Patronage politics and campaign propaganda lose their hold on urban voters in Sibu, reports Ngu Ik Tien.
The Sibu District is located in the lower Rejang River. It comprises two parliamentary seats, namely the Lanang and Sibu constituencies.
Both Lanang (72 per cent) and Sibu (64 per cent) are ethnic Chinese-majority seats, with Ibans and Malay-Melanaus making up the remainder. Among these three ethnic groups, the Chinese are highly urbanised, followed by the Malay-Melanaus and the Ibans.
Over the last two decades, the development of Sibu town has been relatively slow in terms of population growth and economic development, lagging behind the cities of Miri and Bintulu. Timber, shipping, agriculture and small-scale family businesses are the main sources of employment.
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In Sarawak, state and parliamentary elections are not held concurrently. As Sarawak held its state elections two years ago in 2011, only parliamentary elections were held in 2013.
With only a small population of about 2.42m, the state of Sarawak is allotted 31 seats in the federal parliament. In contrast, Selangor, which has about 5.41m people, is only given 22 parliamentary seats.
Unreasonable imbalance also occurs within Sarawak. The Sibu constituency, an urban seat, has 64,601 registered voters while Lawas, a rural seat, has only 18,845 registered voters.
Business elites versus young professionals
The GE13 polling result for indicates that patronage politics is losing its grip over urban voters in Sibu, a majority of whom are Chinese.
Ever since the parliamentary elections of 1995, the parliamentary seats of Sibu and Lanang had been held by the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), a component party of the Sarawak Barisan Nasional.
Invariably, the candidates fielded by the SUPP in the two seats came from the business elite families of Tiong and Lau, who respectively own the Rimbunan Hijau Group and KTS Group. The core businesses of the two business conglomerates in Sarawak are almost identical: timber and oil palm cultivation.
Today, the two corporations have diversified their businesses and extended their business empires abroad. It was widely assumed that Tiong and Lau mobilised thousands of their multiracial employees to vote for their bosses who contested in the Sibu and Lanang constituencies.
In 2010, the DAP managed to make a breakthrough by defeating Robert Lau Hui Yew in a by-election following the death of the former Member of Parliament for Sibu.
The political landscape has changed significantly since then. Tycoon-politicians are no longer perceived as undefeatable candidates and the effects of money politics have been fading. In the state election of 2011 and the general election of 2013, tycoon-politicians were repeatedly defeated by young DAPs candidates.
For GE13, the DAP fielded Alice Lau in the Lanang seat and Oscar Ling in the Sibu seat. The two of them are in their thirties and grew up in Sibu They were trained as pharmacists in the United Kingdom and Australia. Neither of them comes from a business or political elite family; both are from middle-class families.
Like many of their DAP counterparts in the Peninsula, they are fluent in at least three languages: Mandarin, English and Malay. Unlike their competitors from the SUPP and many of the Sarawak DAP veterans, many of whom have poor proficiency in Malay as a result of growing up in an early Sarawak context, Alice and Oscar represent a new generation who went through the national education system, which stresses multilingual skills.
With respect to social participation and influences, SUPP candidates Lau and Tiong appeared to have sufficient profile to win the elections. Tiong and Lau helm several prominent Chinese associations, charity societies and school boards of directors in Sibu and have been the major financing source of those organisations.
They also hold public positions such as Chairman of the Sibu Local Council and Chinese Temenggong for the Sibu Division. This has enabled them to reach out to rural and multi-ethnic communities.
More importantly, the Tiong and Lau families respectively control the two biggest Chinese-language newspaper groups in Malaysia, namely the Sin Chew Daily and Oriental or See Hua Daily. When polling day approached, the Sarawak edition of the two newspapers failed to report the news in a neutral and balanced way. For instance, while Tiong and Lau enjoyed greater exposure in local news edition, the coverage of opposition events was reduced significantly.
Alice Lau and Oscar Ling, on the other hand, have never held any top leadership positions in prominent societies in Sibu. They may have joined the youth sections in some associations but have neither reached the top leadership nor played the role of financer as Lau and Tiong have. Nor have they the money to publish eight full pages of advertisements in major newspapers on the eve of polling day like the SUPP candidates and their supporters did.
The major avenues for the DAP duo to reach Sibu voters were the evening ceramahs and the walkabouts at markets and shopping malls. The downside of this approach: losing touch with rural voters. Put another way, while Lau and Tiong acted like patrons in the social sphere of Sibu, Alice and Oscar were more like participants in Sibu society
Erosion of patronage politics
Despite having all the advantages, Tiong and Lau lost the elections to their young opponents.
The polling results of the just concluded general elections show that that Alice Lau won with a comfortable majority of 8,630, defeating the four-term MP Tiong Thai King.
In the Sibu constituency, Oscar Ling defeated Vincent Lau with a majority of 2,841.
Voting turnouts in both areas increased substantially, with 79.9 per cent in Sibu and 78.7 per cent in Lanang. The main reason: a large number of voters returning to Sibu to vote.
The victory of DAP suggests that has been an erosion in the influence of the traditional elite and social institutions in the urban community of Sibu in terms of opinion formation and political mobilisation.
The campaign propaganda of the SUPP, which was spread through ceramahs, banners, mainstream newspapers, speeches at feasts held by some traditional social associations, etc. was seemingly less effective in shaping public opinion among urban voters. While most of the SUPP’s campaign workers were paid, the DAP had been able to get volunteers to work for them.
In spite of the absence of heavyweight national leaders at the Sibu DAP’s rallies, the DAP managed to draw huge crowds during the last few days before polling day. At each rally, thousands of ringgit was collected from audiences and from the sales of Ubah merchanise.
In an interview with Dominique Hii, the coordinator of Sibu Bersih 3.0, he claimed that there were fewer incidents of vote-buying in town in GE13, signalling the diminishing effect of money politics among urban voters.
In contrast to the urban situation, rural voters remained relatively more subservient to their patrons and money politics.
Over the last few years, Dominique and his organisations had conducted over a hundred PACA workshops in the rural areas of Sarawak. Hopefully, their hard work will pay off in the next Sarawak state election.
Ngu Ik Tien is an academic from Sibu.