DAP’s massive wins in Chinese seats in Sarawak suggest that the Chinese pendulum has swung all the way to the other side. Will the pendulum defy gravity and stay there or will it now begin to swing back?
WHEN the drizzle persisted as dusk fell in Kuching, some thought it would dampen the grand finale ceramah that DAP was staging on the eve of the Sarawak election. But the crowds came in spite of the weather, little dots of heads stretching as far as the eye could see. Many were clad in red, the theme colour of the DAP’s campaign.
For days, DAP politicians were worried about Batu Kawah, one of the four seats it was contesting in the Kuching vicinity. Their newbie female candidate, who was up against a big man from the Barisan Nasional, not only looked and dressed like a schoolgirl, she sounded like one too.
But that evening, the grin plastered on the face of Tony Pua, PJ Utara MP and the national point man for the Kuching area, said it all – the DAP was on the way to a clean sweep in Kuching. Pua had seen such crowds in 2008, and he knew what it meant.
But it was all quite unprecedented for party veteran Chong Siew Chiang, whose son Chieng Jen is DAP’s Kuching MP and was defending the Kota Sentosa seat. The Chongs are a powerful DAP family in Kuching the way the Lims are in the peninsula.
Chong Sr was the first to speak and when he stepped off the stage, supporters led him to a seat in the nearby coffeeshop. He looked overwhelmed, his voice shook and his hands were cold and trembled so much, he could hardly hold the can of Heineken that someone had cracked open for him.
His nerves could have been a result of the way the police tried to stop the ceramah as he was speaking but it was also because he had never seen anything so major in Sarawak in his 73 years.
“Never before in my life,” he said a few times.
The next day, DAP went on to win 12 of the 15 seats it contested. Party strategist Liew Chin Tong had earlier said they were only confident of 10 seats and if luck was on their side, 12. They were evidently lucky.
The Chinese pendulum has swung all the way to the other end. It has swung back and forth in elections over the years but it has never swung this far to the other side.
DAP took the lion’s share of the 16 seats won by the Opposition. It has been able to hold on to its constituency, unlike PKR which had little traction among Malay voters in Sarawak.
PKR won only in three seats, Ba’kelalan, Krian and Batu Lintang. The fourth seat, Pelagus, went to an independent backed by a local millionaire whose son was dropped as the Barisan candidate.
DAP’s control of the Chinese ground has never been this complete.
Yet, in the days following the polls, party leaders have been strangely defensive about their command of the Chinese ground.
This is the party that has often quarrelled with MCA and Gerakan over who is the bigger champion of the Chinese. But they have gone to great lengths in the last few days to insist that they won not only on Chinese votes but also with Iban support.
And they sounded upset when they were described as a Chinese party which championed Chinese issues.
Has the Chinese pendulum swung too far for the comfort of the DAP? Or more important, has the swing been too drastic for the comfort of the Chinese?
DAP’s Liew is now insisting the Sarawak polls was more about hope and change than Tan Sri Taib Mahmud and SUPP, the Barisan party that bore the brunt of Chinese anger.
It has certainly swung far enough to unsettle the Malays, going by the tone in some of the Malay dailies. Even some of DAP’s Malay allies in PAS and PKR are not going to be comfortable with the party’s advance.
According to Perak Barisan Youth strategist Dr Faizal Tajuddin, there are two lines of thought in Umno over what has happened.
The first, largely among the right wing segment of Umno, is that Barisan should accept the fact that the Chinese are not coming back to the coalition for a while more.
“They think the Prime Minister should just grit his teeth and go on the Malay and Indian support and forget about the Chinese support,” said Dr Faizal.
Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, according to this group, has bent over backwards for the Chinese on so many issues, from scrapping English in the teaching of Mathematics and Science to funding of Chinese schools. They want him to stop pandering to the Chinese.
They are angry that the Chinese “ask, ask, ask and take, take, take, then something else happens at the ballot box.”
The second group is more moderate and inclusive.
Dr Faizal, whose father Datuk Tajuddin Rahman is the powerful Pasir Salak Umno warlord, belongs to the second group.
“We want the PM to keep trying and not give up. A coalition without the support of all the races will not be a strong one and it will be a racially divided country,” said Dr Faizal.
Dr Faizal is also speaking from the Perak context where he knows how important it is for the Chinese to warm up again to Umno and Barisan.
Courting comes to nought
Everyone could see how sincere and earnest Najib was on the campaign trail. He really wanted the Chinese to come onboard with him. They could relate to what he was saying, they knew what he had been trying to do since taking over but, as they said, something else happened at the ballot box.
But even the moderates in Umno admit that all this wooing and courting is over.
“You want to win over a girl and you keep trying. But you have to stop when she starts humiliating you in public. We just have to live with the fact that the Chinese have, for the most part, abandoned Barisan.
“We’ll carry on with that in mind,” said one Umno official.
In that sense, the Sarawak outcome has had a much bigger impact on the Malay psyche than that of the Chinese.
The right wing Malays already see DAP as a Chinese chauvinist party that is concerned only about Chinese rights and issues and their siege mentality is bound to grow more acute.
Even Malays who are not in this group will rethink where they are heading in the context of an ascendant DAP.
This may be one of the reasons why DAP is now so anxious to play down the Chinese tsunami behind their wins.
But there is no denying that it won largely on a Chinese momentum fuelled by frustration over Taib and SUPP.
In fact, there was a very Chinese mood happening at the Sarawak polls.
More than a few Chinese reporters stationed in the urban areas and who did not speak Mandarin were asked in that taunting way: You are Chinese, how come you don’t speak Chinese (Mandarin)?
It was very off-putting for a Malaysian to be confronted that way.
DAP did win in two seats with a large number of Ibans but it also lost in three seats with a big Iban electorate. The party performed best in seats where the Chinese formed 60% or more of the voters.
DAP leaders were also upset when MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek asked SUPP, the big loser in Sarawak, not to accept any government post since the Chinese had rejected their overtures.
It was actually a rather strategic statement. Dr Chua was borrowing from the Sarawak outcome to tell the Chinese in the peninsula that, yes, they are free to vote for whichever party they believe in. No one can stop them from voting for whom they want. He knows the Chinese do not like politicians telling them they cannot do this or that.
But they must also be prepared for the consequences. If they still want to go with the opposition and it forms the next government, then fine. But if Barisan wins, then they have to live with the fact that the Chinese will be excluded from the Government and there would not be Chinese representation in policy-making and implementation.
Dr Chua was basically laying the cards on the table for the Chinese in the peninsula.
The Chinese want the best of both worlds – a say in the Government and a vocal opposition who can articulate their grievances.
But at some point, they have to realise that voting is also about making your bed and lying on it.
Somewhere between March 2008 and now, many Chinese have come to the conclusion that they could be the kingmaker in a match where two powerful Malay groups are squared off against each other.
It is a powerful feeling that they have relived at one by-election after another. But it is also a dilemma of sorts because at this point in time, they are unsure which Malay side is going to come out on top in the general election.
They are still out of love with Umno but not exactly in love with PAS either. As for PKR, they are not sure whether the party will survive Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s personal issues.
The Chinese wanted to punish Umno in the peninsula and, in Sarawak, they wanted to send a strong message to Taib and his hangers-on.
They have done both, so what is next?
DAP knew very well where Dr Chua was coming from with his statement that MCA would not accept any Cabinet post if the Chinese rejected it in the next general election. They know psyche war when they see it because they themselves are so good at it.
They are worried that the Chinese might pull back after this if SUPP is indeed left out of the Sarawak government.
Their other worry is that the Chinese, having vented their anger in the peninsula and across the South China Sea, may feel somewhat vindicated and that some of them may now want to compensate for the imbalance.
DAP is now the undisputed king of the Chinese valley. The problem is that it now wants to go beyond the valley and head for the mountain top. To do that, it needs the Malays to come along but PAS and PKR have been less than reliable in delivering the Malay votes.
But back to the Chinese pendulum – it has swung as far as it can to the other side. Can the pendulum defy gravity and stay there or will it now begin to swing back?