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Tuesday May 18, 2010

Defeat a bitter pill to swallow

Sarawak politicians will be doing a lot of soul-searching to find answers to the Chinese disenchantment

PJ UTARA MP Tony Pua was up early on Monday despite having had only a few hours of sleep after a long day and an even longer night.

But Pua, who had been among the DAP young Turks running the Sibu by-election campaign, was his usual adrenalin-driven self, talking a mile-a-minute, his thoughts often running faster than his words. No Monday blues for him, for sure.

The voter turnout, Pua claimed, was actually about 70%, much higher than the official figure of 59% flashed out on polling day.

“When I heard about the turnout, I was really worried. I thought, mati already,” said Pua.

He began calling party chaps at the various polling centres and was told the turnout at Chinese-majority areas was actually quite high, at between 58% and 68%.

Its support in Iban areas had dropped by about 4% and in Malay areas by about 1%.

But, said Pua, its Chinese support had shot up to 69% from 62% in 2008. Practically every peti undi or voting stream in the Chinese-majority areas fell to the DAP.

The Rocket win had been fuelled by Chinese support, especially in the Pelawan area, a state seat currently held by the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP).

The results stunned SUPP politicians. This was basically their show, the candidate, Robert Lau Hew Yew, was from their party.

They had been desperate to hold on to Sibu to plug their boat after the poor showing in the 2006 state polls.

But as SUPP president Tan Sri Dr George Chan admitted, the party was completely overwhelmed by DAP’s streetfighter style of politics.

He was also taken aback by the way DAP leaders had stormed to the Election Commission office to demand an explanation for the delay in announcing the results.

Dr Chan, who is also Deputy Chief Minister, was not making excuses.

Sarawak politicians of his era still have that old world gentleman way about them.

Despite knowing they were about to lose, they were at the Sibu Civil Centre and after the results were announced, Dr Chan and his team went over to congratulate the winner, Richard Wong Ho Leng.

Losing the Chinese mandate in this Foochow heartland is a bitter pill to swallow.

Whatever people may say about SUPP leaders being under the thumb of Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib Mahmud, there is no denying they have played their part in bringing Sibu to where it is today.

But Chinese resentment on all kinds of issues – from land and jobs to Taib – had been building up over the years and it all finally came to this moment.

History had come full circle for the DAP in Sibu. The last time it held Sibu was 28 years ago.

“The Foochow in Sibu still have that pioneering spirit, they are very parochial in outlook and it has been a long and hard journey for them.

“They have reached a stage where they are saying what they feel, there is no need to hide their feelings anymore,” said Professor James Chin of the Sunway campus of Monash University who is from Kuching.

The Chinese discontent here has puzzled many onlookers. Their standard of living is much more advantageous than that of other races and they seem better off than their peninsula counterparts.

Even the DAP leaders from the west were scratching their heads as they looked around at all the posh homes, some of them palatial.

The Christians here would like to think that the political shift has to do with miracles or the hand of God. But the plain fact is that the politics of the Chinese have moved beyond ricebowl issues to complex ideas like justice and good governance.

“The sense we got was that the Chinese here are saying, don’t treat us like beggars,” said DAP’s Pua.

Taib was expected to have called for state elections by November if SUPP had won in Sibu. They will now have to go back to the drawing board.

The big question now is who will bell the cat? Who among the Barisan in Sarawak will tell their Chief Minister that he is a major liability?

Religious issues were flashpoints in the campaign but Taib and his family formed the over-arching issue.

As academic Chin pointed out, the Sibu outcome was not because voters did not support Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and his policies. They were simply not “into” their Chief Minister anymore. Even people in his own Parti Pesaka Bumiputra talk of his family’s tentacles in the economy of Sarawak.

Longevity in politics allows leaders to carry out their ideas and policies. But it also means that the mistakes made can snowball into something unmanageable.

Taib has brought much development to the state but he has also been too powerful for too long.

SUPP leaders are also in a precarious position because they will have to face the DAP in the state polls.

“People are also asking about the effectiveness of SUPP in the state Barisan. They want to see meaningful power sharing, not just lip service,” said Sibu-based financier Dr Gregory Hii.

There was lots of praying before polling. Now there will be lots of soul-searching as state leaders look ahead to the next battle.

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