For democrats in Sarawak, the last general election was a missed opportunity to push forward the agenda of political and economic reform in a state saturated with political abuse and corruption, says Abang Benet.
Sarawakians quite expected that the BN would win most of the 31 parliamentary seats in Sarawak on 8 March.
After all, there is really no opposition of significance in the state outside of the four urban centres of Kuching, Sibu, Bintulu and Miri despite the DAP and PKR making a big splash in the 2006 state elections. In rural areas, there is hardly any opposition at all. Just as the seriously endangered Hornbill (which gives Sarawak its touristy “Bumi Kenyalang” name) has all but disappeared owing to excessive logging by BN cronies, the rural opposition in Sarawak has been all but decimated by the BN over the last two decades.
There was also a certain lack of interest in the elections since historical and constitutional factors have meant that parliamentary elections here are not perceived as being as important as state elections.
Even so, it was quite disheartening to wake up on Sunday, 9 March to realise that the BN had once again swept (sapu) all but one parliamentary seat (Bandar Kuching). Not that this result disappointed the Sarawak BN led by Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud. Indeed, the weak performance of the opposition only helped reinforce his family’s continued feudal-like grip on political power in the state since his son Sulaiman Abdul Rahman Taib and his cousin, Norah Abdul Rahman, were elected to this 12th parliament. (One of Taib’s brothers is also currently a state assembly member.) Nor did the overwhelming parliamentary results suggest any need to democratise politics in the state.
Yet, for those who value democracy, it was a mini debacle, what more when the electorate in Peninsula Malaysia dumped the BN wholesale. Thus, for democrats in Sarawak, the 12th General Election was a missed opportunity to push forward the agenda of political and economic reform in a state that is saturated with political abuse and corruption.
Which begs the question, “What happened in Sarawak?” After all, if peninsular voters can dump the BN, why didn’t Sarawakians follow suit?
Well, the first thing to remember is that Sarawak is not the peninsula. The state has a different history, different religious and ethnic make-up, different economic structure, and a large wealth inequality configuration. Geographically separated by the South China Sea, Sarawak has a different political culture, grapples with different political issues and views politics in the peninsula as being very remote from local realities.
Contesting parliamentary elections here is hugely expensive – far, far more expensive than running a campaign on the peninsula. This gives the BN huge advantages since they control the money, the media and the government machinery – which they effectively deploy to subsidise the overall costs of their electoral campaigns. And, as in previous elections, the BN’s ‘high moral and political principles’ did not give them any pause or hesitation to bully, bluff and bribe the electorate to ensure they achieved a massive victory. For the BN, the ends justified the means.
Here, as a partial explanation of what happened in Sarawak, we detail some key anecdotal incidences of BN bullying, bluffing and bribing (a.k.a. dirty underhand practices blithely condoned by the Electoral Commission) which helped them win 30 out of 31 parliamentary seats.
While campaigning in Bintangor, Taib Mahmud urged voters to support the BN and to never disassociate themselves from the mainstream development agenda. He also warned Chinese voters of ‘grave consequences’ if SUPP lost further support (ET, BP, SC, SH, US, 1 March). His deputy, Alfred Jabu was equally blunt and told voters inclined to support the opposition ‘to think twice, if they wanted continuous development from the government’ (US, 2 March).
Echoing this intimidating sentiment, the Sibu SUPP strongman and BN candidate for Lanang, Tiong Thai King, noted pointedly that the annual federal government development allocation to Robert Lau, the BN candidate for Sibu, and himself was RM10 million. In the event they lost the election, Tiong said this RM10 million would be switched to other places (IT, 6 March).
Another SUPP heavyweight Wong Soon Koh noted the same. He suggested the federal government’s Ninth Malaysia Plan allocation of RM400 million meant for flood mitigation measures in Sibu would be diverted if the two BN candidates in Sibu failed to get re-elected (ET, BP, 5 March).
So too George Chan, Deputy Chief Minister and SUPP party president opined that all constituencies that voted in opposition candidates in 2006 had seen their annual development allocations postponed indefinitely or cancelled (IT, 7 March).
Parroting the SUPP bigwigs, small-fry Tan Joo Phoi, the Batu Kawa BN state assembly member, told Chinese voters that they ‘should appreciate what they have now, and continue to support SUPP’ so that society remained in a state of peace and prosperity (SH, 29 February). In a subsequent speech, he went further and noted that if the Chinese were marginalised politically, they would end up like ‘the Chinese in Indonesia’ (SH, 2 March).
Apart from bullying tactics, the BN also unashamedly bluffed their way – often via racist arguments – through the election campaign.
George Chan told Miri voters that if the SUPP Miri candidate lost, Sarawak Chinese would likely also lose their only Chinese federal minister to voice their Chinese views (IT, 26 February). A SUPP letter to the editor also noted that without Chinese representation in the BN, the Chinese would effectively ‘lose their rights’ (SC, 26 February).
Robert Lau, the SUPP candidate for Sibu, urged hawkers to support SUPP as the Chinese comprised a mere 30 per cent of the state’s population. According to Robert, any SUPP loss would possibly see the emergence of a Malay mayor for the city. And what if the Mayor apportioned licenses according to ethnic ratios? If that happened, Robert opined that nobody could help the Chinese hawkers, not even the opposition (SH, 3 March).
In a speech supporting Dr Tiki Lafe, the BN candidate for Mas Gading, Peter Nansian (the Tasik Biru BN state assembly member) said that unlike the BN, the opposition was only a hindrance to development (ET, 26 February).
Taib Mahmud also played the bluff game when he told voters not to believe the opposition party’s manifesto call to ‘change the government’ since ‘opposition parties cannot guarantee the future of the people and the country’ (US, 6 March).
But the biggest bluff of all was played by the Borneo Post (6 March) when it ran page upon page of seemingly superlative news about how well the Malaysian economy performed under the BN in an election supplement. written by hacks using questionable data supplied by the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Minister’s Department, which was paid for by a ‘mysterious’ source!
But bluff was not enough. So, the BN also resorted to outright bribery.
As in previous elections, two types of bribery were rampant during this election.
The first was development handouts by the BN in exchange for votes. Bribes in anything but name, infrastructure projects worth a total of about RM1.622 billion (yes, billion!) were declared open and promised to the electorate by nearly all the Sarawak BN leaders and candidates throughout the campaign period. Note that this is only the reported figure! Many other infrastructure projects were launched as well but the value of these development bribes was not reported.
The BN also gave away about RM1.985 million (but likely more) in cash under the guise of development grants – just to show voters how thoughtful they were, even as they bought their votes.
Land compensation payments amounting to millions and hundreds of land leases were renewed while hundreds of other new land titles were also distributed during the campaign period.
Note also that all these figures do not include all other infrastructure projects launched and cash handouts given after polling day of which there was also a substantial amount, including one personal pledge/donation of RM100,000 by BN MP Tiong King Sing to SM Kai Dee in Bintulu (BP, 17 March).
Then, there was the more shady practice of alleged vote-buying via straight-forward but clandestine cash handouts. The DAP candidate for Kuching, Chong Chen Jien made a police report alleging that SUPP had carried out vote-buying in the constituency. This was vehemently denied by the BN candidate Alan Sim.
Then, Philip Tukok, a supporter of the independent candidate for Sri Aman, alleged that he and two others had been offered a RM10 bribe by BN agents at approximately 8.00 pm on 7 March, the eve of polling, at Rumah Kion, Tanjung Bijat, Sri Aman (Malaysiakini, 13 March).
Wong Ho Leng, the DAP candidate for Lanang, also alleged in his blog that postal votes seemed to be for sale in his constituency a few days before polling day (Wong Ho Leng, 10 March).
An independent candidate, Wong Hua She, attributed his loss to ‘money politics’ especially in Bintangor (SH, 11 March).
Considering the election results for Bukit Begunan in the 1996 state election was voided by the Election Court on account of unashamed electoral bribery by BN campaign agents, such anecdotal allegations carry more than a whiff of authenticity about them.
Bickering by Opposition also helped BN
But apart from all these factors, the BN won hands down and even in the various urban seats favoured by the combined DAP-PKR opposition simply due to the opposition’s inability to present themselves as an intelligent, strategic and ultimately viable alternative to the BN.
Instead of organising a mature and thoughtful campaign against the BN, both PKR and DAP bickered over seats and attacked each other throughout, thus sabotaging their respective campaigns. Their intense bickering in the public realm which was most evident in the Chinese press disgusted voters.
Thus, despite the best efforts of the national PKR-DAP leadership to get the state-level PKR and DAP to present a united front against the BN, the local PKR-DAP ayam jantan leaders were unable to see the big picture. Instead, they chose to display their stupidity and vacuously super-inflated egos in miserable tit-for-tat attempts to score insignificant points against each other. Consequently, disgusted voters either voted for the BN or refrained from voting.
Small wonder the BN laughed and romped all the way home with 30 seats. And they will win again in the forthcoming state elections due by 2011 if these so-called ‘champions of the people’ in PKR-DAP do not get their act together.
BP: Borneo Post
IT : International Times
SC: Sin Chiew Daily
US: Utusan Sarawak
SH: See Hua Daily News