Walking the Sarawak tightrope


  • Letters
  • Sunday, 04 Jul 2004

The recent Sarawak Cabinet reshuffle signals early state polls. A tapestry of ethnic interests and real rivalries within each party of the ruling coalition proves that here democracy is alive, writes SUHAINI AZNAM 

PERSONALITY conflicts, subdued ethnic rivalries and money are the hallmark of Sarawak politics. No party is exempt. 

Abang Johari

But the luminaries who lose out one day only return in another party cloak the next. And those who fade away only see their sons, and sometimes daughters, inherit the family political tradition. 

Thus the descendants of Tun Abang Openg Sapiee, Temeggong Jugah anak Barieng and the late Temenggong Oyong Awai Jau, the last prominent leader of the Orang Ulu, are all high-level politicians in their own right today. 

Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud himself runs a tight ship. Taib, president of the dominant Parti Pesaka Bumiputra Bersatu (PBB), had packed off his one-time mentor-and-rival Tun Abdul Rahman Yaakub upstairs as Governor two decades ago and has since held the timber-and-oil-rich state under his sway. 

With 23 years under his belt, the silver-haired Taib is the country’s longest-serving Chief Minister and is revered, some say feared, by his own state cabinet. 

Datuk Seri Abang Johari Tun Openg, a six-term assemblyman, is the PBB deputy president. But Taib is grooming party senior vice-president Datuk Adenan Satem, the Natural Resources and Environment Minister at federal level, as his successor. 

This would be Taib’s third choice. He had once backed former Agriculture Minister Datuk Mohd Effendi Norwawi who dropped out of the March polls citing “health reasons”. 

Taib had also once backed Abang Johari, or “Abang Jo” as he is popularly called in the state, but that too had fallen through when incumbent Abang Johari defended his post against Adenan for the PBB deputy president’s post and won. 

Adenan

Adenan

Taib had not wanted a contest. More to the point, he had wanted Adenan. 

Adenan has not allowed such talk to go to his head. He would “cross the bridge” when he came to it, he said. 

Adenan is Malay. Taib, and his uncle and immediate predecessor Abdul Rahman, are Melanau. To have a Malay at the top would be a first in Sarawak history. 

And whether Malay or Melanau, the question swirling around Kuching now is whether the mild-mannered Abang Johari would accept being bypassed. 

Thus the Barisan’s backbone PBB “has its own undercurrents,” admitted a party leader who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

The multi-ethnic PBB is the party of choice for Sarawak’s 29% Muslim bumiputra, with the Melanau comprising 7% to the Malays 22% of Sarawak’s 2.1 million population. The PBB also has nine Iban state assemblymen in its ranks. 

Despite being in the minority, the Melanau have done very well after two Melanau chief ministers, noted a Malay politician without rancour. 

But not everyone is happy with the Melanau dominance of the Malay-Melanau partnership.  

In 1987, Wan Madzihi Wan Madzhar, Datuk Bujang Ulis and a handful of other disgruntled PBB leaders had pulled out to form Permas, initially under the leadership of Abdul Rahman, in an attempt to unseat Taib. Teaming up with the PBDS, Permas won six seats in 1987 but was subsequently wiped out. 

In 1998, former Defence Minister Datuk Abang Abu Bakar Mustapha had tried to bring Umno into Sarawak, directly confronting Taib who has resisted this move for 23 years. Some Umno supporters, of their own volition, had backed the opposition ABU’s “orange wave”. They failed to dent Taib’s state coalition but managed to embarrass Taib. 

In Sarawak, the Muslim bumiputra need each other to counter-balance the 40% non-Muslim bumiputra and 30% Chinese population. 

Running far more visibly on the surface is the leadership crisis in the rural-based Sarawak National Party (SNAP), with the legendary Datuk Amar James Wong fighting off insurgents within the ranks. 

SNAP was deregistered in November 2002 and dropped from Barisan Nasional. Its fate is now before the courts. 

But its incumbent assemblymen hastily banded together to form the Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP), led by Datuk William Mawan Ikom. The SPDP was registered just three days after SNAP’s deregistration. 

In the March Parliamentary election, the SPDP won in all four constituencies it contested, while the 43-year-old SNAP, again an opposition party, was trounced in all its seven seats. 

Mawan has welcomed all former SNAP members to join his SPDP – in other words, same party, different name, different leadership. 

Meanwhile, the Chinese-based Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) is facing its convention at the end of next year, hopefully well “after the state elections,” said Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr George Chan Hon Nam. 

Born of socialist background, the SUPP has through the years shed its pink tinge. Today, the party is supported by Chinese capitalists and conservative clan associations. 

Chan is grateful for their support but does not like to be overly indebted to any single personality or company. 

“If, say, they give us RM10,000 and SNAP or PBDS asks (them for contributions), they will still give. Big businesses, if they back you, they may expect big favours in return,” he said. “So we usually get backing from all over the place.” 

Anyway, “you cannot buy people’s votes, especially the urban ones. They are intelligent,” he added. 

Studies have shown the Chinese support for the SUPP in towns has fallen considerably, from 52% in 1999 to 40% this time around. In Sibu, support for its MP Datuk Robert Lau Hoi Chew, the federal Deputy Housing and Local Government Minister, slipped by a third – a 3,345-vote margin this time compared to a handsome 9,142 in 1999. 

So Chan will certainly have to fend off the daggers from within. 

SUPP deputy president Datuk Seri Law Hieng Ding, former federal Minister of Science, Technology and Environment, was bitter that Chan had excluded his name for a federal posting. He was later placated but not until the two had fought it out in the newspapers. 

Datuk Yong Khoon Seng, a party vice-president, resented not having been promoted to deputy minister. 

And in Kuching itself, the SUPP was the only party to have lost the seat to the DAP, thereby “spoiling” Sarawak’s otherwise 100% record for Barisan. 

Chan himself takes it all in stride. 

“I don’t feel like working in an environment where I only have half the support,” said Chan, a soft-spoken, gentleman-politician. 

“What is the joy (of politics) if you have to constantly worry about someone stabbing you in the back.” 

Chan is a medical doctor by training and in his early career had served in various parts of interior Sarawak. 

Like his counterparts in the PBB and the PBDS, he too is a strong proponent of multi-ethnic rule. 

Sarawak observers liken the SUPP to the Gerakan in the peninsula – a Chinese-based party with multi-racial components. The SUPP has two Dayak assemblymen. Plus, “the SUPP battle cry of saati is an Iban cry,” noted one politician. 

Here we are 30-30-30, concur Sarawak leaders. 

If one caters only to the 30%, the other 70% will come down hard on you, another pointed out. So the politics of consensus is really the key to Sarawak’s pragmatic rule. 

“The main thing that holds people here together is interdependency – that no one is too strong,” said a Sarawak leader. 

Opposition parties and independents are fractious and stand little chance of making inroads into Sarawak’s political scene. Peninsular “exports” such as Keadilan and PAS made no headway whatsoever in elections. 

Kuala Lumpur is ever watchful of efforts to pull away from the centre. 

After a surprise move by neighbouring Parti Bersatu Sabah to quit the Barisan on the eve of elections in October 1990, Sarawak’s politicians were careful of their relations with the capital. 

“We need the federal. You cannot just go on your own,” said a senior politician with the PBB. “Sabah was a prime example.” 

Thus Taib has been handling the federal government with kid gloves. He delivers the state to the Barisan and they in turn leave him alone to run Sarawak. 

Taib himself, with nine terms as MP for Kota Samarahan, is bitter at SNAP for having stirred up the issue of his resignation in favour of Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Alfred Jabu anak Numpang, an Iban, prior to the parliamentary polls in March. 

In addition, SNAP had urged that the post of chief minister be in future limited to 10 years. 

There was strong speculation – and not just in SNAP – that Taib would resign. But the rumours went up in smoke. 

Jabu himself was scathing in his rebuttal. He accused its proponents of trying to pit himself and Dayaks generally against the Chief Minister. 

Taib’s hold on the delicate balance of ethnic power-sharing is almost legendary. 

Moreover, with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi just coming in at the helm of the federal government, it was not the most auspicious time to have a changing of the guards at state level.  

More Suhaini Aznan analyses

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