Democratisation beckons even in Sarawak, where Muslim Melanau strongmen have held sway for a few decades. As civil society and access to information expands, it could trigger a tsunami big enough to sweep away not only these strongmen but also the entire Sarawak BN, predicts Faisal S Hazis.
During the first seven years of Malaysia, Sarawak was in a state of turmoil due to the strained relationship between federal and state leaders.
When the first Sarawak Chief Minister, Stephen Kalong Ningkan, pursued regional interests at the expense of the federation, federal leaders came down hard on the Sarawak National Party (SNAP) president by removing him via a constitutional coup not unlike what occurred recently in Perak except that it involved the declaration of an emergency in the state. Ningkan was replaced by another more pliant Iban leader, Tawi Sli, from Parti Pesaka Anak Sarawak (Pesaka). But being pliant, he lacked the leadership qualities that were needed to restore political stability in Sarawak.
To resolve this “problem”, the Malaysian regime co-opted Muslim Melanau elites, namely Abdul Rahman Yakub (1970-1981) and later Abdul Taib Mahmud (1981-present), paving the way for an unprecedented 39 years of Sarawak Barisan Nasional (SBN) government but via Muslim Melanau strongman rule.
Federal leaders’ interests
The federal leaders’ co-optation of the Muslim Melanau elite was aimed at cajoling and pressuri-sing Sarawak society in order to maintain the federal govern-ment’s presence and interests there. As an extension of the federal government, the local Muslim Melanau elite were expected to fulfill the core demands of the federal leaders as a prerequisite to their continued support. Although there was no written document stipulating the political pact between the federal and state leaders in Sarawak, the political crisis that engulfed the state during the administration of the two early Iban Chief Ministers indirectly spelt out the federal leaders’ core demands that any Sarawak Chief Minister ought to meet.
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Among these demands were:
- to safeguard national interests,
- to maintain Malay/Muslim political dominance,
- to ensure the ruling party’s continued dominance of state and parliamentary elections,
- to transfer the rights to extract the state’s natural resources to the federal government, and
- to provide political stability.
Throughout Rahman Yakub and Taib Mahmud’s administration, these Muslim Melanau elites religiously fulfilled all of these demands in order to acquire federal government endorsement of their leadership.
Once these Muslim Melanau (MM) elites acquired federal endorsement, they were accorded a certain degree of autonomy to control Sarawak’s society and the state’s rich resources. With this freedom, these MM elites gradually transformed themselves into powerful local strongmen who ruled Sarawak with an iron fist. Between 1970 and 1981, Rahman commandingly strengthened his ruling party’s position (Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu – PBB) in Sarawak and built up his image as a wealthy and powerful leader.
The Rahman era
As a political strongman, Rahman was able to achieve this feat by using a combination of repressive and accommodative measures. One of the strategies used by Rahman was to weaken SNAP and the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), both component parties of the Sarawak Barisan Nasional (SBN). In the case of SNAP, Rahman was responsible for removing the party’s senior leader, James Wong, who was also the strongman’s staunchest critic, by detaining him under the Internal Security Act (ISA). With Wong out of the picture, Rahman paved the way for new SNAP leaders such as Dunstan Endawie, Leo Moggie and Daniel Tajem to helm the party. These new SNAP leaders were more supportive of Rahman’s leadership, which amplified his authority within the coalition government. Rahman further weakened SNAP’s influence in Sarawak by fielding PBB candidates in Dayak-majority seats thus reducing SNAP’s representation in the Council Negeri (State Legislative Assembly) and parliament.
Rahman’s approach in quelling the influence of SUPP was more confrontational as compared to his dealings vis-à-vis SNAP. Disappointed with the SUPP leaders’ constant criticism of his leadership, Rahman adopted two aggressive measures to subdue the Chinese-dominated party. First, Rahman refused to appoint SUPP leaders who were critical of his leadership to the Sarawak cabinet. Instead, Rahman appointed junior SUPP leaders who were not even endorsed by their party to assume Sarawak cabinet posts. Second, Rahman weakened SUPP by allowing the Democratic Action Party (DAP) to spread its wings into Sarawak. The opposition DAP’s presence in the state thus quelled SUPP’s influence within the Chinese community.
Apart from imposing his authority in PBB and the SBN, there were two other measures undertaken by Rahman in order to buttress his position in Sarawak. First, by transforming PBB into the most formidable force within the SBN and second, by establishing a network of political-economic clients through timber politics and electoral patronage. By strengthening PBB, Rahman used the Muslim Bumiputera dominated party as a vehicle to build his power base within the ruling coalition and also among Sarawak’s population at large. The establishment of a network of clients through timber politics and electoral patronage further fortified Rahman’s power, enabling him to form political alliances and to dominate Sarawak elections for over a decade. As a result, Rahman was able to bring ‘order’ and ‘stability’ to the former fiefdom of the Brookes, outperforming his two non-Muslim Iban predecessors who had failed to achieve the same goals during the formative years of Malaysia.
The political dominance of the MM Bumiputera strongmen-politicians continued to prevail after the retirement of Rahman in 1981 when another influential MM elite, Abdul Taib Mahmud, was appointed to succeed him. In his first seven years in office, Taib’s leadership was seriously tested by Rahman who was paradoxically responsible for Taib’s ascendancy in Sarawak politics. The uncle-nephew conflict was not only personal in nature; it was actually a struggle between two powerful strongmen who were each trying to wrest control of Sarawak’s rich natural resources and the state bureaucracy. Occupying the state’s highest political office, Taib was able to out-manoeuvre Rahman despite the latter’s formidable influence and wealth.
With a combination of the sacking of many community leaders who supported Rahman, the revocation of timber licenses owned by Rahman’s family and supporters and accommodative measures (the co-optation of formerly pro-Rahman assemblymen), Taib was able to subdue his political enemies and build new alliances within the SBN, thus allowing him to survive the most testing period of his long authoritarian rule in Sarawak. After 1987, Taib successfully consolidated Sarawak’s electorate as evident from the SBN’s domineering performance in both state and parliamentary elections throughout the 1990s and the new millennium.
Since 1981, Taib has effectively performed the role of the federal state’s representative by religiously fulfilling its demands. In return, federal leaders have endorsed Taib’s leadership along with granting him a high degree of autonomy which has allowed Taib the strongman to dominate Sarawak’s society and its rich resources. Apart from securing the endorsement of federal leaders, Taib has employed two key strategies in ensuring the continuity of his Rajah-like rule in Sarawak.
First, the Muslim Melanau strongman has resorted to the use of development goodies as a tool to cajole and pressure the electorate. After more than three decades of politicising development, the SBN has successfully embedded the culture of developmentalism in Sarawak society, making it almost impossible for any opposition party – which does not have access to these political “goods” – to unseat the ruling coalition. Paradoxically, this ‘politics of development’ has triggered a wave of contestation by a small number of Malay and Dayak groups who have criticised the ruling coalition’s development policies as being urban-biased and crony-centred. The importance of “development politics” in Sarawak is thus likely to persist for decades to come as development achievement in the state is still lacking. And as long as development achievement is scarce, development would remain a priceless “commodity” which the ruling party will effectively exploit as a tool to remain in power.
Second, Taib has exploited the large Sarawak civil service as a tool of extensive social control given its ability to reach into every small district in the state. Apart from that, Taib has also utilised the Sarawak civil service as a source of patronage for his cronies, clients and the people of Sarawak by providing them employment and access to state resources. Furthermore, the civil service, known locally as perentah, has long been a highly respected institution among Sarawakians especially the Muslim Bumiputera. This has further enhanced its capability as a tool of social penetration and control. Consequently, the civil service has proven to be a highly effective tool of domination compared to the PBB. Although the Muslim Bumiputera PBB has grown stronger under Taib’s rule (with 71 divisional offices, 1,095 branch offices and 226,346 registered members), it still lacks the financial resources and the manpower to effectively bind the scattered population of Sarawak. Moreover, the PBB, just like any other political party, normally becomes “active” only during election periods. The seasonal-nature of PBB thus has impeded any attempt to exploit the party as a vehicle of social control within Sarawak’s society.
This conjuncture in Sarawak between the federal government and the two MM strongmen has over the years generated significant change among the population. Within the Muslim Bumiputera community, the most significant change affecting them after 1970 has been their increased support towards the ruling party. Prior to the co-optation of the MM Bumiputera elites, the electorate was deeply divided with Muslim Bumiputeras supporting either Parti Negara Sarawak (PANAS) and Barisan Rakyat Jati Sarawak (BARJASA), the non-Muslim Bumiputera rallying behind Pesaka and SNAP, while the Chinese were divided between SUPP and Sarawak Chinese Association (SCA). However, the MM elites who later became the strongmen of Sarawak successfully cajoled the electorate towards the SBN , transforming the state into one of the BN’s bastions.
No absolute domination
This domination, however, has not been absolute. The Chinese electorate would every now and then switch their ‘loyalty’ to the opposition DAP, depending on the issues at play. In the 2006 election, for example, the Chinese overwhelmingly gave their support to the opposition, with the DAP winning six seats while Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) secured one seat. The non-Muslim Bumiputera community, on the other hand, is less inclined to vote for the opposition, as compared to their Chinese counterparts. Only in the 1987 and 1991 elections did the non-Muslim Bumiputera resist the ruling party by voting the then in opposition PBDS which was involved in the failed attempt (along with Rahman Yakub) to unseat the Chief Minister. The Muslim Bumiputera are generally aligned to the SBN but there are a small number of them who have resisted the ruling party’s dominance by supporting the opposition.
To these non-conformists, various factors have influenced their political choices with inequitable development as the major source of contention. Apart from that, other sources of resistance have been ethno-nationalism and the struggle for democracy which is still at its infancy. These two factors along with other localised issues (especially land related matters) have continued to challenge the ruling coalition and the MM strongmen’s attempt to dominate Sarawak’s multi-ethnic society. Thus, despite the federal government’s success in dominating Sarawak, it is imperative to note that its domination is not absolute even among the relatively docile Muslim Bumiputera.
The federal government’s strategy to rely on the MM strongmen have generated change not only in society but also in the federal government itself. To accommodate the strongmen, the federal government has been forced to transfer some of its power to these influential individuals who have exploited the state’s resources and agencies to maintain their dual positions. As a result, the federal government’s agenda and policies have also been compromised while malpractices such as corruption and abuse of power are rampant. Some of the signs of government weaknesses are the failure of its development policies in bringing equitable growth to Sarawak’s multi-ethnic society; the widespread practice of money politics during elections; the supremacy of regionalism and localism over national issues and democratic idealism; and the widespread public perception of corruption among state leaders.
Still, it is unlikely that the MM strongmen’s rule is going to be a permanent feature of Sarawak politics. Various forces are likely to diminish the role of this powerful institution. Although responsible for elevating and sustaining the MM strongmen of Sarawak, the extensive power of the Federal government could effectively halt this arrangement arbitrarily for whatever reasons that they deem fit. One of the ways federal leaders could displace these MM strongmen is to establish UMNO in Sarawak. Once established, PBB would be dissolved via assimilation into UMNO. The formation of Sarawak UMNO would definitely cripple the power of Muslim Melanau leaders who would lose their hitherto independent political platform (i.e. PBB) to exercise their regional power. And the rule of the Muslim Melanau strongmen in Sarawak would certainly be ended if the federal government is led by Pakatan Rakyat (PR), which has promised to reserve the Sarawak Chief Ministership to the Iban community.
The transformation of Sarawak’s society, especially the emergence of the middle class, will also play a significant role in eroding the institution of local strongmen. Like colonial-era elites, the middle class has the potential to challenge the political dominance of local strongmen through their active participation in civil society and electoral politics. Today, civil society in Sarawak is dormant except for the active engagement of local and international environmental groups which are fighting for the land and ancestral heritage of Penans and other indigenous groups. This absence of a vibrant civil society in Sarawak is likely to be resolved as the state’s pool of middle class grows and begins to assert itself as a pressure group.
As well, the local MM strongmen would not be able to continue dominating Sarawak politics as time passes as the public’s access to alternative information especially through the advent of information communication technology grows. When the control of information is shattered, the abuse of power and malpractice of strongmen and other leaders would inevitably be in the spotlight, leading to the erosion of strongmen’s dominance. Information communication technology via the internet is influential as it has the potential to act as a genuinely robust fourth estate long non-existent in Malaysia. For now however, the low internet access rate in Sarawak, standing at 6.8 percent in 2006, is still effectively preventing Sarawak’s populace from receiving alternative information let alone launch a mass reform movement to challenge the strongmen. But as internet access in Sarawak grows allowing more Sarawakians to access alternative information, these informed masses will begin to put more pressure on local strongmen, leading to a possible collapse of their authoritarian rule.
These forces would thus act as an earthquake that triggers a tsunami that is big enough to sweep away not only the MM strongmen but also the entire SBN. A preposterous proposition you may think. Maybe. But again that is exactly what the sceptics said about the Pakatan Rakyat opposition chances in the historic March 8 election.
First published on the Aliran website on 3 October 2009