Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sarawak 10th State Election: a Reflection

Sarawakians have decided on April 16th that Barisan Nasional (BN) again shall rule the State with 2/3 majority. BN seized 55 seats and receives 54.53% popularity votes (PV), seconded by Democratic Action Party (DAP) 12 seats with 19.75% PV, People's Justice Party (PKR) 3 seats with 17.15% PV, and Independent 1 seat with 2.94% PV. Sarawak National Party (SNAP), Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and Parti Cinta Malaysia (PCM) appropriated no seats from the fray. Percentage of voter turnout is 70% which is among the highest in Sarawak state election history. Many might be puzzled and even disappointed because the 2008 12th General Election political tsunami did not reach East Malaysia's shore. While a tsunami did not happen, a wind of change is certainly blowing fresh in Sarawak politics.

Sarawak, despite being the largest and a major entity-component of Malaysia, is arguably among the least known in terms of its religious, ethnic, social, and cultural dynamics that influence its voting pattern. Sarawak is connoted by some as BN's "safe deposit" - a blanket term to label the State and her voters as docile followers of BN. While Sarawakians usually show strong support towards BN, this is not without reasons. In this election, the trend continues with a significant exception - the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) and the Independent reaped sixteen for the opposition chairs with sound legitimacy, consent and will of general Sarawakians.


It is no surprise BN is utilizing each and every government machinery possible. This time, this force is multiplied with direct intervention from Putrajaya, Malaysia's federal government, to insure BN's victory. The Prime Minister himself camped for six days in Sarawak to campaign for BN along with his deputy, key ministers, and UMNO campaign workers imported from the Peninsula. Institutions such as KEMAS and JASA are used by BN ant armies to penetrate deep into Sarawak grassroot voters especially in the rural areas. Liquid and capital assets such as cash money and cars (read: Chevrolet SUV with "G1M XXXX/G1M XXX plate number") are flushed in to ensure the mobility of these machineries. Promises of new projects, instant and long term, are made right before and during the election campaigns. These are just few open secrets of BN well known to Sarawakians.


Some claim money politics in terms of vote buying one of the defining factors that determine the outcome of Sarawakian elections. While this may be true to some extent, especially when the amount is large relative to basic income of the receivers, there is a larger issue at hand. The receivers, usually from targeted specific groups of urban and rural poors in hotly contested constituencies, are cogitating more than which-candidate-to-vote factors when they receive their money.

Based on ground interviews, these receivers attribute the money acquired from political parties, or candidates and representatives of political parties, are simply compensation for their absence in their daily work. Others treat it as the matter of goodwill from a patron: a gesture similar to saying "how are you" and "thank you." Little is this act attributed to moral reasoning that lead to "wrongness" and "unfairness" among the receivers. Still, the receivers reserve their rights to vote whoever they want: receiving (or not) the money is an entire different question altogether, leaving the effect of "money politics" an interesting factor to be explored in Sarawakian elections.


Development is perhaps the cardinal factor that determine the voting factor of Sarawakians. The context of development can be understood in different ways depending on specific needs of each constituency. In rural area, "development" means catering to basic needs such as constant clean access to water, electricity, school, medical center, roads and jetty. In urban area, "development" means catering the wants of a metropolitan society such shrewd town planning, more job opportunity for skilled labors, and infrastructure building. In this election, BN is able to convince the voters it is the capable force of propeling development in the rural areas and some parts of the urban areas.

Instant handouts of water tanks and concrete jetty constructions are examples of immediate goodies received by rural folks as preliminary proofs that BN is able to do more. The long term ones are delivered in terms of pork-barrel projects by means of promises made by key leaders of BN. The execution of those projects in time or as promised is an entirely different question.

As for the urban areas, the Malay-Melanau community is buying the development promises wholesale. SCORE, GTP and ETP (1 MALAYSIA) viewed as the way forward towards advancing Sarawakian economic growth. This is also the group that had benefitted most from Sarawak's urban development from the past fifty years many among the urban Malay-Melanau voters would attribute to the contributions of BN. This is also true for the urban Chinese community for a long time, until recently.


The Prime Minister himself seem to be an icon in this general election especially among the rural voters. Where public images and repertoire of state BN leaders fail, Najib seem to fill the void with his constant chant of 1MALAYSIA: a concept he himself learn and believe is rooted deep within the Sarawakian society. He creates an image of being 'on the ground' Prime Minister, willing to traverse the wilderness of Ba'Kelalan and meet the people there to address their concerns especially on development, had won the heart of rural Sarawakians. The core principle of 1MALAYSIA - unity, is his image label.


The Bible in Malay (and "Allah") issue does not seem to translate in votes for most Sarawakian Christians and Muslims. While the churches are implicitly calling for the 'righteous government,' nowhere is the Bible issue hold ground in any major political rallies and manifestos in contending parties. Perhaps it is shrewd for the Chief Minister and Prime Minister to visit Sarawakian Christian leaders for the first time in history, but the visits draw very little (or quiet?) attention from the mass voters. Even the Malay-Melanaus, whom are the Muslim majority in the State, are not responding to the issue. No rally at the mosque, no heated Friday Islamic sermons whatsoever.


The "anasir luar" sentiment are played by at least three (major) sides among the contenders: BN, PR and SNAP. SNAP is suggesting "anasir luar" is the "orang Malaya, their associates and parties" altogether and focusing on the appeal of Dayakism. BN is suggesting the VALUES brought by (i.e. fiery campaign speeches, character attacks, and "violent acts") "orang luar [= orang Malaya of the oppositions?]" is the "anasir luar." PR is pinpointing "anasir luar" directly to the Chief Minister's wife and associating it with ultra-expensive wedding jewelry! All are expressed in terms of negative campaigns to discredit the oppositions but none seemed have real active and explicit influence on the votes, save maybe the BN versions in campaign banners and posters in the Chinese area (and also on vandalized campaign billboard) sort of saying "we reject the Islamic State."


DAP won 12 out of 15 seats and blasted off SUPP's Prime at his own ground. This is clearly the urban Chinese factor, combined with effective DAP campaign machineries, availability of resources, and decades of experience in serving the needs of the Sarawakians, especially in Chinese majority area. Campaign posters, banners and billboards are well worded and presented in sassy, Hong Kong style artist promotions. The cute rhinocerous hornbill mascot and t-shirt, UBAH, sold out in minutes, in the festive-like gatherings that draws thousands and tens of thousands crowd strong. DAP sentiment is clear and attuned to the Chinese community: "Pek Moh," which is a call for a change in the highest strata of Sarawakian administration. There is also elements of protest votes due to non-performance of SUPP to represent the Chinese community in the government.


PKR, despite its ambition for 49 seats, seized only three. Despite the presence of its big guns such as Anwar, Nurul Izzah, Azmin Ali, Saifudin Nasution, Tian Chua and Wan Azizah, they carry little weight when it comes to vote counts. Their winning in three seats are exceptional: in N.11 Batu Lintang and N.34 Krian mainly because of the Chinese momentum borrowed from PKR's association with DAP. In N.70 Ba'Kelalan, its candidate is a well known long time activist and lawyer to the locals against an unknown BN candidate. In other words, N.70 is the Baru Bian factor, not the PKR factor.

Perhaps PKR's biggest flop is that it was unable to capture the local sentiment and woes of the voters. PKR's campaign machineries and ant armies are poorly trained and equipped.They scare the folks away (who wants to talk to you when the first question you asked is asking for their IC?) instead of making the folks listen to them. Their posters, banners, and campaign rallies reflect little with the sentiment on the ground. Some of the glossy handouts even speak about PKR's ambition to Putrajaya with all its Federal manifestos - which the rural folks couldn't care less. It is true that Anwar is PKR's campaign icon where he attracts crowds whenever he goes, but his charisma alone is far from sufficient when it comes to winning Sarawak. This lack of attention to local sentiment costs PKR dearly both in terms of its material cost and votes - only an eye Sarawakian attention for the one-eyed insensitive party.


SNAP, one of Sarawak's oldest and once most influential party, suffers a major defeat in this election - it wins none from 26 contested seats and reaps only a total of 15 663 votes. Its ambition to be Sarawak's kingmaker (or the King?) is buried when its investment for Dayakism, a sort of Sarawak land for the native Dayaks, does not pay well in this election. Its former strength is much diluted - its splinter such as SPDP is doing well in BN. SNAP loses and turned against its PR alliance in this election. How will SNAP rejevunate is all for us to see.


PCM contested in 6 seats, lost all seats, and garnered only a total 2895 votes, wiping away the possibility of breeding a viable third faction in the near future. However, independents are exceptions to be pondered: 41 of them contested in the election. Although some 26 of them lost their deposit money, the fact that they are willing to enter the election nonetheless without the direct umbrella of BN, PR, and SNAP is something for all to reflect - are there noteworthy political issues missing in the mainstream debate? The fact that the total of 20 064 for the independents, some twofold more than PAS, speak something of their presence. The independent even seized N.54 Pelagus.


At first, there seemed to be hope for PAS with its carefully selected 5 seats it contested. Among them, N.24 Beting Maro was the most promising. Hoping to gain Malay-Muslim majority with significant Iban minority presence, PAS played the usual card: the "Islamic" card, which does not bode very well among Sarawakian voters, even among Sarawakian Muslims.

The exception is in Beting Maro where even the non-Muslim Ibans are joining the 'selawat' rally towards the 'penamaan calon session,' not because they are now subscribing to PAS' Islamic ideology. Rather, it is a march of discontent to the non-performing incumbent BN YB over there who is not addressing to the rural Beting Maro Ibans' (and Malays') economic needs. There is also a general rejection over PAS' notion (or popular perception) of Islamic state (read: NOT the rejection of Islam the religion because Sarawak has its own Muslim dwellers for centuries). This fear of state-ideology-induced brand of "Islamization" prevents PAS from entering the shores of Borneo.

But to PAS' credit, despite its very limited resource availability, PAS goes rustic by moving house to house to preach their messages. Unlike PKR campaign machineries, PAS workers are seen as "people-friendly" where they have sleepovers in the rural villages they are contesting (imagine the likes of Nik Aziz 'menumpang bermalam' at your house, 'insufficient,' even the basic needs, i.e. water... how would you feel?). Alas, the people is not ready yet for PAS. PAS must also learn to understand the local culture - thinking that organizing a karaoke competition as 'berdosa' that requires 'sembahyang taubat' certainly does not help with the campaign.


Not even BN claims it is playing fair in the election. This is pretty obvious where the blatant use of government machineries, resources, and media are thinly veiled behind 1MALAYSIA and is then directly attributed to BN. Some claim BN's total expenditure of RM500 million just for this election, dwarwing its opponents altogether. But perhaps BN's cardinal advantage is decades of experience and deep understanding of the local context had made it a successful party that continues to govern Sarawak until today. Sarawak BN's rhetorics on development and harmonious community are not without basis. Some would say the Sarawakians are naturally so. If this is true, then Sarawak BN leaders must be credited for utilizing and taking time to understand the fine niches within Sarawak's diverse ethnicity, geography and demography.

Of course this had been an uphill battle for the rest. Yet, the fact that there are now 15 opposition seats and 1 independent seat proves that winning is not impossible. Furthermore, no Sarawakian disputes the legitimacy and credibility of the opposition's victory, especially that of DAP. They are hard earned, well strategized and appeal to Sarawakian voters. Certainly there are concerns of vote rigging, phantom voters and other irregularities, but these are far overshadowed by a strong majority given by Sarawakians to most candidates of BN and DAP. Both fought hard and won in their own terms.


Indeed change is coming in Sarawak political landscape, but not as a tsunami or as a hurricane some quarters might expect. People are subtly calling for new faces to propel the higher echelon of Sarawak leadership. Pakatan Rakyat, led by DAP, is making their inroads as the alternative to Sarawak politics. A sudden shoot in voter turnout (70%) suggests a renewed interest among Sarawakians to be involved in politics. The presence of the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, key Federal ministers, the Head of Opposition, and key Federal opposition leaders prove Sarawak is something too precious to lose.

Perhaps they may learn from their brief visits in and around Sarawak's flourishing urban area such as Kuching and Miri, and the rural, almost inacessible, poverty stricken rumah panjangs and kampongs in Ba'Kelalan, Belaga, and Beting Maro, will bring them lessons in devising government and opposition policies in the system of check and balance. Sarawakians themselves must now learn to engage in politics and participate in development.

BN must realize that Sarawakians no longer tolerate a sitting duck. Already the Rockets are hitting hard in town areas. BN is now relying on the rural seats to maintain its cracking shell of political invincibility, and its 10% decline in popularity votes since previous election is the harbinger not to be ignored. Pakatan Rakyat must put faith in Sarawak's polity - forcing a change not well grounded and contextualized on local concerns and understanding will only spell a blind, empty hope of victory.

But in the end, it is not about which party that wins in the election. It is more about the party and the system that can best serve needs of the Sarawakians and sustain its commodious harmony enjoyed from generations upon generations. It takes something special to govern a State about the size of Peninsular Malaysia with 27 different race and ethnicities with various religious beliefs, cultures, and social norms. By choosing to become partner in forming Malaysia, Sarawak expects to give and at the same time enjoy what it means to be part of the Federation. This can only be fulfilled with a working government that serves the people.

As for now, Sarawak had spoken... so let it be.

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