Home 2006: 4 Political tsunami in Sarawak

Political tsunami in Sarawak

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Philip Khoo examines how the opposition managed to make sharp inroads in the May 2006 Sarawak state elections, which saw an ethnic Chinese revolt and the neutering of the Dayaks.

The 2006 Sarawak state elections marked the abject end of an era that began so gloriously thirty years earlier. But does it mark the opening of a new era in Sarawak politics?

Thirty years ago, in 1974, a largely rural and Iban electoral revolt shook Sarawak. The then opposition Sarawak National Action Party (SNAP) won 48 per cent of the popular vote, taking 18 of the 48 seats in the State Assembly.

This year, 2006, a shock revolt came from an unexpected quarter. An urban and largely Chinese electoral revolt handed a huge "surprise" birthday gift to the leader of the Sarawak Barisan Nasional (BN) and long-standing chief minister of 26 years, Abdul Taib Mahmud.

The combined opposition of the DAP, SNAP, the yet-to-be-registered Malaysian Dayak Congress (MDC), and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), won eight of the 69 contested seats in the 71-seat State Assembly, taking 33 per cent of the popular vote.

The scale of the revolt can be seen more clearly if we look only at the seats contested by the DAP, that is the urban and largely Chinese seats. In 2001, the DAP obtained just 27 per cent of the votes in the seats it contested, winning only one of them. This time, it obtained a whopping 53 per cent of the votes in the seats it contested, winning six of them.

In several seats, there was a complete reversal of positions, with the DAP getting the percentage of votes the BN obtained in 2001. The same happened with the PKR’s sole winner, Dominique Ng, in Padungan, Kuching, which the BN won in 2001 with 52 per cent of the vote, and lost this time with 45 per cent of the vote.

Decline in BN vote

Overall, there was an average 5 per cent decline in the percentage of votes going to the BN. In Chinese majority seats (seats in which Chinese comprised more than 50 per cent of the electorate), there was an average 19 per cent decline. Bidayuh and Iban majority seats saw an average 4 per cent decline, and mixed constituencies averaged a 6 per cent decline. Only in Malay-Melanau constituencies did the BN hold their position with an average 2 per cent increase in the votes they garnered. But even this was not without its hiccups, as with the huge 14 and 12 per cent declines in the Sadong Jaya and Saribas seats.

Nineteen seats saw a decline of more than 10 per cent in the proportion of votes going to the BN. Eight of these were Chinese majority seats, three were Malay, two Bidayuh, four Iban, one Orang Ulu and one mixed. Of these, one each of the Chinese, Malay, Iban and Orang Ulu seats – a total of four – was due to local factors affecting the contest. The others can be attributed to a mix of local and larger reasons.

On top of this, there was also an average 4 per cent decline in the voter turnout. As the 2006 electoral rolls had been somewhat pruned and “cleaned” relative to the 2001, the actual decline was probably significantly larger. It would be hazardous, however, to interpret this significant decline in voter turnout as, for example, disillusionment with the meaningfulness of voting.

Incidentally, one of the mixed seats, Muara Tuang, the former seat of one-time heir apparent Adenan Satem, but given to first-timer and brother of the chief minister, Muhammad Ali Mahmud, saw a drop of almost 9 per cent in the BN proportion of the vote, and a large decline in the absolute number. This is worth mentioning because at least one of the mainstream media gave prominence to his obtaining the largest number of votes. In fact, the largest number of votes, by a wide margin, was obtained by the young DAP newcomer, Violet Yong, in the Pending seat in Kuching, defeating state assistant minister, Sim Kheng Hui, scion of one of Kuching’s best known families.

Why the revolt?

Numerous commentaries on the causes of this revolt have attributed it to concerns, even anger, over fuel price hikes, renewal of leasehold titles and premiums, and internal squabbling within the BN parties. Surprisingly, none referred to the diesel crisis, which severely affected Sarawak and caused much anger.

All these played a role. But they don’t account for the scale – and locations – of the revolt. For instance, fuel price hikes cut even deeper in the rural areas; in more accessible rural areas, petrol – for outboard motors – has gone up to RM15 a gallon. Moreover, the Sarawak electorate is aware that fuel price hikes are not the fault of the state government, and the Sarawak electorate is, if anything, fiercely parochial on federal-state matters. Similarly, land rights and land issues loom even larger in rural areas and were expected to feature prominently. But it hardly seemed to matter there.

The reason for the revolt, from a small sampling of voters, indeed from some quarters of the BN itself, was governance, or rather the chief minister – the missing elephant in the commentaries in the mainstream media.

The craven mainstream media were happy to lash out at the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), which contested the seats that the BN lost. But they made little or no reference to issues of the interactions between the BN parties – or, more accurately, between the leader of the BN-cum-chief minister and the BN parties – the state of governance and the economy, corruption, nepotism and the apparently incestuous ties between politics and business. This larger unhappiness was easily linked to the more local one of expiring land leases and renewal premiums, or even the state of local municipal services.

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Viewed thus, the revolt may well be due to the dashed hopes stirred up by Abdullah Badawi’s stop-start reform campaign and the DAP’s warning about how critical the next five years – probably the last for the present chief minister – would be.

That the revolt should have been in urban, largely Chinese constituencies, particularly in Kuching, rather than in rural ones, becomes understandable.

In rural areas, the so-called “politics of development” is in fact the politics of fear of deprivation and the politics of disempowerment. The great success of this “politics of development” has been to convince rural voters that they are totally dependent upon government, even for goods and services they used to provide for themselves. Selective withdrawal of services and projects when an area votes the “wrong” way has served to drive home the point.  

Furthermore, the reach of governance, good or bad, into the rural areas is highly mediated in the form of the local district office, the local school and the local health clinic – all essential services upon which they are highly dependent. Governance seemingly has little to do with their economic conditions – other than in the form of fertiliser subsidies and small pepper and cocoa schemes. The timber companies have a much greater impact on their incomes and their economic conditions. When all else fails, they fall back on land and subsistence economies.

In contrast, the urban areas see the impact of governance over a much broader range and feel its economic impact more directly. Employment and economic opportunities are dependent upon governance and the policies and actions of the governors. There are also few fallback options.

"Enough is enough"

For years now, coffee shop black humour has glossed CMS, one of Sarawak’s most prominent companies and one linked to the chief minister’s family, as Chief Minister & Sons. Its interests range from cement and steel to construction and finance – and that isn’t the full measure of its network of linked companies. It has always been taken as emblematic of the concentration of wealth and power and of the ties between politics and business.

When times were good, this was accepted as in the nature of politics, as long as there were enough “goodies” to go around. Moreover, it then appeared that SUPP had substantial power behind the throne, controlling the state finance and infrastructure ministries – the one in charge of the state’s substantial revenue and reserves, the other in charge of the state’s largest budget item. But the last cabinet re-shuffle in 2004 was an apparent demotion for the SUPP, with further concentration of the most important ministries in the chief minister and/or his closest associates. As it was, the chief minister was already in control of the most important ministry, namely Resource Planning, with power over forests, land and surveys, and the state planning agency. The reshuffle gave him the finance ministry as well.

This time, combined with a lack-lustre economy, rocketing housing prices, impending expiry of land leases, etc., it took fire with the slogan originally made famous by the DAP – “enough is enough”. As one voter put it, “There will be nothing left to save in five years’ time!”

While not apparent – definitely not in the overall GDP figures – the Sarawak economy has not been performing well since the late 1990s. At first, it could be attributed to the financial crisis. But as that faded, blame began to be assigned elsewhere.

Sarawak’s economic diversification has not gone very well. Manufacturing may appear to be replacing timber as a major sector, but the manufacturing remains very much timber-based, with timber-based industries accounting for half the employment but barely more than 10 per cent of the value-added. Lower level jobs in these industries do not pay well and a large proportion goes to foreign workers prepared to work at low wages of RM8-12 a day. Meanwhile, the most lucrative employment, in timber extraction, has been declining with dwindling timber resources.

The other major attempt at diversification, plantation agriculture, also does not provide remunerative employment and, again, is dominated by foreign labour. Moreover, other than the big boys, few have investment opportunities in this activity.

As a result, there is a substantial grey economy, ranging from illegal logging, complete with in-forest processing mills, to smuggling, exemplified by the phrase “four-for-ten”, or four tins of beer for RM10.

But while this grey economy, especially illegal logging and timber processing, may provide some monetary benefits to some rural Dayaks, most urbanites, especially those in Kuching, have little access to it – other than the cheap beer and cigarettes.

This then was the context for the revolt.

Land rights not an issue?

But what about the rural vote? Do the results in the rural areas mean that land rights are not an issue, as the BN insists?

The answer to that is both “yes, it is not an issue” and “no, it is an issue”. “Yes” as far as impacting on voting behaviour is concerned; “no” as the issue remains the hottest issue around.

Part of the reason why it is not an issue impacting on rural voting behaviour has been covered earlier, the politics of disem-powerment. To that should be added a couple of considerations.

There hasn’t been much grassroots organising around the issue. It crops up as one or another community or area meets up with the problem and attempts to resolve it severally and locally. This has been compounded by the positions adopted by Dayak political leaders, including those in the now-defunct PBDS, as well as the near supine state of the Dayak parties, a condition to which they have been reduced by clever management on the part of the state leaders and self-inflicted injuries on the part of the Dayak leaders themselves.

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Added to this is the fact that rural Dayak communities in Sarawak are generally extremely peaceable and non-violent, notwithstanding the history regaled in tourist brochures. Thus far, they have chosen to take their fights to the court system, the occasional peaceful blockade notwithstanding. For that, we can only be grateful, and hope that they are not pushed to the limit of their tolerance; we have seen what can then happen as in Niah seven years ago.

In addition, there is also the very local context. The reach of state enforcement is limited. In more remote rural areas, people continue to be able to open up new land and gain de facto acceptance of that situation. Furthermore, the levels of compensation acceptable to low income rural communities is ridiculously low measured by the economic gains to be obtained from taking over the land. While people may complain, the fact of payment and its receipt helps to blunt the edge of the matter.

All this notwithstanding, it would be the height of foolishness and irresponsibility to read the results as indicating that the land issue, with the neutering of Dayak parties, is now a matter of the past.

Free and fair?

Two matters remain to be considered:
1.    Do the results of the Sarawak state elections of 2006 prove that they were free and fair and that there can be democracy in one-party electoral democracies, as columnist John Teo in the New Straits Times would have it, and
2.    Is this the beginning of a new era?

Free and fair elections cannot be read backwards from the outcome to the process. In this instance, the outcome was itself a revolt against the process.

As for the process, a few points should suffice.

First, there is the question of representation and the equality of the vote. Much is often made of the huge gap in the size of constituencies. In the case of Sarawak, two comparisons alone are sufficient: the difference in size of the Satok and Padungan, and Satok and Telang Usan constituencies.

Situated next to one another in the city of Kuching, Satok, a Malay-majority constituency, has only 10,835 registered voters, while Padungan, a Chinese-majority constituency, has 24,512 registered voters. Meanwhile, Telang Usan, the constituency covering the bulk of the massively rural Baram River basin, the size of the state of Perak, has 12,793 voters. Fair?

Second, there is the massive abuse of government resources for party political advantage. Travel along some rivers, and you will see new shiny spandex roofing after years of rusted corrugated iron. But the most dramatic and blatant example of this was the substantial increase in the allowances of almost 5,000 village and longhouse headmen, back-dated to March 1, payable at the end of May. Regardless of the justice of this, this federal government decision  unfairly assisted the caretaker BN government during the elections.

Third, there are the well-known threats, backed up by actions in the past. Given the system of counting, the choice of virtually every longhouse and village is known, and villages and longhouses known to vote the “wrong” way are deprived of programmes and projects. The most recent example of this was in the by-elections for Ba’Kelalan, following the death of its well-regarded state assemblyman. A village had been identified to be a rural growth centre. It voted the “wrong” way. The planned project was cancelled. Free?

Only in the undemocratic sense of freedom to choose, but no freedom after choice!

Fourthly, besides overt vote buying, engaged in by both BN and some opposition politicians, there are the subtler – and even more effective – inducements. An instance of this is an area where the incumbent promised to pay a substantial amount per “door” in the longhouses in any polling district in his constituency should they deliver 100 per cent of the votes. Needless to say, few won the prize, but it wasn’t for lack of trying!

Lastly, the corruption of the whole process has become so institutionalised that voters now are known to solicit the sale of their votes to the highest bidder! However, in one case where there were reports of this, the incumbent BN candidate saw his percentage of the vote fall by 19 per cent.

A new era?

Finally, is this the beginning of a new era?

Much depends on how the opposition parties read the results and even more on their capacity to forge an effective coalition – or at least an alliance – and to draw in capable and credible candidates over the next five years.

The parties to watch are the DAP and the yet-to-be-registered MDC.

SNAP is largely a spent force, broken from within and without, with few credible leaders left. PKR is, unfortunately, unlikely to make much headway with its assigned or self-imposed constituency, the Malay-Melanau communities. Notwithstanding the high levels of poverty in some of these communities and significant levels of unhappiness with the current state leadership, these communities have been the major beneficiaries of state and federal largesse, policy and practice, and now dominate the civil service and government, despite being less than 30 per cent of the state’s population.

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On its first excursion, its candidates forced to contest under SNAP’s banner, the MDC performed creditably. The single seat attributed to SNAP, Engkilili, was in fact won by an MDC candidate. Its pro-tem president did well against an incumbent state assistant minister in the difficult terrain of Batang Ai, garnering almost 45 per cent of the votes.

Another of its candidates, the well-known land rights lawyer, Baru Bian, took it down to the wire with his BN opponent in the equally difficult terrain of Ba’Kelalan. Ultimately, he lost because of the promise, harped on since before the campaign proper from the Governor down, of a road to the Ba’Kelalan highlands in the Ninth Malaysia Plan. People were afraid that if they didn’t vote the BN candidate, the road would be withdrawn. Their only link to town is either an unpredictable rural air service or a logging road dependent on continued logging operations, a situation which makes obtaining diesel or petrol, and other household goods difficult, uncertain and costly.

But the MDC suffers from organisational shortcomings and, given its creditable performance, may never be registered. Its application for registration has been pending for over a year. In contrast, the SNAP breakaway, the Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party, SPDP, was registered in under a week and just as quickly admitted into the BN. The Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) breakaway, the Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), was also registered in double-quick time and just as quickly admitted into the BN.

Thus, much will depend upon the Sarawak DAP, which is somewhat independent of its parent party in the peninsula. It has finally found dramatic acceptance amongst the urban Sarawak electorate. Its campaign showed imagination. Its focus on how critical the next five years would be – dramatised as the dangerous last five years of the present chief minister – drove home the fundamental issue of governance to an electorate increasingly frustrated by political and economic monopolies.

Can the DAP see its way to forging a coalition with the rural Dayak electorate and strengthening its support with the urban Dayak electorate, the latter an increasingly sizeable one? Without this, there will be many Chinese voters who are probably already balking at what they have wrought, fearful that the rump SUPP will mean further exclusion of the Chinese from political power and influence – and who will therefore return support to the SUPP in the hope of a more secure foothold in government. An emergent coalition will change that equation and may well give courage to those Malay-Melanau voters who are also fed-up with the state BN.

In the urban and semi-urban context, the DAP evidently has leaders with the capacity to win Dayak, specifically Iban, support.

One of the DAP candidates, Chiew Chiu Sing in Kidurong, Bintulu, won with significant Dayak support, winning as much as half of the Iban and a fair percentage of Malay-Melanau votes. He not only won, but increased his margin despite the BN’s targeting the seat for recapture. Another, Stephen Lu in Dudong, Sibu, came agonisingly close to winning, again with substantial support from the Iban and a fair proportion of the Malay and Melanau voters.

How much of a voice they will have in the aftermath of this successful outing is yet to be seen. A DAP with a vision could do much worse than learn from their experience.

But much also depends upon the capacity of the Dayaks to shake off the politics of fear and to recover a sense of independence and self-reliance, to recover some of the spirit that powered SNAP a generation ago.

Despite the seemingly unpromising results of the elections, there is a subterranean movement that may, as with the urban Chinese electorate this time around, suddenly reach a tipping point, driven by a tectonic shift in Dayak society. The source: the rapid and accelerating urbanisation of the Dayak population. In an urban context, the negative politics of fear of deprivation will have little caché. Add to this the seemingly unending, and unseemly squabbles of Dayak politicians and political parties in the BN, and the alienation that is already present may translate into votes.

Last, but not least, are developments within the BN. The federal BN has shown its capacity for renewal and a capacity to shift with the times. While hardly moribund, the problem facing the state BN is that of succession following the 26-year rule of one man.

Given the nature of Malaysian politics, the successor will have to come from the Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) and will most likely have to be a Malay or Melanau Muslim. However, in the manipulative, if undoubtedly able, shadow of the chief minister, potential successor after potential successor has come and gone. There is now no one in sight with the stature to command the respect and regard of his peers and the people. Add to this the somewhat sorry and semi-supine condition of the Dayak parties and the current state of the Chinese-based SUPP, pushed to take the blame for the BN losses, which, as argued above, should properly be seen as a consequence of the interaction of the BN parties and virtual one-man rule.

These are indeed interesting times in Sarawak.

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