Whither the people’s agenda?

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taib mahmudPolling day in Sarawak is on 20 May but, withTaib Mahmud in power for 25 longyears, Sarawakians are distinctly unexcited about the elections. How and why has the chief minister dominated Sarawak elections for so long? And why doesSarawak have the fourth highest incidence of poverty after Sabah, Terengganu and Kelantan?

by Abang Benet 

For sometime now, local newspaper reports have discussed the forthcoming state elections in Sarawak, due latest by November 2006 but likely this May. But try as they might, all these newspaper stories have failed to spark off any excitement in the hearts and minds of Sarawakians. And it is not because we Sarawakians are generally disinterested in elections and politics. On the contrary, we are very interested in elections and in politics, and especially how it affects the quality of our lives and society. But since the mid-1970s, voter participation during state elections has clearly declined, as the  statistics below reveal.

So, why are Sarawakians unexcited on the eve of the state election? Are we too distracted making money? Are we too preoccupied by other more urgent matters such as looking for a decent-paying job, coping with forced resettlement, and struggling to make ends meet?

Are we too busy fending off logging encroachment, managing the loss of native customary lands and worrying about the renewal of urban land leases? Are we too disturbed by the rise of urban crime, the lack of open government tenders and the unfair business access to government contracts? Are we too troubled about the state of our impoverished rural schools and the deterioration of mother-tongue education? Are we too anxious about the impending privatisation of our health services and burdened by the high petrol and diesel prices?

Decline of Voter Participation in Sarawak (percentage)

Election Year

1969

1974

1979

1983

1987

1991

1996

2001

Voter Turnout

80.0

75.1

72.8

72.6

73.6

72.8

63.8

66.6

Source: Elections Commission, Malaysia

Are we are so preoccupied with all these problems to bother about picking a good wakil rakyat to represent our interests in the state assembly?

The fact is that the electoral outcome is already a foregone conclusion. As a national business news report noted, the Sarawak Barisan Nasional (SBN) will win hands down since the possibility of the opposition winning the election, let alone a few seats, is as likely as the moon turning blue! Reportedly, even Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud is confident that he already commands at least 80 per cent support from the electorate.

Media hype and red herrings

So, in an effort to make it look as if people are keen about elections and eager to participate in the electoral process, local newspapers initially ran stories about possible dates for the impending state election. Then, when that did not set hearts afire, the news stories focused on the heated, on-going and never-ending intra- and inter-political party squabbling within the SBN coalition over the right to contest the nine new state seats of Kota Sentosa, Opar, Daro, Balai Ringin, Batu Danau, Bukit Saban, Pujut, Bekenu, and Lingga. (SBN comprises Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), the Sarawak United Peoples’ Party (SUPP), Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) and the Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP).)

Indeed, so vicious is the on-going fight currently within PRS that the party now has effectively two leaders and two headquarters. But even that has not set hearts afire since it is well known that politicians within the SBN parties regularly squabble greedily over the right to contest seats. After all, many view election into the state assembly as a sure-fire passport to access wealth and business contracts via political patronage.

The local media have deliberately speculated upon meaningless election dates and highlighted the intra- and inter-party squabbles. In doing so, they have only revealed the pathetic state of politics in the state and generated red herrings that deflect public attention from the real issues.

One substantive issue – the Chief Minister

One key issue, however, intruded dramatically in the run-up to the election, when it was publicly announced in mid-January that Abdul Taib Mahmud had undergone surgery for colon cancer in Singapore. Immediately, the electorate went abuzz with speculation on his replacement. Sarawak’s imagination was suddenly fired up. Everyone got excited about the polls since his illness suggested that, finally after 25 long years, there would be a new CM.

So frenzied was the speculation about Taib Mahmud’s imminent departure due to ill-health that none other than Adenan Satem, the PBB Senior Vice-President and longtime political minion of Taib Mahmud as well as the then Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, hastily stepped down from his federal cabinet position to return to Sarawak, citing a desire to participate more actively in state politics. Many interpreted his action as reflecting an unadulterated desire to step into the Chief Minister’s shoes once Taib Mahmud leaves centre-stage. And so, for a short while, all the local newspapers gave front-page coverage to Adenan Satem, convinced that he was the anointed one.

But alas, it was not meant to be. Unsurprisingly, the longest-serving Chief Minister in the country was not amused. Instead, Taib Mahmud was reportedly very angry and upset with all the talk about his impending exit from the political scene and that Adenan was going to take over from him before the polls. Instead, a healthy-looking Taib announced over television and in public gatherings a few days after his return that he was going to stay on until “an able team is in place to take over” and in the interest of “reassuring foreign investors”. It was as unequivocal as it was final.

Taib’s announcement immediately doused Sarawak’s super-charged excitement for change. Almost overnight, an over-eager Adenan all but faded from public view. Additionally, all 61 SBN state assemblymen remarkably scrambled to pledge their undying affection, loyalty and service to Abdul Taib Mahmud.

So, why is Abdul Taib Mahmud an electoral issue?

These bizarre developments in the Land of the Hornbill raise two questions. Firstly, why did Sarawak’s electoral buzz go into overdrive when it heard Taib had cancer? And secondly, why did the entire SBN contingent in the state assembly pledge their unstinting loyalty to Taib once it was clear he was staying on?

The simple answer to the second question is of course that  Taib is the person who ultimately decides who stands – or does not stand – for election on a SBN ticket, more so now that he is not leaving centre stage. In fact, each and every current SBN assemblyman owes not only their individual political career to  Taib but likely also their personal and family’s economic wellbeing since they have all benefited from state political patronage.

The more interesting answer that explains the bizarre behaviour of those 61 SBN assemblymen was that many SBN assemblymen were open to transferring their loyalty and support to Adenan Satem in an effort to ensure their political (and economic) future once a political transition was effected. Rumour even had it that there was a list of assembly members who had signed up their support in favour of Adenan. This is why the 61 assembly members behaved so extraordinarily when they scrambled and fell over themselves to pledge their support for Taib’s continued political leadership.

Talk in town currently has it that given such politicially indiscreet behaviour, we can now expect some SBN assembly members to be dropped from the SBN list of nominees come nomination day. To be honest, this is not going to pose any loss to the people of Sarawak since most SBN assembly members have seldom ever concerned themselves with the interests of the electorate. Instead, the view on the ground is that these assembly members are essentially in politics to access wealth and lucrative business contracts for their numerous companies via state government handouts.

Which brings us back to the first question, namely, why all the sudden but short-lived excitement about the possibility of Taib stepping down?

Many Sarawakians find that Taib’s rationale for staying on and on and on and on is difficult to comprehend. After all, even Dr. Mahathir called it a day after 22 years, no? And while there is certainly a dearth of political talent in the state to take over from Taib, nobody is indispensable. Even Charles de Gaulle recognised this when he remarked that “the graveyards were full of indispensable men”. As well, there is scant little foreign investment of significance in Sarawak to talk about that needs reassuring.

So, truth be told, the answer to the first question is that many in Sarawak have grown tired of Taib Mahmud’s extended family’s (i.e. siblings, spouse and children) involvement in the corporate sector. Indeed, Taib’s family holdings and corporate interests extend octopus-like into nearly every sector of the Sarawak economy. For example, listed on the main board of Bursa Malaysia, Cahya Mata Sarawak (CMS) once held four key monopolies over cement production, steel fabrication, logging agency services and stock broking in the state. Although this has since changed, the family still has significant interests in large infrastructure construction projects, road and bridge maintenance, banking, hotels and tourism, plantation and land development, trading and logging through a myriad of both public-listed and private companies.

Interestingly, the growth of most of these firms from minor to major players in Sarawak’s economy – not to mention the current enormous wealth of the Mahmud family itself – coincides with the Taib’s tenure as Chief Minister since 1981 and especially after the Ming Court Affair of 1987. Moreover, considering that CMS is presently not in the pink of financial health – a very surprising fact since it has a regular annual turnover in excess of RM1 billion and bags nearly every large infrastructure project in the state – many believe that Taib wants to remain as CM to ensure that his family’s corporate fortunes are not only retrieved but assured in the years to come.

The SBN has delivered but…

Of course, this does not mean that Taib and the SBN have not brought about development to Sarawak. Indeed the SBN has consistently delivered development, which partially explains why they have been winning one state election after another with massive majorities that even UMNO envies. Compared to 25 years ago when Taib took over as Chief Minister, Sarawak currently has more roads, bridges, clinics, schools, rural public amenities, airports, industries, tourism, cars, motorbikes, houses and household amenities than ever before. Aggregate employment and incomes have increased and so too has the quality of life over the last three decades.

But surprisingly, even with the improved quality of life, a substantial segment of society remains marginalised.  For despite development, serious poverty persists. Indeed, the 9th Malaysia Plan notes that Sarawak has the fourth highest incidence of poverty after Sabah, Terengganu and Kelantan. The country’s development composite index also ranks Sarawak a lowly 11th, ahead only of Sabah, Kelantan and Terengganu. In other words, despite huge resources, there is a growing gap of inequality between the haves and the haves-not. How this has occurred boggles the mind since the state has been receiving huge oil, gas and timber royalties over the last three decades. So, why has wealth redistribution not happened here as effectively as it has in other states of Malaysia? And why is there the perception that politicians and their corporate hanger-ons have all benefited much more from SBN development than ordinary folk?

Many Dayak natives are also unhappy over on-going agricultural land development schemes which affect their native customary rights (NCR) to land. The chief proponent of such land development schemes is none other than the Chief Minister himself who is convinced this is the best way to help ordinary natives face the new reality of an economically globalised world. Many natives, however, feel such schemes at best only benefit plantation capital and deprive them of access to land and at worst disposseses them of their traditional lands. Thus, at present, there are over 150 NCR disputes before the courts.

So, how is the election going to play out?

Considering that Taib is going to continue helming the SBN, we can’t expect many surprises. Certainly, the SBN shall return to power with another thumping majority although it may well be with a rather different slate of wakil rakyats. Some quarters are also openly speculating that Sulaiman Abdul Rahman Taib, one of Taib’s two sons and currently Chairman of both CMS and RHB Bank, is going to be nominated to contest a safe seat on a PBB-SBN ticket to perpetuate the Mahmud family’s involvement in state politics and so protect the family’s economic fortunes.

Given that there is not much of an opposition to speak about, we can expect very little from the opposition. At best, the DAP may make a decent showing in the urban centres of Kuching, Sibu and Bintulu albeit they may not win at all. Keadilan may likely succeed but only in one Kuching constituency where they have a popular candidate. As for the native Dayak opposition represented by the still unregistered Malaysian Dayak Congress (MDC), the Sarawak National Party (SNAP) and the State Reform Party (STAR), despite all their huffing and puffing, they are strapped for cash and lack credible candidates. So, at best one or two of their candidates may succeed. In other words, expect the SBN to romp home easily and for Taib to choose his own time to depart – after he has put “an able team in place to take over” and after he has “reassured foreign investors”.

Key during the elections though would be to note the level of total voter participation and the percentage of votes the SBN eventually gains in its bid to return to government since these figures have a bearing on the political legitimacy of any winning party.

There will however be an important development in this forthcoming election that breaks with past practice, namely the involvement of MAFREL, the Malaysian election watch body, which has promised to monitor the forthcoming state election. Since its establishment a few years ago, MAFREL has carved out a reputation for itself with its highly critical reports on observed electoral irregularities during the 2004 general election and the 2005 Pasir Panjang by-election in Kelantan. Their coming to Sarawak puts the spotlight on the Elections Commission and the contending political parties to ensure that the election is conducted not only freely and fairly but also devoid of any development patronage and other direct financial handouts as inducements for votes. Such illegal and corrupt practices have long plagued elections in the state and have tainted both the opposition and the SBN. MAFREL’s monitoring effort, however, will largely depend on whether they are permitted entry into Sarawak by the state immigration authorities.

Formal elections, meaningless democracy

As for the ordinary people of Sarawak, expect us to just continue as normal, doing what we do best, trying to cope with all the worries, burdens and anxieties mentioned earlier.

Put differently, elections in Sarawak have become rather meaningless events held more to maintain the formal trappings of democracy and fulfil the aspirations of politicians and their hanger-ons to continue enriching themselves.

Whither the peoples’ agenda?

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