Reflections on the Sibu by-election

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Ngu Ik Tien interviews a couple of Sarawakians on the implications of the Pakatan’s upset victory over the BN in the Sibu by-election on 16 May 2010.

 

Madam Lee, resident of Sibu in her 50s

In order to speak freely, Madam Lee chose not to disclose her full name and positions in her political party.  She expressed a deep sense of disappointment with the Sibu by-election outcome revealed on 16 May.

“The result was unexpected. We thought BN would definitely win, but maybe with a smaller margin…2008 general election has a great impact on East Malaysia, especially the loss of Chinese votes. It also affects the Iban and Malay votes.”

She said there was a rise in the total vote cast and speculated that these came from young people who were working outside but returning to Sibu for the by-election. “I went to West Malaysia in 2009; I heard those working there saying they would definitely come back to vote in the next election. They are the new voters. They are not satisfied with what is happening now.”

She disagreed with the opposition accusation that Sibu was lagging behind. She countered that the living standard of East Malaysia had generally risen, and many would agree that the development of Sibu was satisfactory. The problem was many thought the BN had done very little; so they expressed their discontent by voting.

As for SUPP, she commented that SUPP leaders were not cautious enough as they were too comfortable with the repeated victories over the last 15 years.

“They fail to train new leaders and do not keep pace with social changes…They cannot keep using the old ways to appeal to the people. Those who grew up in the 1980s, a time when our economy was booming, hold very different expectations from our generation. The new generation has higher expectations in everyday life. For instance, what we need is to fill our stomachs but they want better food and look for new things.”

In her opinion, the political attitude of natives especially those educated and living in urban centres were very much like the Chinese. “When you go to longhouses, you don’t see young people. Many of them and their families work in town and also prefer to live in town.”

The other factor contributing to the loss of the BN was weak organisation. “They didn’t set up the operations committee until nomination day. That’s too late. They should have distributed duties earlier. Many strategic locations for the hanging of banners had been taken by the opposition. The slogan also came up very late.”

As she observed earlier, young leaders were rare in SUPP. “Honestly, Robert Lau junior is the only suitable candidate as the leaders did not train any other young men. I don’t see that Wong and Goh have tried to bring up anyone.”

She also expressed deep anxiety about the coming state election. “Yes, I am worried about the next state election. We take the challenge of the opposition too lightly. We should start preparing now. They keep saying the opposition can talk only. But if talking can win the hearts of people, then why don’t they do that? They can learn to make their speeches more persuasive.”

The Sibu people were going to pay the price for their choice as the government won’t listen to the opposition, she sighed. “The government could delay and even stop development funds and projects. You know what happened to Sabah in the past; we shouldn’t repeat the same mistake. You may feel good when you cast your vote for the opposition but you won’t gain any substantial benefits from that.”

When we spoke off the record, she talked about the Chief Minister of Sarawak and complained that the whole state had been controlled by him. She complained that as a result of his “involvement” in certain local projects, the projects took a longer time to complete: when the funds went down to the contractors at the bottom level, the amount allegedly had been greatly reduced. Work was delayed because the contractors had no money to hire more workers.

Wong Meng Chuo, the coordinator of the Sibu Election Watchers (SEW)

The by-election result was not totally unexpected for Wong. After careful analysis, he found that the percentage of Iban and Malay votes had not increased. The swing only happened among the Chinese voters.

“I did not agree with some analyses posted on Malaysiakini. Especially the comment about the  inroad into the Malay areas…If they look at the Abang Ali polling station, it’s true that the PR gained half of the votes. But they may not know that half of the electorate there are Chinese. The SJK Methodist and SK Perbandaran No.3 are the real Malay majority areas. BN gained a large majority of votes in these two.”

Wong has been working on the environmental movement of Sarawak for a long time. He has established a close relationship with some Iban communities who have been affected by the so-called development projects of the state government.

In fact, he expressed pessimism about any change of Iban and Malay voting patterns in the next state election.

“BN’s tactic still works for them. I would say PAS and PKR haven’t made any impact on the Iban and Malay communities. It takes time for them to create an impact. For the Iban community, the electoral result showed that the NCR issue has not yet become a political issue. Additionally the land issue has not yet harmed the Iban community in Sibu but it will come to them soon. “

On the  Iban’s voting pattern, he doubted if the Iban would resolve their grievances through electoral moves. “The BN still grips the leadership of longhouses, the tuai rumah. During the critical times, the tuai rumah are told to reject the visits by the opposition. BN’s tactic is still working on Iban communities.”

On the swing of senior voters to the opposition, Wong, in his late 50s, attributed it to the morality concerns of the older folks. He received a number of SMSes from senior church friends questioning the appropriateness of the Sibu churches in accepting governmental allocations during campaign period. They regarded the move as a form of bribery. Wong said the BN’s open ‘bribery’ may have created a backlash among some religious Christians who were concerned about the question of morality.

Wong is right that the issue of morality is still of great concern among religious people. If you go to Facebook page of the the Principal of the Methodist Theological School based in Sibu, you will see questions posted by him on 14 May about the “generous gifts” of BN. The questions were posted as “Do you like the government giving lots of money during election or by-election time? Is this open bribery and corruption?” He received about 50 comments in three days and most were condemning the grants by the BN.

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