Feeling the ripples of discontent


The just concluded Sarawak elections threw up some surprises, and the stronginroads by the Opposition has caused ripples. SUHAINI AZNAM, who was inSarawak for the polls, analyses the issues that led to the interesting results. 

AWEEK after the Sarawak state elections and long before its political parties conducted their post-mortems, some facets of the campaign have surfaced, shedding light on ‘how the east was won' or lost, depending on the colour of one's banner. 

The Opposition inroads surprised even those in Sarawak, who had not expected the DAP to come away with six out of its 12 seats contested. 

With the Sarawak National Party (SNAP), Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and an independent each gaining one seat apiece, the erosion of nine seats out of 71 was not designed to make a happy 70th birthday gift for Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud. 

The complexity of the election lay in that it was fought on several fronts. 

The DAP had actually campaigned not as an opposition party but as a call to national service. 

BITING THE BULLET: From the longhouses to hilltop homes and urban coffeeshops to down the river, the short and colourful election campaign in Sarawak led to some surprising results with theopposition taking nine seats.

By pointing out that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi wanted to have a clean administration but that no one would help him, and then by quoting Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as saying that the government needed a system of checks and balances, the DAP concluded that “it was our duty to help them”. 

It was a “brilliant line” from DAP advisor Lim Kit Siang, conceded a senior state BN politician. 

After its Sarawak success, the DAP may take this line to the peninsula at the next general election, he warned. 

If crowd size was any measure, the DAP had captured the mood of the populace. 

On the eve of polling day, in King’s Centre, Kuching, the DAP ceramah drew thousands whereas, just three or four kilometres away, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak’s audience ran only into the hundreds. 

His speech and a concert were meant to appeal to younger voters but some of the fresh faces who turned up were not even eligible to vote. 

Among the Dayaks, the campaign revolved around two issues: native customary rights (NCR) land and the deregistration of its one-time champion, the Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS).  

Talk has been rife of a merger between the Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) led by Datuk Seri Dr James Jemut Masing, 57, and his counterpart, the Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP) led by Datuk William Mawan, 57.  

But that talk has remained just that, despite Taib’s surprising insistence recently that the two parties get their act together for the sake of Dayak unity. 

Wherever the SUPP narrowly slipped past the DAP, the better-exposed Ibans did follow the Chinese pattern: Repok, Dudong and Pelawan all showed margins of between 200 and 600. 

Reduced margins also showed the importance of personalities. Poor choice of candidates cost the BN votes. This was the case in Engkili, where Johnichal Rayong Ngipa won SNAP its sole seat. 

In Meradong, another dicey seat, the BN's 26-year old Wong Zee Yeng was not only handicapped by her lack of experience but also by the fact that she was 'an import'.  

In Pelagus, which the BN won, Larry S'ng was considered controversial because of his tycoon father Datuk S'ng Chee Hua's brand of business-politics. 

Incumbents too had an edge. BN's loss of Ngemah by a slim 550-vote margin to its incumbent, Gabriel Adit anak Demong (independent), and its slim 227 margin of victory in Belaga, where Stanley Ajang Batok stood as independent, were a testimony to the name-face recognition enjoyed by incumbents.  

Family was important. Masing was bitter, alleging that his former mentor, Tan Sri Leo Moggie anak Irok, a former federal minister, had campaigned for Moggie's cousin, Adit, tipping the balance in what Masing had thought was a fairly safe seat. 

In nearby Bukit Begunan, the battle of the giants saw the BN throwing the entire weight of its influence behind the PRS' Mong Dagang in an effort to ‘kill off’ veteran politician Datuk Daniel Tajem, theoretically of SNAP. 

The BN won by 1,007 votes but it was a close call all the way between Tajem and Masing's proxy, underscoring an old rivalry between the two former PBDS Iban chiefs. 

In many ways, the BN did itself in with its complacency and overconfidence. Relying on big names from Kuala Lumpur sometimes backfired. Sarawakians preferred to listen to their own 'countrymen'. 

And the outpouring of funds only worked when voters were not passionate about an issue. Land was an issue both the urban Chinese and the rural Dayak felt passionately about – the former in terms of heavy premiums they had to pay to renew expiring land leases, the latter in terms of NCR land. 

The Lun Bawangs of Ba'kelalan, a staunch congregation of the Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB) church, stood solidly behind their favourite son, Baru Bian, 48, a lawyer-turned-champion of the NCR land issue.  

When word got out that Bian, standing on a SNAP ticket, was gaining ground, the BN brought in its big guns and the entire weight of its election machinery to the constituency on the last two days. 

Bian, however, proved that support from his own Lun Bawang community was unshakeable. He whittled down his margin to 475 votes compared to his two previous stabs at the polls. 

Overall, it was a message to Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr George Chan Hon Nam, who himself won but with a majority sliced by half. 

Chan is in a difficult position. A pleasant, gentleman politician, several of his own party members see him as being too much under Taib's influence. 

Apart from their years together in the state cabinet, Taib's son had married Chan's daughter, making them in-laws.  

The repercussions for the SUPP will pan out come the next party elections when Chan will have to face his delegates. If he takes the fall, the party may even be looking for a successor. 

In 1996, former SUPP chairman, Tan Sri Dr Wong Soon Kai stepped down after he was defeated at the polls.  

This is Sarawak, and gambling also factored in the way the results panned out. 

But according to a senior state politician, gambling would only have affected the margins of victory or defeat, not the actual outcome of the results. 

To him, the Chinese in particular, have chaffed at the lack of business opportunities to come their way. Since Chan would not speak up for the Chinese, the DAP would. 

Irrespective of race, the stronger opposition presence was welcomed by the man in the street who for too long felt that their voices were not heard in an almost unanimously BN state assembly.  

Most of all, the election has sent a message to Taib himself. Taib has been in office for 25 years. In that time he has developed a network of business contracts that has made stepping down difficult, even though he well deserves to at 70. 

Even though succession was not a key issue in the campaign, it was the single pertinent question at the back of voters' minds.  

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