Malaysia's Ruling Coalition Loses a Sarawak Race

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak's 1Malaysia campaign, designed to bring the country's three main ethnic groups back together and abate racial tension, suffered a setback Sunday when Chinese voters in the Sarawak town of Sibu deserted the national ruling coalition to narrowly elect a candidate to Parliament from the opposition Democratic Action Party.

Najib had made three trips to the town of Sibu, some 50 km up the Rajang River from the coast, and offered a cornucopia of goodies including RM18 million in financial assistance to 65 Chinese schools in what was called the most intensive campaign in the district's history as the Barisan sought to win back the seat. That included RM10 million for Chinese primary schools, RM5 million for Chinese independent secondary schools and RM3 million for Christian missionary schools. Government workers repaved roads in an attempt to woo voters.

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 blogger, however, wrote that Najib should just have abandoned the Chinese voters in Sibu and spent the education and development funds on poor rural voters, who are mostly other ethnic groups than the majority Chinese.

Indeed, on Monday Najib was asked about a controversial bid he had made for Sibu voters, saying he would deliver RM5 million in flood mitigation money for the city, which is perennially subjected to floods, if they would vote for the Barisan candidate, Robert Lau. That kicked off an uproar in the district, with the opposition charging Najib with attempting to "blackmail" voters with the offer and asking the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate,

On Monday, asked by a flock of reporters if he would refuse to deliver the flood control funds, he answered: "We'll have to see first because we haven't made a decision on that."

In the end, despite the efforts by Najib and a host of other major Barisan leaders, the voters picked DAP chairman Richard Wong Ho Leng by 398 votes over the Sarawak United People's Party's Robert Lau, whose family is linked to timber, oil palm plantations, printing and newspapers of the KTS group. The National Front has now lost eight of 11 by-elections since national polls in March of 2008 cost the coalition its two-thirds majority in the parliament for the first time since the country became independent.

Both parties in Sibu are predominantly Chinese. Well-to-do Chinese voters, however, appear to have abandoned the SUPP en masse. The SUPP appears to have done relatively well in rural, poor areas and among other ethnic groups. The constituency has 54,695 voters, of which 66 percent are predominantly Foochow settlers. The other groups are Malay/Melanau (17 percent), Ibans (15 percent) with the remainder from the Bidayuh, Orang Ulu and Indian communities. Turnout was relatively low, with only 69.32 percent of the voters turning up at the polls.

The Barisan Nasional had been expected to win the seat, which would have brought the coalition closer to reclaiming its two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat, or national parliament. But, combined with a narrower-than-expected win on April 28 in a northeastern Selangor by-election, which split along racial lines with Malay votes going to the Barisan candidate and the Chinese largely abandoning him, the two elections appear to mean Najib is having problems not only healing racial divisions in the country but pulling voters back into the ethnic parties that make up the components of the Barisan. It takes 148 votes and the Barisan now has 136 but the allegiance of several undecided members against 77 for the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition.

The DAP was said to have made major headway in Sibu by giving widespread publicity to a controversy unleashed in Kuala Lumpur last year when the government banned the use of the word "Allah" by the Catholic Christian Herald as a substitute for the Christian word for God. Despite a threat by Sarawak police to charge them with sedition, DAP campaign workers used the affair to devastating effect, SUPP leaders claimed.

SUPP President George Chan Hong Nam told reporters that the issue, plus claims by the opposition that Bibles had been burned in Peninsular Malaysia, played a major role the DAP win.

"The tide turned against us because the opposition used such controversial and sensitive issues," Chan was quoted as saying in the Kuala Lumpur-based daily The Star, "We (the SUPP) were not prepared to answer such allegations because we never encountered such religious problems in the state. We were overwhelmed by the issues they brought up."

Despite Chan's assertion that the DAP was bringing race into the election, the SUPP itself attempted to use religion as an issue, accusing the DAP of condoning the formation of an Islamic state with Parti Islam se-Malaysia, and termed them "strange bedfellows" with opposing ideologies.

One of the big questions is what the loss means for the long-serving Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, who has been accused for decades of looting the state's plentiful timber and other resources. The DAP has set its sights on Taib in the next state general election, which must be held in Sarawak in 2011. Thus the Sibu race has been regarded as a barometer for the state race.

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