In the Land of the Hornbills politics remains local

JUST like its Borneon neighbour Sabah, Sarawak too has its share of “big brother politics”.

In last week’s column, I defined this term as when local politicians call upon their big brother (Kuala Lumpur/Federal Government) to keroyok (Sabah Malay slang for “gang up on”) their siblings.

Here’s a brief history of KL’s influence on politics in Sarawak.

In a research paper entitled “Politics of Federal Intervention in Malaysia with Reference to Sarawak, Sabah and Kelantan” and published in The Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 1997, James Chin wrote that the Sarawak Alliance government under Tan Sri Stephen Kalong Ningkan from SNAP (the Sarawak National Party) fell as a direct result of Federal Government intervention.

“A year earlier, Ningkan had ignored local Malay and Melanau political opposition to legislation on land tenure. During the acrimonious debate on the legislation, which would make land available to non-natives, Ningkan’s political enemies sought KL’s help to topple the Ningkan administration,” wrote Chin, now a professor at the Asia Institute, University of Tasmania, Australia.

“Kuala Lumpur was sympathetic to the protests against Ningkan as he previously irritated the Federal Government by sticking strictly to the Twenty Points (Malaysia Agreement 1963) and refusing many Federal Government requests to speed up the usage of the Malay national language and not promoting more natives to replace the expatriates in the civil service.”

In July 1970 there was no clear winner in the Sarawak polls. Parti Bumiputera (a Malay/Melanau party backed by the Federal Government) got 12 seats, SNAP (Iban-based party) and SUPP (Sarawak United People’s Party, which is Chinese-based) won 12 seats each, and Pesaka (Iban-based party) had eight.

“The then deputy premier of Malaysia, Tun Abdul Razak, had made it clear that the Federal Government would not lift the state emergency (declared after the May 13, 1969, riots) unless Parti Bumiputera were part of the next state coalition government,” wrote Chin.

“The Federal Government wanted Parti Bumiputera because it was seen as a pro-federal party. Parti leader Abdul Rahman Ya’kub had served in the Federal Cabinet as Minister of Education and had pushed through legislation promoting the use of Malay language. Also, the Federal Government did not want SNAP and Stephen Kalong Ningkan coming back to power.”

Arguably, the last time KL seriously interfered in Sarawak was during the Ming Court Affair in 1987.

According to Chin, then Prime Minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad sided at the last minute with then Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Abdul Taib Mahmud against his uncle, Abdul Rahman, who failed to bring down Abdul Taib.

“If the Federal Government had signalled they supported Rahman and (Tan Sri Leo Moggie, the Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak, or PBDS, president), maybe they would have won in the 1987 Sarawak polls. But in the last week of the campaign, Mahathir came out openly for Abdul Taib so Abdul Rahman’s group, which was telling people they had the support of KL, lost steam among Muslim voters. PBDS won most of the Dayak votes,” he said

After the Ming Court Affair (named for the KL hotel in which anti-Abdul Taib assemblymen holed up for security reasons), KL did not again play big brother to Sarawak politicians, unlike in Sabah, where federal influence continues till today.

How did Sarawak prevent big brother from interfering again?

Universiti Malaya sociopolitics professor Awang Azman Awang Pawi pointed out that the Sarawak government had, through the years, maintained a good relationship with peninsula political elites.

“So the term big brother is not relevant to the political situation in Sarawak and the peninsula.

“There was a gentlemen’s agreement made between Abdul Taib and Dr Mahathir to prevent Umno from entering Sarawak. This never happened in Sabah,” he said.

Sarawak is the only state Umno has not entered.

Prof Awang Azman explained that the dominant party in Sarawak, Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), played the role of Umno in the state.

“Abdul Taib is the godfather of Sarawak politics and is respected by political friends and foes alike, and he ensured there was no interference from KL in state politics,” he said, referring to the former Sarawak chief minister and current Sarawak Yang Di-pertua Negeri.

Chin added that Umno (when it was in power at the federal level) was comfortable with the Melanau/Muslim leadership of the Abdul Rahman and Abdul Taib family. Umno, he said, saw the two Sarawak leaders as being pro-KL and Malay nationalists:

“Umno has always been very comfortable with them controlling Sarawak like a personal fiefdom. So, basically, the idea is that as long as Sarawak doesn’t create trouble for KL like Sabah, Umno will leave Sarawak alone with the caveat that Sarawak must always be ruled by Muslims,” he said.

Chin argues that KL kept intervening in Sabah because it feared the Kadazandusun and Murut peoples uniting, which happened under the Huguan Siou (paramount leader) Tun Fuad Stephens and Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan. In Sarawak, he said the Dayaks, the biggest community, had never been united politically.

“The commonality between the Kadazansuduns and Muruts and the Dayaks is, of course, the fact that most of them are not Muslim,” he said.

Fast forward to now.

Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), made up of former Sarawak Barisan Nasional component parties – PBB, SUPP, Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) and the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) – is the current state government. GPS, with 18 MPs, is also the backbone of the Perikatan Nasional coalition Federal Government.

Prof Awang Azman believes that GPS is stronger as a bloc compared with when the component parties were in Barisan.

“GPS can do what they want and support any Federal Government of the day. GPS can play a flexible role within the current dynamic politics to ensure it continues to survive whatever political tsunami might happen,” he said.

Chin contends that even though Sarawak Barisan was strong when the coalition was in power at the federal level, they could not do much when KL thought differently as they were a member of the ruling coalition. “Now, with the Perikatan government, they are just an ally and stand outside (of the Perikatan Nasional coalition).

He said GPS has leverage with the Perikatan government but they won’t use it “because they are getting concessions from supporting it”.

“But the point is that being outside means that they can run any time or negotiate or use their position as leverage.

“So the situation is that GPS is much more powerful than when they were inside the Barisan coalition.”

Sarawak Barisan managed to stop Umno from entering the state. But Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) entered Sarawak when Saratok MP Datuk Ali Biju and Puncak Borneo MP Datuk Willie Mongin quit PKR to join Bersatu. Can GPS stop Bersatu from contesting in Sarawak?

Prof Awang Azman believes that GPS has the strategy to do so.

Chin predicts that it would depend on whether GPS performs well in the state elections:

“Then obviously, Abang Jo (Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Openg) will be emboldened, and he may tell these two MPs not to contest as Bersatu candidates. Or they may do a ring-fence in which Bersatu will be confined to fielding only these two MPs. And in the future, their seats will go back to GPS,” Chin said.

“I guess that he will not go down that route because he cannot be seen to be bending down to Bersatu. So he has to find another formula. The easiest one is for Ali and Mongin to join one of the GPS parties. But that also brings its own problems.”

Unlike Sabah, Sarawak is ruled by local parties that are adamant that they – and not big brother in distant KL – will decide the destiny of their state.

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