There seems to be more than what meets the eye in the frequent visits by the Prime Minister and his deputy to Sarawak and Sabah in the past five months.
THURSDAY’S visit by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak to Long Banga, near the border between Sarawak and Kalimantan and probably the most rural part of Malaysia that one can get to, has raised the eyebrows of quite a few political observers.
For the Kuching-based pundits, this is the clearest signal yet that the state election is imminent – after all, Najib has effectively closed the Native Customary Rights (NCR) land issue saying the land in question would be surveyed and titles issued.
NCR land is the most contentious issue in the state and was threatening to loosen Barisan Nasional’s grip on Sarawak.
Four years ago, the renewal of lease-land cost the ruling coalition many urban seats. Najib’s recent announcement was targeted to stop the loss of any rural seats.
One Sarawakian commentator reckons that Najib’s five visits in the past five months and the NCR announcement means the state election would be held soon.
Najib’s visits have been supplemented by those of his deputy Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who has been to Sarawak as frequently as his boss, if not more, reinforcing speculation of an imminent state election.
The two have also paid equal attention to Sabah.
Najib has been there every month since April and Muhyiddin has been there thrice in the same period but the Sabah state election is not due until 2013.
For Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, the frequent trips show the importance of the two states and that the top leaders are “working hard to secure Barisan’s biggest vote banks.”
“It’s also worth noting that the Pakatan Rakyat leaders have been making frequent trips as well.”
Khairy says the Barisan is concerned because its loss in the Sibu by-election indicated that if it doesn’t buck up, it could lose more seats.
Political scientist and UCSI University lecturer Dr Ong Kian Ming agrees, saying the frequent trips to Sabah and Sarawak, in particular, reflect a recognition on Najib’s part that these two states can no longer be considered “safe deposits” for the Barisan.
The Sarawak election has to be called by July next year and the earliest possible date to do it is October after the fasting month.
However, because of all the special attention, speculation is rife that the Sarawak election might be held simultaneously with the next general election.
Najib has kept a punishing pace visiting almost all the states within the first half of the year.
“The only states the Prime Minister has yet to visit this year are Perlis and Terengganu,’’ says an observer.
Dr Ong, however, interprets the punishing pace to mean the Sarawak election will be held ahead of the general election.
Dr Ong argues that this scenario is more likely as it would act then as a gauge of Barisan’s ability to regain its two-thirds majority in Parliament.
“Najib can ill-afford not to use the Sarawak state elections to test his own popularity and the popularity of the current Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib Mahmud, and to make the necessary policy and strategy changes if the Barisan fails to retain its two-thirds majority in the Sarawak State Legislature.”
Khairy, while agreeing that the state election will take place first, disagrees that it would be the ultimate measurement of Barisan’s performance.
“The Sarawak state election won’t be an accurate barometer (for the general election) but it will give momentum to Barisan,” said the Barisan youth chief.
For East Malaysian politicians, it is about timing and numbers.
Sarawak with 31 parliamentary seats and Sabah with its 25 are important for both Barisan and Pakatan because it is widely expected the next general election would be a close race.
Kota Belud MP Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan, the Sabah Barisan secretary, says it is no secret that Sabah and Sarawak are being eyed by the opposition as the two states are critical of both Barisan and Pakatan.
“We don’t take it lightly so there is a doubling of our efforts to ensure the support remains with Barisan,” says Abdul Rahman, adding he would be “very, very, very surprised if the general election is called together with the Sarawak state election.
Sarawak DAP secretary Chong Chieng Jen believes Najib’s frequent visits to Sarawak was an obvious indication the state election is very near but stresses that what is more important is how to develop Sarawak for the benefit of common people instead of only a few cronies.
Other opposition-leaning commentators rightly point out that even if Najib wants to hold the elections simultaneously to tie down the opposition leaders, it does not mean the four Pakatan states would follow suit and dissolve their assemblies.
Meanwhile, Najib is going to the deep interiors of Sarawak where no other Prime Minister has gone before and this is in keeping with his 1Malaysia, People First, Performance Now concept.
Najib’s one-day itinerary in Sarawak on Thursday included the opening of the Sungai Puak bridge in Long Banga and meeting the Orang Ulu and Pekan Bekenu communities.
The Orang Ulu community – comprising the Penan, Kelabit, Kenyah, Kayan, Saban, Berawan and Lakiput and downriver tribes including Lun Bawang and Lun Dayeh – make up about 5.5% of Sarawak’s population.
Under the NEM and Government Transformation Programme, billions of ringgit have been allocated to provide roads, tapped water supply and electricity to the folks in the interior especially in Sabah and Sarawak.
One could say Najib is visiting these places to ensure these things are being done.