Tycoon politics in Sarawak

Adenan fever: Barisan is asking Sarawakians to give Team Adenan a chance. With the man of the moment (seated) are (from left) Datuk Abang Johari Tun Openg, Datuk Dr Sim Kui Hian, Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor and Datuk Awang Tengah Ali Hasan.

IT has been six years since her famous husband died but Datuk Janet Lau is still shedding tears whenever she speaks about the late Datuk Robert Lau.

She is not exactly the queen of sobs, but local folk have been talking about the “crying candidate” for Pelawan, one of the three state seats in the Sibu area.

Pelawan was her late husband’s seat and Janet’s candidature has been the talk of Sibu for several reasons.

She comes from a family of great wealth and connections and her election slogan claims that she is an “Ordinary woman doing extraordinary things”.

But she is 69 and looks her age and one of her opponents is her very attractive niece Priscilla Lau, 48, who does not look her age.

Priscilla: Best looking candidate in a silver-haired field.
Priscilla: Best looking candidate in a silver-haired field.

It is also no secret that Janet has the backing of the powerful timber conglomerates that have made Sibu the town with the most millionaires in the country.

In fact, one of the richest men in Malaysia, Tan Sri Tiong Hiew King, is from Sibu and lives in a house surrounded by fruit trees by the Rejang River.

The Chinese seats are the happening seats in the Sarawak election.

Three rival parties are fighting for Chinese dominance in the Kuching and Sibu regions.

They are SUPP (Barisan Nasional component), BN-direct candidates (as the Barisan-friendly UPP are known) and DAP.

UPP is a splinter of SUPP and they are out to quash each other in the election.

SUPP is upset that UPP has been allowed to contest as BN-direct candidates and to use the powerful dacing symbol.

Janet, together with Datuk Seri Wong Soon Koh (Bawang Assan) and Datuk Tiong Thai King (Dudong), are from UPP but are contesting as BN-direct candidates.

In Bukit Assek, SUPP’s sole candidate Chiang Buong Toon is facing another famous widow, DAP’s Irene Chang, who is hoping to take over from her late husband Wong Ho Leng who died of brain tumour.

The death of the DAP strongman has left a lacuna in the party’s Sibu area. His wife has a good chance of winning but few see her as a worthy successor.

These four high-stakes seats have made the Chinese fight in the Sibu region far more intense than those in the Kuching area.

“Politics and business are intertwined. The Foochows control the state’s economy and Sibu is their nerve centre,” said Calvin Yeo, an executive in a public-listed company in Kuching.

The contests in Sibu seems to have all the ingredients of a successful soap opera – power, money, dynastic politics, ambitious widows, family rivalry and, according to local gossip, a sprinkling of love affairs.

There have been jokes that the ages of Janet, Wong and Tiong add up to more than 200 years.

Some call them the “warga mas team” but they are supported by powerful timber tycoons who have the capacity to make goodies fall from the heavens.

Jokes aside, the contest is essentially about the survival of Wong who has dominated Sibu’s politics for decades.

Wong was the only one who survived the DAP’s sweep of Chinese seats in Sibu during the 2011 state election.

This is ground zero for Wong, 74, who is the leader of the BN-direct candidates.

He is a polished operator, speaks perfect English and has rather charming old world manners. If he falls, it will be the end of the road for him and his splinter party.

The golden trio are not only fighting DAP, they also have to contend with possible sabotage from the SUPP members who have not forgiven them for splitting the party.

SUPP is also fighting for survival via its sole candidate in Bukit Assek. Billboards have gone up appealing to voters that this is a matter of life and death for SUPP in the Sibu region.

The lobby for seats in the Sibu area gave Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem a giant headache. It is understood that the top Barisan leadership had tried to get the two factions to compromise but the marriage is irrevocably broken.

“It’s like this – the CM is the husband, SUPP is the first wife and UPP the second wife. No way the first wife will accept the second wife in the same house, all hell will break loose,” said Robert Lau Jr, the SUPP Bawang Assan branch chief.

Robert: Campaigning tirelessly to keep SUPP alive in Sibu.
Robert: Campaigning tirelessly to keep SUPP alive in Sibu.

Incidentally, Robert Jr’s father is a big shareholder in KTS which is one of the “Big Six” in the Sarawak economy. He is also the younger cousin of Janet’s late husband.

Robert Jr intends to concentrate his resources and efforts on helping the sole SUPP man do well in Bukit Assek.

It is very complicated for Barisan in this town of big-time millionaires.

The situation in the Kuching area is the mirror opposite of that in Sibu.

There are six Chinese-majority seats in the Kuching area where DAP is still the king of the hill.

“The youth vote is still with the Opposition. That has been a powerful weapon in politics since the political tsunami,” said Yeo.

SUPP was completely wiped out in the Kuching area in the last election.

It is truly a do-or-die battle for SUPP whose president Datuk Dr Sim Kui Hian is contesting the Batu Kawah seat. He needs to win or that will be the end of SUPP.

Dr Sim is not the typical political animal and his fellow politicians tend to underestimate him. But that has also been his strength because people are getting tired of the typical politician.

The former cardiologist does not have the looks or the oratory skills so important in politics but there is something very sincere about him.

Janet: She is making her first foray into politics at age 69.
Janet: She is making her first foray into politics at age 69.

There is little doubt he has the brains and energy to deliver the services and amenities that a fast-growing township like Batu Kawah needs.

He represents the break that SUPP has made from the oldguards and he is worlds apart from the era of Tan Sri George Chan whose destiny was too closely tied up with Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud.

His party manifesto talks about a clean government as well as an ombudsman system for their YBs to monitor their delivery. The SUPP candidates also signed an anti-corruption pledge with MACC.

Dr Sim began as an underdog but midway into the campaign, the feedback is that he has credibility among voters.

Moreover, the shortcomings of his main opponent, Christina Chiew of DAP, is widely known in Batu Kawah.

Chiew, who was fresh out of university in 2011, has been overwhelmed by the complexities of Batu Kawah. She is seen as the weakest among the DAP incumbents.

A common refrain among the urban voters is that they have given DAP two terms and not all of them have performed.

Yeo: ‘Sibu is the economic nerve centre of the Foochows.’
Yeo: ‘Sibu is the economic nerve centre of the Foochows.’

The DAP assemblymen here are reminiscent of the Opposition in the peninsula during an earlier era who felt that their role was to make noise and dig out scandals. They did not regard services and looking after the constituency’s needs as part of their duties.

DAP’s talent for criticising and protesting went down well with the Chinese during Taib’s time. They provided an outlet for the Chinese who were frustrated with Taib’s administration.

“Five years ago, everywhere I turned, there was a ‘rocket face’,” said a retired Chinese developer.

Moreover, said the retired developer, DAP has overstretched its resources by venturing into the rural seats.

“This is a tough election, they should have focused on holding on to what they have,” he said.

Adenan has delivered and stolen the thunder from the Opposition. They can compare the report cards of Adenan and the Opposition and they can see he has come out with good policies that have benefitted the Chinese.

The signs are that the fence-sitters who swung to the Opposition are preparing to “Give Team Adenan A Chance”, as his campaign slogan goes.

Whether the swing will be extensive enough to cause any of the 12 DAP seats to fall is a still a matter of debate.

The SUPP campaign was given a boost when Adenan said that the Chinese have to show their support if they want to get back the Deputy Chief Minister post.

Chinese politics in the state has never been this complex. The outcome of the election will determine the future landscape of Chinese politics in Sarawak.

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