The Sarawak elections will see Tan Sri Taib Mahmud easily holding on to power despite having to face the most organised and determined opposition in years.
TAN Sri Taib Mahmud returned from Mecca with a glow on his face. He looked in the pink of health and those who were with him on the Haj pilgrimage said he moved so smoothly during the tawaf (circumambulation of the Kaaba) that they had trouble keeping up with him.
The Sarawak Chief Minister was dressed very simply in a white jubah and a cotton kopiah when he flew into Kuching accompanied by his tall and handsome son, Datuk Seri Mahmud Abu Bekir, the second of his four children.
He obviously had a meaningful time in Mecca because one of the first things he said on arrival was that he had found inspiration for the state elections.
Those familiar with Taib’s often cryptic style of speaking said it meant that he has decided on the most awaited date in the Sarawak calendar.
“He has found divine guidance for when to hold elections,” said Datuk Abang Karim Tun Openg, president of the Sarawak Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
What about the beard? Locals have been watching Taib’s beard for hints of the election date – the bushier the beard, the nearer the polls, they had said.
“That was in the past. I don’t think it’s a factor anymore. I notice he likes to keep a small and neat beard these days,” said Abang Karim whose younger brother is state minister Datuk Abang Johari.
The election guessing game in Sarawak has been going on for so long it has become a bit boring. The window is closing, the state legislative assembly term will end by July next year and anyone can see that it has to take place within the next two or three months.
Journalists in the state said it will be any time between March and May.
Taib is obviously in no hurry and does not seem pressured by the political activity bubbling around him. The fact that he is going full term says something about how confident he feels.
He knows he is going to win it. The outcome will not be as sweeping as in the good old days but he will continue to have a stranglehold on the state, give or take a few more seats sliding to the other side.
“I’ve been telling people Taib will retain the state; there is no question of him losing. The only question is whether Barisan Nasional can hold on to the two-thirds majority,” said Professor James Chin of Monash University Sunway campus.
At the same time, it will be unlike any elections that Sarawakians have ever seen. It is not going to be one of those perfect storms but it will be a big storm given the forces that have been building up over the last one year.
On top of that, the Internet will make its debut in Sarawak politics although its impact will be largely on the urban electorate.
A news portal known as the Sarawak Report has been making waves among the urban intelligentsia with its explosive exposés and information about the alleged wealth and assets of the Taib family.
It is a sort of Wikileaks of Sarawak. Even people in the peninsula are talking about it.
Photographs and details of the first family’s alleged business deals and posh homes in London and Canada have been splashed on the website.
“I’m not sure how reliable it is, but it is certainly fuelling anger over the accumulation of wealth in the state,” said Dr Gregory Hii, chairman of Delta Leasing, a financial body based in Sibu.
There have been neither reaction not denial from any member of the Taib clan. The people behind the Sarawak Report are still a shadowy group although there is much speculation that such information has to come from people who are or were close to the Taib family or the state government.
More recently, the Movement for Change in Sarawak was launched with the purported aim of dislodging Taib from his perch. The man behind it is an established Sarawak personality, Francis Paul Siah, who has taken a no-holds barred stand against Taib.
Topping all of this is a very ambitious and hungry opposition front that is out to add on to its seat tally in the 71-seat state legislative assembly.
Up till a few months ago and especially after DAP won in Sibu, Pakatan Rakyat was going on about toppling Barisan and taking over in Sarawak. The bravado has tapered off and reality is sinking in.
It is quite clear that the Malay and Melanau vote is firmly with Taib. He is one of them, their undisputed leader, someone they trust and who has delivered for them. The Dayak and Iban vote, two big groups, are not as solid as before but has not gone rogue like the Chinese vote.
“Sarawak is a complex state made up of many communities. It’s not easy to govern and the Chief Minister has not only provided development but also political stability,” said Abang Karim.
Wooing the Chinese vote
Taib’s headache is the Chinese vote. He has become a lightning rod for the Chinese who call him Peh Mor, a Chinese term referring to his silvery hair.
The Chinese have a litany of grouses about the Government ranging from business opportunities to land premiums for their property. They took their unhappiness to the ballot box in the 2006 state elections. A total of nine seats fell, with the chief casualty being Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), the Chinese component of the state Barisan.
Sarawak also has the largest percentage of Christians in the country and the church will be an influential factor in the coming elections, not unlike the way Islam dominates the politics of peninsular Malaysia.
According to DAP national publicity secretary Tony Pua, the opposition sentiment among the Sarawak Chinese is nowhere near that in peninsular Malaysia.
“SUPP is still a formidable force. It is much stronger in Sarawak than MCA in the peninsula. And whatever people may say about (SUPP president) George Chan, he has tremendous influence among the Chinese, especially the businessmen. We expect gains but there’s a limit to it because SUPP remains a strong force,” said Pua.
Is DAP singing its usual tactical underdog tune?
“No, I’m serious. There’s still a lot of work for us to do. It’s not about playing underdog,” said Pua.
PKR has one seat at the moment and will be lucky to get another despite all the big talk.
The opposition parties are also wary of the White Paper that is being prepared by the state government.
The White Paper has been a hot political topic in recent days.
There has been immense speculation over the purpose of the document which is supposedly aimed at preserving peace and unity and to check the disruptive activities of individuals, organisations or media from outside Sarawak. Those in the opposition are worried it will lead to a ban on their top leaders from campaigning in the state.
The White Paper is said to be a result of misgivings over the Sibu campaign. The Sibu by-election was a rude introduction to the aggressive styles of peninsula parties like DAP and PKR. Sarawak leaders were totally unprepared for the campaign tactics of opposition leaders from the peninsula.
Political warfare like the Sarawak Report and Siah’s movement for change impact mainly the urban electorate although there is now a shortwave radio transmission called Radio Free Sarawak aimed at the outback population who have no access to the Internet.
Taib has been moving around since his return from the Haj. He was in Miri recently and earlier this week, he was in Sibu to hand out service awards to community leaders.
The Chinese sentiment about him is unlikely to change in the short term despite his appeal to the community to support SUPP so that the Chinese will be well-represented in the Government.
“Among some of us, the issue is less about Taib overstaying than about clean and ethical politics. People are tired of inefficiency and wastage,” said Dr Hii.
Newspapers in Sarawak recently carried photographs of SUPP president Tan Sri Dr George Chan, 74, and his new wife, a willowy beauty who is a Michelle Yeoh look-alike.
They were photographed at the Deepavali open house of a Kuching editor. He wore a kurta-style shirt while she came in a flowy long dress with jasmine flowers in her hair. It was the first time the papers identified them as husband and wife.
Dr Chan should be a very happy man but he is probably having sleepless nights worrying about the survival of his party.
SUPP stands to be the biggest loser again at the polls. His party is under siege not so much because of what it has done or not done but because of Chinese disillusionment with Taib. Dr Chan is quite helpless about countering this sentiment, what more the fact that he and Taib are in-laws.
But Dr Chan is said to be pushing for more young professionals to contest the elections. At least 30% of the SUPP line-up for the polls will comprise fresh faces to signal that SUPP is grooming new leaders.
March 26 will mark the 30th anniversary of Taib’s years in power. It is a long time to be in power, which may explain why his regime is facing the most organised opposition in years.
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