Sarawak Election Cast as Referendum on Malaysian PM

Voters in the east Malaysian state of Sarawak go to the polls on May 7 in what is being characterized nationally as a referendum on embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak.

It probably isn’t despite the fact that the Sarawak component of the Barisan Nasional, led by the Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu, or PBB, appears likely to win a renewed mandate. That is partly based on the popularity of Adenan Satem, the 72-year-old chief minister handpicked by the magnificently shady former chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud to replace him.

Adenan, who took office in February 2014, has maneuvered adroitly during his two years in office and is phenomenally popular, partly by appearing to play Sarawak interests off against the national government, according to discouraged opposition figures on the ground although gerrymandering and vote-buying are also going to play a major part.

The largest and arguably the country’s richest state, with oil and gas, timber and oil palm plantations, it has been plundered badly, primarily by friends and family of Taib, who has been exposed as owning hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate in the United States, the UK and Australia. Never one to hide his wealth, Taib often cruises the streets of Kuching, the capital, in the back of his chauffeur- driven Rolls-Royce.

Candidates are to be nominated on April 25, with the 83 members of the Sarawak State Assembly to be elected. More than 1.1 million voters have registered to vote.

“Adenan Satem is new,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based political operative. “He is approachable, he made the right moves on illegal timber felling and is getting loads of concessions from a weak federal government led by Najib, such as a stronger claim to oil royalties – although oil prices have crashed. He is giving greater autonomy for rural development projects and in education – for example the usage of English language in state government matters.”

But, as several sources pointed out, Taib, who has virtually denuded the state of virgin timber through concessions to logging companioes, remains in control behind the scenes. Adenan began his political career 40 years ago as legal advisor to PBB and has remained a party loyalist ever since.

Najib has been under intense scrutiny by international law enforcement agencies in the United States, Switzerland, Singapore, Luxembourg, France and other countries, several of which have opened investigations into money launderng. He has shortstopped all criticism domestically. He insists he has been cleared by the Malaysian attorney general, Mohamed Apandi Ali, of all wrongdoing in the mysterious transfer of US$681 million into his personal accounts.

That exoneration supposedly has been validated by the statement last week of Saudi Arabia’s finance minister, of the source of the money although that statement has been largely discredited by independent news organizations. Nonetheless, Najib is certain to use the Sarawak victory, which looks quite likely, as further justification of his viability in office.

The two East Malaysian states saved Najib’s bacon in the 2013 general election, with the Barisan Nasional delivering 22 seats in Sabah to the opposition’s 3, and 25 – via PBB – in Sarawak to 6 for the opposition even as the Barisan was losing the popular vote in Peninsular Malaysia. Given Adenan’s popularity, it looks likely that the 2016 state vote will keep Sarawak securely in Najib’s camp.

That isn’t solely because of Adenan’s popularity by a long shot. The state has been gerrymandered unmercifully, with Adenan adding 11 new seats last year, with the current 35 seats safe for PBB, an additional five are added to PBB territory, giving PBB a total of 40, two short of the 42 that would give it a majority in the enlarged 82 seat state assembly.

Najib has left nothing to chance. He is reported to be pouring millions of ringgit into the race from a shadow fund that is said to have been generated out of the infamous 1Malaysia Development Bhd. state-backed investment fund. Visa restrictions have been put in the way of the opposition figures from the mainland who have been seeking to go to Sarawak to campaign for local opposition figures.

“Many of them have been barred,” said Cynthia Gabriel, a human rights advocate who heads the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism. “It is a low-down strategy that he has taken. He is trying to win with very undemocratic means.”

In particular, Gabriel said, after pledging to end corruption in the timber industry, Adenan has now made common cause with many of the timber barons. Sarawak Report earlier this week reported that the operations center is the chief minister’s luxury home, from which senior Sarawak United People’s Party – a Barisan component -- members have been seen entering to pick up their share of the cash provided by the tycoons and Najib’s own agent, Bustari Yusof, who arrived with Najib via helicopter last week. The donations are hardly sub rosa. One Barisan campaigner was handing them out on television.