Will Sarawak finally get a Dayak chief minister after 50 years?

  • It's Just Politics
  • Sunday, 16 Aug 2020

Selangau MP Baru Bian is now a member of Parti Sarawak Bersatu. - ZULAZHAR SHEBLEE/ THE STAR

New PSB member Baru Bian wants to do in Sarawak what Sabah Chief Minister and Warisan president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal did in 2018.

CAN Parti Sarawak Bersatu (PSB) do a Parti Warisan Sabah in the impending Sarawak elections?

PSB, which is led by Bawang Assan assemblymen Datuk Seri Wong Soon Koh, is the second most prominent opposition party in the state after DAP.

With two PKR leaders – Selangau MP and Ba’Kelalan assemblyman Baru Bian (pic) and Batu Lintang assemblyman See Chee How – joining the party on May 30, it now has six assemblymen and two MPs. In the 2016 Sarawak polls, PSB (which was then the United Sarawak Party) won five state seats as a Barisan Nasional direct candidate. (DAP won seven state seats in the 2016 Sarawak polls and six MP seats in Sarawak in the 14th General Election in 2018.)

In July 2019, Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), which quit Barisan to rebrand itself after GE14, kicked out PSB from the state government.

In neighbouring Sabah, Warisan did the impossible. It won 21 seats and its ally, Pakatan Harapan – comprising DAP and PKR – got eight seats in GE14. After six Barisan assemblymen jumped, Warisan/Pakatan/Upko formed the Sabah government.

Can PSB repeat Warisan’s success?

I posed that question to Baru during a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.

The sentiment on the ground, according to the PSB presidential council member, is very interesting and very encouraging.

Baru, who made a name as a native rights lawyer, noted that there was Sarawakian nationalism just like Sabahan sentiment in Sabah. For Baru, the Sarawak polls will be an opportunity for the state opposition to overturn the political history of his state where the ruling coalition party has never been toppled.

“We are not like Sabah which has changed government several times, ” he said.

I asked Baru to dissect Sarawakians’ support for the opposition by ethnicity.


When Baru entered politics in 1987 via Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS), he said the Dayaks were inspired and encouraged by the Ming Court Affair (a failed political coup in Sarawak triggered by an internal fight in the PBB – Parti Pesaka Bumiputra Bersatu – which is the dominant party in the state).

In the 1987 Sarawak polls, PBDS linked up with Permas, a PBB splinter party. It won 15 state seats and Permas, five. It was short of three seats to form the state government.

“In the 1980s, we had the spirit of Dayakism (the political battle cry of the Iban) as they were fighting for their native rights over land and equal economic opportunities. The difference now is when you talk about the Dayak spirit, it has spread from the Iban to the Orang Ulu to the Bidayuh, ” said the Orang Ulu politician.

The Chinese?

In the 1987 state polls, according to Baru, the Chinese did not move with the opposition. But the Chinese, he said, now see the larger political picture especially after it saw the fall of Barisan to Pakatan in GE14.

“It looks like the opposition will get zero in the Malay and Melanau seats that are under PBB?” I ventured.

“I don’t believe it will be zero. I am confident that there are a few seats that we can win, ” he said.

Baru listed two reasons for this belief: First, PBB is fractured by factionalism. Secondly, he contended that there are level- headed voters from the two communities who will vote for the opposition over issues like Sarawak rights, injustice and unfairness and corruption.

I asked three Sarawakian political analysts Sarawakians whether they think that PSB could “do a Warisan”.

Unlikely, said Jeniri Amir. He said about 45 to 47 out of the 82 state seats are under PBB. They are the stronghold of the party which is the backbone of the GPS coalition comprising PBB, Parti Rakyat Sarawak, Sarawak United Peoples’ Party (SUPP) and the Progressive Democratic Party.

He noted that the Malays and Melanau would be with GPS because they are the minority in the state and they have to stand behind PBB.

The two communities would also want to keep the status quo in terms of the Sarawak chief minister.

“I don’t deny that the fight will be between PSB and GPS in the Sarawak elections. DAP will win seats in town areas. PKR won’t be a force to be reckoned with. But the number of seats that the opposition can win won’t be more than 20 seats, ” he said.

The state opposition is drumming up support by playing up Dayakism, Jeniri said. But he noted that GPS has addressed issues like the lack of development in rural areas and native customary rights.

“The only problem is the GPS government needs a more effective explanation on the ground, ” he said.

The Chinese, he said, are still with the opposition as SUPP was not strong and the sentiment was still with DAP.

“We don’t know whether there is a pact between PSB and DAP, if there is a pact, then there is a danger for GPS in the Chinese seats. But if there is none, then SUPP can win these seats, ” he said.

Impossible, said James Chin, who is director of the Asia Institute, University of Tasmania, Australia.

“At the most, they can be a major player post-Sarawak polls results. If they are lucky, they can become a kingmaker. Otherwise, they are considered a small bloc. My reading is that they cannot win more than six seats at the present moment, ” he said.

Dayakism is a double-edged sword, according to Chin: “If you push it too strongly, you may get additional Dayak support but you will lose non-Dayak support. We saw how PBDS used it in the 1980s, and it didn’t go very well, ” he said.

“The other problem with Dayakism is PSB is more or less led by Wong Song Koh, who is Chinese. So it’s tough to play on that all the time.”

The chances of PSB winning some seats is high, said Prof Awang Azman Awang Pawi, a political analyst from University Malaya. However, he said it won’t be able to form a government on its own.

“If PSB wins enough seats to form the government, who will be its Sarawak chief minister?” I asked Baru, who is seen as the only viable opposition leader in the state.

“We are very aware of the history, that since 1987 the natural sentiment among the Dayaks is as they are the majority in Sarawak, they would like the state to be led by a Dayak, ” he said.

The last Dayak chief minister was Datuk Tawi Sli, from 1966 to 1970.

“But what is important to me is not to focus on the chief minister post as there are many different views on it. It is more important to focus on defeating GPS.”

Can Baru do what Sabah Chief Minister and Warisan president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal did in 2018?

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