘Symbol of Sibu’. They consider the swan too artificial and feel it a reflection of their sentiments for this election.

Therefore, the election will be an interesting test of Barisan Nasional’s ability to reclaim the Chinese votes it lost earlier in the Hulu Selangor by-election on the Malaysian mainland. The constituency has 54,695 voters, of which 66 percent are predominantly Foochow. The other groups are Malay/Melanau (17 percent), Ibans (15 percent) with the remainder from the Bidayuh, Orang Ulu and Indian communities. There are 2,537 postal voters from the police and army personnel at two military camps.

The division of votes between the Sarawak United People’s Party, representing the Barisan, and the opposition Democratic Action Party – both predominantly Chinese -- will indicate the sway in the state elections, expected around mid-2011, which are to play an important role in national politics.

The battle of a political greenhorn, SUPP’s Robert Lau, against the experienced DAP chairman, Richard Wong, is also a fight between rich and poor. Lau’s family is linked to timber, oil palm plantations, printing and newspapers of the KTS group. His political adversary, Wong, hails from a poor family from the outskirts of Sibu and is noted for his crusade against poverty, injustice, and unfairness.

The Barisan has been forecast to win and the DAP would find it difficult to concede defeat. Its members have canvassed for several years, with no payment, unlike their BN counterparts.

Political observers have predicted that the win will come from the conservative Foochow and Iban voters, who continue to believe in the Barisan’s promises for ‘development’, an oft-repeated theme in the last 47 years. Optimism runs high even with little visible progress or development.

Religious issues, like the ban on the word ‘Allah’ are unlikely to influence the electorate. The SUPP has accused the DAP of condoning the formation of an Islamic state with Parti Islam se-Malaysia, and termed them "strange bedfellows" with opposing ideologies. The SUPP party information chief asking, "If they are not hugging together, why did they ask PAS to come and campaign here?"

When the DAP advisor, Lim Kit Siang invited the Sibu SUPP chief, Wong Soon Koh to a public debate about the Islamic state issue, the offer was declined. SUPP’s Wong was then accused of ‘shying away’ and received a stinging rebuke, "If he truly believes that a vote for DAP is a vote for PAS and an Islamic state, then why is he running away? It shows that he has a lot to hide."

Ironically, threats by the Sarawak CID chief to use the Internal Security Act (ISA) in the 'Allah' issue have inadvertently led to greater discussion of the ban and more resentment against Umno.

At the Tua Pek Kong temple, Najib became the first prime minister to attend a celebration in honor of a Chinese deity. Roads around the temple were repaved for his visit. It is not only the Prime Minister who is trying hard to appeal, using religious sentiment. DAP leaders were already assembled at the temple an hour before the procession started. Even Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was to make an appearance in this four-day celebration.

The crowd was instructed to give thunderous applause to the prime minister. When Najib and his entourage, which included the BN candidate, arrived 10 minutes before the start of the procession, they were quickly ushered into the temple to unveil a plaque and pose for a photo. Within minutes, Najib was whisked away, to his next stop, a church.

When addressing the Christian leaders, Najib promoted his 1Malaysia slogan as being "the only spirit and philosophy that can hold this country together". He added that, "There is no reason why Muslims and Christians cannot work together under the spirit of 1Malaysia". One couldn’t help noticing the cooperation between his opponents, the DAP and PAS, to achieve unity.

Najib handed RM18 million in financial assistance to 65 Chinese schools and told the people in Sibu to trust his leadership. That included RM10 million for Chinese primary schools, RM5 million for Chinese independent secondary schools and RM3 million for Christian missionary schools.

We will honor our promises," Najib told the crowd. "We don't need the DAP. We are already solving the flood problems in Sibu."

He then took a swipe at the opposition, saying that people "can promise many things, but they can also hoodwink the people. As prime minister, I want to deliver. And trust me, I shall definitely deliver to the people of Sibu."

Najib sought to address the rural poor have who lost their farms and their ancestral Native Customary Rights (NCR) to plantations, timber companies and hydro-electric dams. These people resettled in the shanty communities around Sibu, which lack clean water and electricity. If they had hoped to find employment, education and health care, they only found menial work in massage parlors, coffee shops or construction sites. For many, their longhouse traditions have been replaced by squalor, despair and alcohol.

Local issues and practical considerations are paramount. Money politics is willingly repaid with votes. The people are not as concerned with corruption, anti-racism, good governance, transparency, accountability, clean elections, justice, care of the elderly or social reform. For them, issues of material development and livelihood take precedence.

So in the end, the tiny minority of well-informed Malaysians with access to the alternative media, who are politically aware, who will vote for better governance, individual liberties and progressive policies, will be just that, a minority. They will not make a difference.

Najib appealed to the Chinese to support BN and vote for SUPP's Robert Lau: "Please, I help you, you help me. That way we have a very fair and happy relationship". His words remind us of the phrase "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." Did that plea signal the swan song for the DAP?