A Different Mood

I arrived at the Kuching International Airport yesterday (5 March) from Kuala Lumpur around 7.15 p.m. I'm back home for a while, to perform my duty as a Malaysian citizen to cast my vote in the upcoming 8th General Election. In KL, I lived in Greenwood; anybody from the Gombak area would be able to tell you that Gombak is one of the spots where the campaign is hottest. An estimated 10,000-strong turnout during an opposition campaign in Seri Gombak a few days ago suggests that Gombak is an opposition-majority area. However, back in Kuching, the atmosphere is just so peaceful, perhaps too peaceful. There are little banners, party flags and posters being put up. And so I thought to myself, is this a sign that Sarawakians are getting more and more apathetic towards politics?

Excerpted from Malaysiakini.net:

Limited electoral fight in East Malaysia

Bridget Welsh | Mar 6, 08 1:37pm

analysis In both Sabah and Sarawak, the election mood is very different from that in the semananjung. There is palpably greater disengagement. The East Malaysian electorate is going about its everyday business, with little attention to the upcoming polls. The reasons for the lukewarm response are complex.

Yet the short answer is simple – Sarawakians and Sabahans have less electoral choice. Campaigns continue to revolve around personality as party infighting remains the norm. Voters are engaged primarily with financial incentives, rather than platforms that offer real solutions to the serious problems that East Malaysians face.

In the two states with the highest level of poverty in Malaysia, voters turn to the incumbent Barisan Nasional out of routine and give the governing coalition a secure foundation on which it builds its base of two-thirds majority. With 57 seats, 25.6% of the parliament, it is likely that the opposition will only pick up at most a handful of seats.

The story of why the BN dominates Sabah and Sarawak is well-known. The advantage the BN has in resources in campaigning in these large states, as well as in providing individual financial incentives to rural voters has been told many times. This time round, rural voters may earn up to RM500, with the average remaining around RM100. This is up considerably from RM20-50 in the 1999 polls. (Inflation lah.)

The overall BN expenditure on the campaign per person in these states dwarfs West Malaysia by the millions of ringgit. The individual incentives are coupled with promises of development, which are so desperately needed in rural impoverished areas. The promise of a school, a hospital, new road - or in the case of Sarikei, a TAR College - sways voters.

Shopkeepers welcome the election for additional revenue and voters welcome this time as one of the few opportunities they have leverage to gain much needed government investment. Elections are one of the few opportunities for the people to hold their elected officials accountable and in East Malaysia accountability is assessed through distribution.

A sense of resignation

However, this time around the undercurrents for change were present in both states. In the urban areas, concerns about prices, inclusion and the overall direction of these state governments resound. They are louder in Kuching, Sandakan and Miri than in Kota Kinabalu, Bintulu or Sibu. But they are there.

Bread-and-butter concerns are as real in East Malaysia as they are elsewhere. In fact, with the longer distances to be traveled, the impact of higher petrol prices has even more of an effect. This was one of the main issues that contributed to the opposition’s victory in the 2006 Sarawak state polls, and will underscore continued support for the opposition in urban areas.

Yet, there is a sense of resignation among ordinary people, as spending patterns have changed to meet the rising costs. The more anxious concerns are about the future of their children in the state. There is a perception of greed at the state leadership core. The long tenure of the Sarawakian Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud (left) continues to grate, as contracts are perceived to be inequitably allocated.

In Sabah, Musa Aman’s leadership has also raised questions about fair allocation of resources, especially to the non-Malays and even within the different groups of the Malay community. Voters are asking when the leadership will care less for itself than for the people at large.

There is concern in both states about the growing encroachment of West Malaysian economic interests, in areas such as palm oil and profitable construction contracts. The gains have not been shared fairly with the local population, say many, and the divide between what is being given to non-East Malaysians over the local populace is widening.

At the core of the issue of sharing wealth is the issue of the oil royalty and distribution of land. Both of these sensitive issues echo loudly among East Malaysians who want more autonomy and greater control over their livelihoods. Land rights are a persistent concern within the Kadazandusun and Dayak communities and this issue has not been effectively addressed.

In both states, the issue of inclusion continues to be seen through an ethnic lens. The emotional reaction in Sabah over the massive inflow of immigrants, who now outnumber the local population in a ratio of 1.7 million to 1.2 million, is strong, especially among Kadazans who fondly recollect the spirit of 1985-86 when the PBS (Parti Bersatu Sabah) won government.

Many in the local non-Malay communities feel disenfranchised and disempowered. With the PBS in the BN coalition, the strong voice for Sabahans has been quieted. PBS’s decision to enter the coalition was a pragmatic choice to have a voice inside, but one in which the main concern of fair representation for Sabahans has yet to be effectively addressed.

They are unlikely to pay electorally for this, however, as loyalty to the PBS remains strong.

Even those that are not in PBS, such as Bernard Dompok (photo, left) the president of Upko (United Pasok Momogun Kadazan Organisation), who raised concerns about religious marginalisation, remains strong electorally.

Dayaks remain divided

In Sarawak, the Dayaks remain divided, a product of calculating pitting of leaders in the community against each other and leaders in this community falling into the divide-and-rule trap. The issues of representation are channeled through MDC (Malaysian Dayak Congress), which continues not the allowed to register and weakened. Even its candidate land forestry official and pro-tem chairman of MDC Nicholas Bawin Anggat in Lubok Antu will face a difficult battle to win a seat.

In both states, the Chinese have been increasingly marginalised. In Sabah, the divide-and-rule tactic has been the most effective, as the Chinese community spreads its voice from PBS through LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) and SAPP (Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party) within the BN. In Sarawak, a weak SUPP (Sarawak United People's Party) has made effective inclusion of the Chinese within the BN not viable.

Ethnic differences between the Fuchow, Hokkien and Teo Chiew contribute to the fragmentation. As the divisions have splintered the leadership of all the non-Malay communities, genuine inclusion is a distant reality. In many ways, the BN as configured in East Malaysia has de facto become one of exclusion through non-Malay fragmentation.

Power has become increasingly centralised in the Malay community. Yet in East Malaysia, the divisions among communities are significant. Melanau, Bajau, Bugis and more persist as identity markers as strong as those in the Chinese community. Umno in Sabah tries to be an umbrella for the community at large, but it riddled with factionalism.

Interestingly, however, as the March 8 polls approach, Musa Aman has been able to bring about more party discipline than in West Malaysia. The candidates that were dropped returned quickly to the fold, while in West Malaysia the loss of face from being dropped continues to fester. Cynics suggest that the return had more to do with efforts to stay on the gravy train than loyalty to the party and state leadership. The conditions in Sarawak are similarly fragmented.

As long as Taib Mahmud is in power, the voice for the Melanau remains strong. Malay disgruntlement over his leadership and disagreement over succession issues persist, however, although these are likely not to translate electorally into changed outcomes. The religious conversion of Leo Michael Toyad to Islam in order to marry another woman, however, has caused ripples which will potentially lead to a reduced majority minimally in Mukah.

The concerns of Sarawakian Malays are being channeled by the increasingly prominent presence of Umno, which now has close to 40 branches in the state. Umno is waiting – somewhat impatiently – until the tenure of the chief minister is over and it can establish its new political base. For non-Malays, there are deep concerns about Umno power. For local Malays/Melanaus there is also sense of anxiety, but the divide-and-rule tactic is playing out here as well as Umno is gaining ground in the last state where it does not have a base.

Chances spoilt by three-cornered fights

Given the terrain of issues, why then does the BN continue to hold onto power so decisively in these majestic resource-rich states. The answer lies in part with the weakness of the opposition. Generally, the opposition is unable to get its message across beyond the rural areas and, endemic of weak parties, lacks effective machinery. The exception is the DAP in Sarawak cities. The serious problem for the opposition this round is infighting.

The opposition is riddled with factionalism and many of the candidates are unknowns. In states where the local standing of the individual candidate matters, and personality remains very important since party identity is weaker, the choice of the PKR slate and in some case the DAP candidate do not offer strong alternatives to counter the resources of the BN.

In Sabah, the PKR led by Jeffrey Kitingan (left) was to provide an alternative, but its leadership has not been able to bring the party together. The PKR in Sabah is fighting itself. Any PKR gains seats – if any – will be at the state level in individual seats such as Api-Api and Karambunai. Cohesiveness with PKR would have improved its chances.

The opposition divisions extends to fighting between the DAP and PKR in both Sabah and East Malaysia. The DAP standing in Kota Kinabalu has undermined the chances of the opposition winning this seat. Given that the DAP candidate has been an ineffective challenger for so long, the unwillingness to give way to the dynamic lawyer Christina Liew is illustrative of the larger problem of opposition cooperation in East Malaysia.

From Sibu to Stampin, where there are needless three-corner fights that arise more from personal antagonisms than from substantive policy differences, the opposition has potentially created its own defeat in these seats. This is truer in Stampin than in Sibu, where the PKR candidate Lim Chin Chuang is much weaker.

The three key seats where the opposition victories remain viable are Kuching, Sibu and Sandakan. In vibrant Kuching, charismatic Chong Jieng Jen (left) faces capable challenger Alan Sim. Both lawyers in training, they are trying to woo voters by demonstrating that they are better representatives for the Chinese, with Chong pointing to his record as a voice nationally and in the state assembly and Sim highlighting education gains and regeneration within the SUPP.

Sim’s chances will potentially be hurt by SUPP infighting. It is this infighting that will open up the way for possible change in Lanang – a reconfigured seat near and in Sibu. Banker David Wong Kee Woan from DAP faces off against popular tycoon Tiong King Sing, in which the underdog is hoping for a chance to illustrate that a voice for change is more effective than the status quo of big money political dominance in Sibu.

In Sandakan, the DAP has a fighting chance against the new young president of LDP, Liew Vui Keong, who continues to face infighting within this own party. The removal of Chong Kah Kiat from the cabinet in April last year continues to affect this party and its dynamics within the BN. Chong Chu Lin @ Shanthy, a former judge, is perhaps the strongest DAP candidate in Sabah, and the opportunity to win this seat (won many years ago) is now on the cards.

Parliamentary seats remain more competitive for DAP, which has undergone a significant regeneration of its base in Sarawak under the leadership of Wong Ho Leng. Overall, however, the lack of cooperation has weakened the opposition, potentially spoiling opportunities for greater gains.

Any additional opposition/independent victories in rural areas will come down to the personality of individual candidates. Where candidates such as Pantau Rubis are strong and locally known, their chances are stronger.

The opposition in both states has missed a valuable opportunity to make inroads. If gains are made, they will be largely the result of infighting within BN component parties, not the result of effective channeling of the concerns of East Malaysians. Expect lower turnout, especially in Sarawak which only has the parliamentary contests to bring people to the polls.

The changing political terrain of these states, however, within growing Umno dominance, will continue to make these areas ripe for opposition gains. This base for the third-thirds in parliament may be safe this election, but the possibility of change remains ripe for the future.

DR BRIDGET WELSH is assistant professor in Southeast Asian studies at John Hopkins University-SAIS, Washington DC. She is following the campaign trail in a number of states. Her final stop is the Malay heartlands of Kelantan and Terengganu. She can be contacted at bbwelsh@jhu.edu

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