In sync with the times

  • Analysis
  • Sunday, 03 Apr 2011

Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib Mahmud is seeking a fresh mandate in one of the most hotly contested elections in recent Sarawak history.

TAN Sri Taib Mahmud’s 30th year as Chief Minister passed without any mention or celebration on March 26.

It was quite odd given that Taib’s friends and family love celebrating his birthday with elaborate cakes and dinners. Even his anniversary as an assemblyman used to be an occasion for fanfare.

But last week, there was none of the usual pages and pages of congratulatory advertisements in the local newspapers or special reports that often accompany such points in his career.

It should have been a special occasion but Sarawak is about to go to the polls and Taib’s political longevity has become a central issue for the opposition in the election which will start this Wednesday.

Taib, 74, is set to retain the state government with a comfortable two-thirds majority but he is also facing the most ambitious and hungry opposition front in years.

It has been said that this will be his most challenging election since the “Ming Court affair” when, to pre-empt a political coup led by his uncle, he called for snap polls in 1987 and won narrowly with an eight-seat majority.

Pakatan Rakyat poses no challenge to Taib’s hold on power but the state Barisan Nasional is likely to see several more seats fall to the opposition.

Peninsular Malaysians who saw seats tumble and states fall in 2008 probably think a few more seats going to the other side is no big deal.

But it is a big deal to Taib who is used to near clean sweeps. The state Barisan has never had to face an opposition of the sort seen in peninsular politics. There have been years when there was only a single opposition in the State Legislative Assembly.

Some politicians in the state were unhappy when former Finance Minister Tun Daim Zainuddin said that Barisan would win with “a few more seats going to the opposition”.

Defeat is not part of their vocabulary and even the loss of nine seats in the last state polls was a mini tsunami of sorts for the Taib administration.

As such, there is some degree of urgency on Taib’s part even though he is quite assured of winning more than 50 of the 71 state seats.

He is not only seeking a fresh mandate, he is also defending his legacy. A strong mandate will allow him to pick a successor of his choice and execute a more dignified exit. This is the context in which the 10th Sarawak election is taking place.

The election will be a sign of the times.

And the signs are that the urban Chinese ground is in a state of flux. The battlefield will be the 15 or so Chinese-majority seats where big stars may fall and new stars born.

The media spotlight will be on these seats where the two rival parties, DAP and SUPP, will pull out all the stops to win.

As the key Chinese party in Taib’s administration, SUPP has had to bear the brunt of Chinese sentiment against Taib. In that sense, SUPP will be fighting for its political survival.

But political sentiments in the urban and rural areas are in sharp contrast. The rural base is still largely loyal and beholden to the ruling coalition.

The PBB, the leading party in the state Barisan and of which Taib is president, is very much in control of its political base.

Taib’s advantage is that apart from DAP, the other opposition parties are less than organised and struggling for funds.

Elections in Sarawak are expensive affairs because the state is almost as big as the whole of peninsular Malaysia and one constituency in the interior is as big as the state of Pahang.

Political parties need boats and helicopters to get around. None of the opposition parties has that sort of resources.

Moreover, PKR and the Dayak-based SNAP have been unable to reach a consensus on seats. PAS, on the other hand, is too small to pose much of a threat.

The Pakatan pact was hoping for one-to-one fights in all the seats but it now looks like multiple-cornered fights will prevail.

The big irony is that while parties like DAP and PKR are all sweetness and comradeship in the peninsula, they have been behaving more like rivals in Sarawak.

DAP has been very territorial about its locus standi over the Chinese seats and basically told PKR to “go fly kite” when the latter demanded to contest in a few of these seats.

There was some public name-calling with DAP’s Tony Pua accusing PKR seat-negotiator Tian Chua a “little Napolean” and Chua returning fire and calling DAP “a duplication of MCA and SUPP”.

But DAP has stamped its mark as the big boy of the Sarawak opposition. It is the party to watch in the polls and if it does well, it will be the party to watch in the general election.

The PKR politician with a good chance of winning is the party’s Sarawak chief Baru Bian. The native lawyer has made a name for himself in land rights issues and is highly respected in Christian circles. He enjoys support among the Dayak intelligentsia.

If it is any consolation to Taib, the opposition is ferocious and ambitious but not exactly united.

Taib is no stranger to controversies. He has survived elections that were filled with issues over logging, the destruction of the rainforests and the plight of the Penans. But this is the first time he has had to confront a campaign that has highlighted his family’s wealth and businesses in such an organised and controversial way. He is unused to such public scrutiny.

Sarawak has always been a little different from the rest of the country and a lot of it has to do with Taib’s style and policies. He has run the state pretty much in his own way.

Over here, Taib goes by the title of “Pehin Sri”, the most elevated title in the whole of Sarawak. Only the peninsula-based newspapers still insist on referring to him as “Tan Sri”. The state exco is known as the cabinet, the exco members are ministers and they have assistant ministers.

The new State Legislative Assembly complex puts our good old Parliament in the shade while Taib’s luxurious private residence sits on a sprawling landscape on the outskirts of Kuching.

He is the only political leader whose official vehicle is a Rolls Royce. Even the roundabouts in Kuching are bigger than anywhere else in the country.

The humble cockle shellfish is considered a specialty here and Kuching folk can sometimes be seen carrying loaves of Gardenia bread on the flight home because it is not available in Sarawak.

And everywhere one goes, one notices how genuinely nice Sarawakians are.

Another sign of the times is the way Taib has felt compelled to address the issues raised in the Sarawak Report website run by the sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

He had earlier dismissed the Internet chatter as nonsense and had said that “they can say what they like”.

He has since spoken out against some of the accusations about him and his children at various public events and the Internet is full of videos of him giving special interviews on the matter.

The Information Department has also published two hefty volumes about him. One is titled Concept of Anak Sarawak, the other is called Bold Steps Forward.

They are actually quite informative in a propagandish way but unfortunately they are as heavy and cumbersome as the old telephone directories.

There is even a spoof website called Sarawak Reports extolling Taib’s achievements and defending him against his detractors although it is not known who is behind it.

It is evidently to counter the Sarawak Report which has become a critical compendium of Taib and his family.

Taib’s biggest legacy to the state, said one Sarawak professional, is the political stability in the state since the 1980s. His administration is synonymous with peace and stability.

Moreover, Sarawakians have good reason to take pride in their race relations and credit does belong to Taib. He has also made education more accessible to the Dayak community, introducing skills training to prepare them for the job market.

The local economy has helped create a sizeable urban middle class although his detractors say the business opportunities have been mostly for a privileged few.

Sarawakians, even those who are now asking him to go, see him as the father of modern Sarawak.

The polls will be a key indicator for the general election even if the issues that will be played out do not have the same sort of resonance in the peninsula’s politics.

The moment is very close and Taib is scheduled to unveil the Barisan candidates today. He was in Putrajaya on Friday to see the Prime Minister about the list.

On Saturday, he looked relaxed and happy at a government event, with his beautiful wife Puan Sri Ragad Turki Taib at his side. They look good together despite the age difference and when the cultural show began, he swayed to the music and even sang along.

Sarawak’s most powerful man for the last 30 years is seeking a fresh mandate and he is going to be at the centre of the action in every sense of the word.

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