KUCHING: Politicians will play up the “Sarawak for Sarawakians” sentiment during the next state election, especially in front of urban voters, political scientists say.
Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem has already positioned himself as a Sarawak patriot for standing up to Umno and demanding more oil royalties. State-based parties have followed suit. The embattled SUPP recently went on a roadshow called “SUPP for Sarawakians”.
This week, Sarawak DAP issued a press release to reiterate it had autonomy from national leaders, as demonstrated when it left state Pakatan Rakyat in March, before the party as a whole quit the opposition pact this month.
Dr Faisal Hazis, senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak’s (Unimas) Political Science Department, said regionalism was going to be a prominent “narrative” during the polls. “Regionalism is getting prominent, to the extend it’s reach Johor,” he said.
Adenan’s widespread popularity is largely due to his strong Sarawak agenda, besides populist policies like lowering electricity tariff and abolishing tolls. But this was not new for Sarawak Barisan Nasional, Faisal added.
“When you look at Sarawak elections, you will quickly see national issues have little impact on the results.
“The 2008 general election tsunami didn’t even reach the shores of Sarawak. In the 2011 state election (when Pakatan won big), issues were centred on Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud’s long tenure.”
Unimas Social Sciences Faculty Associate Professor Dr Andrew Aeria said regionalism was gaining ground because of weak central leadership.
“This regionalism, ‘Sarawak for Sarawakians’ thing, is the same old broken record played by political parties here. It’s becoming popular because of weak national leadership. In the case of Johor, it’s the royalty asserting itself and it’s being supported by people because, when there is no strong alternative, that becomes the vision of the future,” Aeria said.
Both academics were at pains to point out they were against regionalism.
In his public talks, Faisal has been quick to dismiss the “Sarawak for Sarawakians” tagline (a phrase so popular these days it has become a common car sticker) as bordering on racism.
Aeria described regionalism as one of the four “Rs” that pit Malaysians against one another (the others being race, religion and royalty). “It’s parochial politics, promoting exclusiveness instead of inclusiveness.”
So why do politicians keep promoting regionalism?
Simply, because it has worked for state-based political parties like PBB (which Adenan heads) and SUPP (Sarawak’s oldest party) since Malaysia was formed in 1963, Faisal said.
Politicians were well within their comfort zones when deploying regionalism.
“It really works in the urban areas where people are influenced by race and religion. But in the rural areas, people don’t care about it.
“For rural voters, it will be the usual infrastructure, bread and butter promises. You could explain to them ‘Sarawak for Sarawkians’, but then they go, ‘Ya, but where is my school, road, water, etc’,”Aeria explained.
Asked about Barisan and Pakatan’s prospects at the state polls, which must be held before mid-2016, the academics said the former had it in the bag.
“DAP is going rural but they are new. DAP entered Sarawak in 1978 and it took them decades to an impact. It will need to do a lot of rural groundwork before it becomes an alternative brand for voters who are critical of the establishment.” Faisal said.
Aeria believed the reason national opposition leaders had not been to Sarawak as often as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak (who has been making monthly visits) was because they had written off their own chances of changing the state government.
Crunching the numbers, Faisal showed the opposition would need a swing of 15% in popular votes to win the state polls with a simple majority. Just to deny Barisan two-thirds majority, the opposition would need a swing 10% of votes.
Even during the 1987 state election, when the Ming Court crisis erupted (causing a rift within Sarawak Barisan), a loose grouping of opposition parties only managed to swing 13% of votes.
More recently, in the 2013 general rlection, Barisan secured 94.4% of rural seats in Sarawak, partly by scoring a staggering 87% of Muslim bumiputera votes – even higher than the 73% secured in the 2011 state polls.