Whichever way you look at it, the political outlook does not appear rosy for Taib and the other component BN party leaders who are so dependent on his patronage, writes Abang Benet.
It was not meant to happen this way. After all, the government media’s script for elections in Sarawak is that it’s the BN’s ‘fixed deposit’, the parliamentary vote-bank that delivers again and again and again, come rain or shine, through thick and thin.
And just to make sure that this re-occurred as per the official script, PM Najib Abdul Razak, DPM Muhyiddin Yassin, CM Abdul Taib Mahmud and other BN ministers openly abused public resources and poured millions of ringgit of public funds into the by-election. Even the Methodist Church in Sibu, despite their supposed embrace of ‘Christian’ values, unashamedly pocketed a ‘badly timed’ mega-handout! It was a vulgar and unabashed display of electoral bribery. The Sibu contest was little more than a ‘buy’ election.
Except that the Sibu voters (and especially those from the urban Chinese community) had other ideas. And notwithstanding the Election Commission’s shenanigans of delaying the result in a failed attempt – if DAP’s Lim Kit Siang is to be believed – to cook the results, the voters handed the seat to DAP/PR’s Wong Ho Leng by a wafer-thin margin of 398 votes.
Loss a major blow
The loss was a major blow for the BN. Not only was the defeat a slap in the PM’s face but it also thwarted Najib’s not-so-secret plan of holding snap general elections had the BN emerged victorious. The BN’s loss of Sibu, hitherto a SUPP/BN bastion, only threw a major spanner in the works for Najib, who now has to continue governing the country like the lame duck, flip-flop PM that he is; without any personal mandate from the electorate and at the mercy of a fractious and increasingly right-wing Umno/BN.
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Similarly, it was a big blow to Taib Mahmud’s stature as the strongman of Sarawak politics. After all, if anyone loves electoral clean sweeps, it is Taib who has always prided himself on being able to win (nearly) all seats contested in any Sarawak election. It was bad enough that he had to play second-fiddle to Najib during the by-election in his own state. But to lose?!? Well, that was a bitter pill.
Losing his grip?
Hence, is Taib losing his iron grip over Sarawak? Some like Prof. James Chin of Monash University Malaysia noted that losing Sibu only showcased the increasingly widespread public perception that Taib has overstayed his welcome and should go. Not only are urban Chinese voters fed up with Taib, they are also tired of SUPP’s ageing leadership, the hypocrisy within the party, their self-serving attitude and the party’s inability to renew itself let alone represent general Chinese interests within the BN.
Unfortunately, after three decades of near feudal governance of the state with a weak and fractured opposition, Taib and his coterie of BN political hanger-ons are just plain blind to this view.
Regardless, even if Taib did want to step down, the interlocking nature of politics and business in Malaysia means that there is a real possibility that Taib, his extended family, relatives and corporate associates stand to lose much if he did leave centre-stage – just like how his uncle, former CM Abdul Rahman Yakub and his political hangers-on did after he retired.
To whom would he entrust the care and nurturing of companies closely associated with or directly linked to his extended family, relatives and business proxies like Cahya Mata Sarawak, Sarawak Cable, Putrajaya Perdana, Loh & Loh, Titanium, Quality Concrete, Kumpulan Construction, Kumpulan Parabena, Borsarmulu Resort, Majupun, Naim Cendera, Ta Ann, UBG, Hock Seng Lee, KKB Engineering, Sarawak Energy, Sarawak Plantations, Eksons Corporation, Dayang Enterprise, mLabs Systems, Sarawak Capital, Lanco, Achi, Saradu Plantation, Sanyan and Samling? (Note that this is only a shortlist! There is more and not only in Malaysia.)
And who is going to bury forever major ‘corporate mistakes’ like 1st Silicon, Sarawak Medichem, and Sarawak International Medical Centre? And who is going to ensure that public finance excesses involving numerous state infrastructure projects and state land allocation to plantation companies, political supporters and business associates remain buried deep within the state civil service files?
The ostensible ‘lack’ of any ‘capable’ successor within PBB to take over as CM is clearly hampering Taib’s ‘succession’ plans even if he wants to go. His son, Sulaiman Abdul Rahman Taib, recently bowed out of politics completely for ‘health’ reasons. Taib’s brother, Mohamad Ali Mahmud, who is the state assembly member for Muara Tuang, is politically inactive. His niece, Norah Abdul Rahman, is a junior parliamentarian and may yet play a major leadership role at some stage in Sarawak’s future. But for now, despite the presence of various other long-serving PBB leaders like Abang Johari, Adenan Satem, Awang Tengah, Alfred Jabu and Effendi Nawawi, neither Taib Mahmud nor the PBB membership has been able to identify a successor. Hence, for now, there is no transition planning within PBB/BN.
Consequently, given his ‘sense of duty’ to Sarawak, Taib is ‘unable’ to leave centre-stage and will endeavour to remain in office for as long as possible. Put it down to his burning desire and commitment to ‘bring development’ to the people of the state.
Cracks in the coalition?
But times they are a-changin’. So too the electorate’s mood in Sarawak as evident by the Sibu result. Cracks are also showing in the BN team between PM Najib and CM Taib.
There was a lot of recrimination within the BN camp over the loss of Sibu. Najib lost face when the BN lost Sibu since he made the contest a personal one when, unusually and against normal BN by-election convention, he flew in to campaign in Sibu three times within the space of a month. Not only did he upstage CM Taib in his own backyard but he also reached out to the Sibu electorate in a way no other PM had ever done before during any election campaign when he said, ‘(If) you help me, I help you!’
So, in order not to allow the opposition PR to tar his by-election defeat as a confirmation of his poor leadership as PM or to discredit his vacuous 1Malaysia campaign – which it did – Najib attributed the loss of Sibu to ‘an uncreative and unenergetic BN election machinery [which] had still followed the old way of campaigning’. In other words, he pinned the blame on the Sarawak BN and its ageing leadership!
Ever on the alert, Taib robustly refuted the PM’s explanation offering instead the following: ‘This time we had a different sort of campaigning on the part of the opposition, and there were many outsiders coming in.’ He also ‘denied that the BN lost due to protest votes cast by the Sibu voters to show their displeasure with senior politicians in the state’; a response no doubt, to the DAP campaign that made Taib’s record of alleged corruption and excesses (and that of an ageing and politically impotent SUPP leadership) central to its Sibu campaign.
Taib convinced nobody except his own sycophantic cabinet ministers. His riposte also teasingly amplified perceptions that he does not currently see eye-to-eye with PM Najib.
Later in June, in a visit to Sibu to launch the government’s ‘Program Sejiwa Senada – Kerajaan Bersama Rakyat’, Taib added that ‘barking’ politics as practised by ‘outsiders’ could mess up the people and derail the development tempo in the state.’
But what does it matter if ‘outsiders’ from Pas, DAP, and PKR (or Umno, MCA, MIC, PPP or Gerakan) come to Sarawak to campaign? Are SUPP and PBB and the rest of the Sarawak BN so politically juvenile and inept that they are unable to keep up let alone compete with their peninsula contemporaries when it comes to contesting elections? Are Sarawakian voters so naive and gullible that they will fall for a ‘different campaign’ style? Are the electorate in Sarawak so feeble-minded that ‘barking’ politics of ‘outsiders’ will so easily ‘mess them up’ and ‘derail development’? Is this what CM Taib would like us to believe?
Additionally, by blaming the ‘barking’ politics of ‘outsiders’ for potentially messing up Sarawak’s politics, is not Taib attempting to isolate Sarawakians further from global recognition of ‘democracy as a universal commitment’? Is he trying to keep locals politically and culturally backward and in the dark about what substantive democracy means? Are Sarawakians mushrooms?
Or is this an ongoing example of Taib deliberately trying to deflect attention from his loss of political appeal; a threadbare attempt to shore up his position by blaming ‘outsiders’ for the slow but sure haemorrhage of support for the BN in Sarawak owing to his own ‘failings’?
As well, whatever happened to his commitment to PM Najib’s ‘1Malaysia’? Does not support for 1Malaysia also mean full acceptance of other Malaysians and their ‘different sort of campaigning’ when it comes to democratic elections? By referring to non-Sarawakian election campaigners as ‘outsiders’ that undermined the BN’s political applecart in Sibu, did not Taib let slip his real (i.e. hypocritical) views about PM Najib’s 1Malaysia unity programme? Indeed, could it be that in Taib’s mind, there exists a real divide between Malaysia and Sarawak, one that is concretely characterised by the state government’s dogged adherence to meaningless immigration controls despite nearly five decades of nationhood?
Ironically, Taib’s post-election outburst only reminded all that the ‘barking outsider’ style of politics from the peninsula was seemingly much more attractive to the Sibu electorate than his own ‘sweet’ Sarawakian persuasions during the ‘buy’-election comprising RM600 monetary handouts to longhouse residents and development projects worth millions!
Further reinforcing this view of tensions at the top is Taib’s recent statement that Sarawak does not need ‘sports betting’. Coming from a CM of a state that happily taxes 10 per cent of all legal gambling sales and which has its own locally-licensed gambling companies, this is rich.
And why would CM Taib openly reject ‘sports betting’ if he did not want to pile pressure upon PM Najib, who is under siege from his detractors within Umno on this question, the NEM, subsidy reductions and various other issues? Is it not an unwritten rule within the BN that CMs support PMs and that controversial issues are discussed behind closed doors during Supreme Council meetings or via confidential memos?
The way forward electorally
No leader in Umno or for that matter in the federal government is under any illusions about CM Taib’s diminishing electoral appeal. They know that he is increasingly turning into a political liability for the BN the longer he stays on in power. But herein lies the federal government’s dilemma. How do you get rid of someone who has been loyal and who has always delivered in the past? If PM Najib and the rest of the BN Supreme Council cannot even get rid of Samy Vellu, what more Abdul Taib Mahmud?
To Taib’s credit, after the loss of Sibu, he indicated that ‘the Sarawak BN would formulate a new campaign strategy for the next state election to mount a serious challenge and counter all the baseless allegations brought by the opposition against the state government’.
But, as if to downplay the growing perception that he may be losing his grip and may not be relied upon to deliver the BN’s ‘fixed deposit’ in full when the next election swings round, Taib also emphasised that ‘Bumi votes are in the bag’. According to Taib, ‘the community’s support for the BN had increased’ as seen by their vote tally in the Sibu by-election.
In this respect, he is right. After all, despite their best efforts, PKR has yet to make any major inroads into breaking the BN’s hold over native and Malay Bumiputera votes. Anwar Ibrahim is too busy attending Parliament, globetrotting, fighting sham court cases and appeasing shady PKR political operators to pay close attention to building up his party rank-and-file in the state.
Still, Taib is worried. His recent advice to the Bumiputera community betrays this when he advised them ‘not to change the present political system and administration since BN political leaders were always ever ready to sacrifice themselves for the good of the state’.
Now that the urban Chinese have all but abandoned SUPP/BN, Taib is undoubtedly even more reliant upon the Bumiputera vote for his continued survival.
And what of the state election?
Of interest now is the timing of the forthcoming state election due by May 2011. There has been a lot of speculation about it being held later this year.
But the loss of Sibu was a major dampener. And despite all the rah-rah pronouncements from Putrajaya and Petrajaya, the economy is weighed down by sovereign debt, lack of FDI and dogged non-competitiveness. The outlook is bleak. Don’t believe me? Just ask your local coffeeshop operator!
Additionally, the World Cup is a big distraction until mid-July. Ramadan begins in mid-August with Syawal and Raya celebrations ongoing until early October. National Day and Malaysia Day celebrations are in August and September. School exams are in November with the Landas (wet season) setting in soon thereafter. And December and January are not good months to hold elections since the former ends the year with many on holiday while the latter begins the school year with many stressed out.
Thus, there is now only one window of opportunity left in 2010 with which to hold snap state elections, namely in October. But if Taib does so then, it would confirm that he is running scared of Sarawak’s electorate, which although still generally BN friendly is increasingly hostile towards Taib and his ‘inexplicable’ continued accumulation of personal/family wealth. An October election would also suggest that Taib is keen to avoid any possible fallout or reversal from a still very fragile national or global economy in 2011.
If no snap election is held in October, it is likely then that Taib’s government shall serve out its full term and we can expect state elections after Chinese New Year in 2011. The exception of course will be if PM Najib is suddenly ‘inspired’ to call a snap parliamentary election. If so, then we can expect Taib to hold concurrent state elections.
But this is highly unlikely since PM Najib remains ‘uninspired’. Umno and the federal government, who would be more than pleased to see the back of Taib, are (secretly!) keen to see Taib go it alone to gauge the extent of his electoral support. Any further electoral stumbles on Taib’s part would only see the federal government easing him out of office.
All signs presently point to it being a lively election. Although PKR has yet to get its act fully together in the rural seats that comprise mainly Malay and native Bumiputera voters, the DAP is all fired up, organised and poised for action.
Unless something unexpectedly surprising happens (like Taib’s resignation or if he transits to immortality!) to make the urban Chinese extremely happy, the general sentiment on the ground presently is that SUPP/BN is going to lose most if not all their urban Chinese seats. As for the rural Malays and native Bumiputeras, although generally still supportive of the BN, rumblings of discontent and frustration are growing within their ranks over NCR land issues and towards Taib himself.
Hence, whichever way you put it, Taib is presently sleepless in Sarawak. So too are all the SUPP and other less important BN component party leaders who are so enamoured of him owing to their dependency upon his patronage.
Editor’s Note: There will be a follow up article on the state of the political parties and the key campaign issues that will feature in the Sarawak state elections in one of our forthcoming Aliran Monthly issues; closer to when the state elections are held.
Abang Benet is an expert on Sarawak politics and continues to be a regular Aliran correspondent.
First published on Aliran website on 9 August 2010.