TAN Sri Taib Mahmud is looking fit although his hair has turned a platinum blonde.
The Sarawak Chief Minister cut a trim and debonair figure in his dark suit when he arrived for the State Legislative Assembly sitting last week.
Having a young and gorgeous wife has done wonders for his image. He turned 75 in May but is in better shape than many of his younger assemblymen. For that matter, he looks better than some of his would-be successors who have grown rather grey and aged waiting for their turn at the top.
Taib has shown little inclination of calling it a day after winning yet another solid mandate in the state election. The grapevine in Kuching is that he is staying on.
“There is nothing in his public statements or demeanour to suggest he is going,” said a Kuching corporate figure.
The April state election was the most fiery that Taib has faced since surviving his uncle’s attempt to topple him in 1987. He was the No. 1 issue in the election, or what Sarawak political analyst Dr Jeniri Amir described as the “mother of all issues”. Incidentally, everywhere that Dr Jeniri went after that, people would come up to thank him for speaking out.
Taib was reportedly taken aback by the breadth and depth of the Chinese electorate’s dislike of him and his family.
Yet, as many have pointed out, the election has actually strengthened his hand.
Despite more seats tumbling to the opposition, Taib secured a two-thirds majority while his own party, PBB, won all the 35 seats it contested.
“The captain took the ship safely to shore. How can they tell him to sail into the sunset? The PBB people are caught in a bind even though they feel it’s time for him to go,” said the corporate figure.
SUPP, the Chinese face of the state Barisan, was the big loser. The Chinese wanted Taib out and they took it out on SUPP, whose president Tan Sri Dr George Chan was defeated. The party lost its deputy chief minister post in the government and is still deeply divided over how to reinvent itself.
The Chinese had voted themselves out of the government and SUPP is now in death throes, or what some call a “dead man walking.”
Taib’s loyalists have been telling people that the Barisan is still the preferred choice of Sarawakians and the Chinese rejection is not his fault. Their contention is that SUPP failed to manage Chinese sentiment and paid the price. As such, the big boss does not need to step down and should continue as Chief Minister.
At the same time, Taib is finding out how politics in Sarawak has changed.
The opposition voice has grown even fiercer. But the additional challenge lies in the new assemblymen, Baru Bian and See Chee How, two lawyers who shot to fame for taking on land and native rights cases.
Baru is backed by a powerful church following whereas See’s election campaign had touted his initials SCH as representing Sincerity, Courage and Honesty. They are not like the usual noise-makers in DAP and had tried to table two motions - one to set up a land commission to look into abuse of native customary land and another to redefine the rights of natives in Sarawak.
That is the sort of opposition Taib is facing as he holds on to power.
Taib’s esteem has been affected by the opposition’s open bashing over his policies, his family’s wealth and even his marriage to a woman young enough to be his daughter.
The trouble is nobody really knows what Taib has in mind. The man has always kept things close to his chest. He believes in keeping his friends and enemies guessing about his intentions. That way, they cannot pre-empt him. He is obviously well-versed in Sun Tze’s Art of War.
Hush hush private life
He is even more secretive when it comes to his private life, especially his new life with Puan Sri Ragad Kurdi Taib. His second marriage came as a surprise to even the political circle in Kuching and the wedding date was a closely-guarded secret.
Till today, there is little official information about Ragad, considering her first lady status in Sarawak and her appearance at his side at functions.
Almost everything about her remains a matter of speculation – how they met, what she was doing before her marriage and even accounts of her age have varied from 24 to 34. Her beauty and poise and his undeniable devotion to her all add to her mystery.
But they look companionable despite the age gap and are quite lovey-dovey.
At one function during the election campaign, Taib had taken a bite from a traditional yam cake when Ragad reached out, plucked the half-eaten cake from his hand and popped it into her mouth.
When he made speeches, she jotted down notes in a red leather notebook. One hot afternoon, towards the end of the exhausting campaign, she rubbed his hand discreetly to wake him up when he nodded off onstage.
For now, it seems like Taib intends to stay a full term or at least stretch it as far as the next state election.
It is hard to see him facing another state polls. He would be 80 by then and no real democracy anywhere in the world has leaders of that age. Moreover, he would not want to endure another bruising campaign at the hands of the opposition.
But the scenario is quite untenable for Putrajaya. The next general election is critical for Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and he cannot afford to have parliamentary seats falling the way the state seats tumbled.
DAP has two parliamentary seats – Bandar Kuching and Sibu – and, according to a Kuching-based journalist, another five seats may fall if Taib clings on. They are seats with a sizeable Chinese presence and it will bury the SUPP for good.
“We are talking about a new era of politics. The trend in the state election is not going to change without a change at the top,” said the journalist.
The state Barisan is completely under Taib’s thumb, his would-be successors are terrified of him and his component party chiefs are timid as mice in his presence.
Sarawak’s most powerful man is a master at the game of divide and rule and is said to drop hints to each of his potential successors that they may be the one. The son of one of these potentates is so confident his father will be the successor, he has been behaving like the next most powerful son-in-law in politics.
Another potential successor, Datuk Awang Tengah Ali Hassan who is widely seen as Taib’s favourite, is building a fabulous new house not far from Taib’s even more fabulous residence. Unfortunately, the house has become controversial even before it can be completed.
The argument that Taib still has the support of the other communities is rather fallacious.
There are definitely people out there who are grateful for the changes he has brought to Sarawak but many had also voted for Barisan because Taib had assured them he would go mid-term. And he said this in front of the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.
A great deal of the people’s support was won on that promise and their vote was to say thank you for what he had delivered.
Barisan will struggle in the general election if Taib stays on. At the very least, he has to provide a more detailed and committed exit plan or else Barisan will be in big trouble.
But the next few years are not going to be easy for him with such a ferocious opposition at the door. He has had to concede ground on a number of issues and the last Assembly sitting saw him read out a “personal statement” declaring that he does not have any secret Swiss bank account nor was he under investigation by the Swiss authorities.
On top of that, the MACC is reportedly probing him with regard to allegations of timber concession irregularities. The explosive Sarawak Report has damaged him and he has been unable to explain his family’s wealth and assets.
The attacks will start to switch up again as the general election approaches.
“I still believe he will step down except that he wants to do it on his own terms. But I don’t see him going before the general election,” said Dr Jeniri.
Last March marked the 30th year of Taib as Chief Minister. And as Dr Jeniri pointed out, 2013 will be the 50th year of his political life in government.
Political longevity always comes at some cost and in Taib’s case, it has become more awkward rather than glorious.
Sarawak operates under a different set of rules from that of other states. It enjoys far more autonomy and the federal government cannot call all the usual shots, including that of who should be chief minister.
The federal side can apply the pressure but ultimately it is Taib’s call to make.
His fate is still very much in his own hands.
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