Thursday, July 8, 2010

Can Pakatan Really Capture Sarawak?

by Kenny Gan, Malaysia Chronicle

Can Pakatan capture Sarawak? This will be on the minds of many as the Sarawak state election rolls ever closer.

On the surface Sarawak seems ripe for political change. Despite being the richest state in terms of natural resources, it is ironically also the second poorest, a situation which speaks of endemic corruption and poor governance.

But capturing Sarawak is anything but straightforward. BN has held this state in an iron grip since it joined the Federation in 1963 through a coalition of native parties led by PBB. Taib Mahmud, the white-haired Rajah of Sarawak has ruled for 29 years. The tenacity of BN’s rule has been aided by misuse of state resources, tight control of the media, ethnic divide and rule and outright vote buying aided by the inaccessibility of its terrain and the abject poverty of the natives.

The importance of wresting control of Sarawak from BN goes beyond the state government. Sarawak has 31 parliamentary seats, a disproportionate number compared to its population and usually swept by BN at every general election. Capturing the state government will level the playing field for the coming battle in the general elections and will be a precursor to the capture of Federal power.

Ethnic Groups

The state population is composed of 21% Malay, 7% Melanau, 26% Chinese and 46% Dayak which include all the native tribes such as Iban, Bidayuh, Penan and Orang Ulu.

Traditionally, the Chief Minister has come from the Melanau community so they are seen to have special political access. The Melanau are highly supportive of Taib Mahmud as he has taken good care of them. Among the Malays there are many poor and marginalized groups who may be considered fence-sitters.

The Chinese are the most informed voters with the best access to information. The Sibu by-election has shown that BN can no longer rely on the Chinese in Sarawak who may vote on national concerns such as freedom of worship, racial policies, corruption and judicial abuses in solidarity with their Peninsula cousins.

The Dayaks can be said to have the most grievances against the present regime due to uncontrolled logging of their native forests, theft of their native customary rights land and the backwardness of their communities. They are wretchedly poor, lacking in basic amenities and marginalized. Their political voice is muted by Taib’s extraordinarily adept method of divide and rule.

New hope for Sarawak

Common to all ethnic groups is the perception that the wealth of Sarawak has been plundered by the ruling class and their cronies who have grown unusually rich and wealth has been siphoned off to benefit the Peninsula while Sarawak has fallen far behind in development.

Why then have Sarawakians returned BN as the state government election after election until it is mockingly labeled as the fixed depository of parliament seats for BN?

The reason is not that they are happy with the governance, accountability and service delivery of the BN government but due to the lack of alternative. BN gets voted back by default because there is nothing else.

The people are ready for change but there must be a creditable alternative to take over. BN cannot be kicked out by a fragmented opposition which squabbles among themselves.

However there is a new hope for Sarawak. For the first time ever, the opposition parties – PKR, DAP, PAS and SNAP have formed a coalition to present a united front to challenge BN for the state government.

But it is not enough for the opposition parties to merely cooperate on seats to prevent multiple corner fights. They must present a cohesive front and a common manifesto to govern the state to show that they are a serious government-in-waiting. This will be crucial to their election strategy.

Unhappy captive voters

Capturing Sarawak cannot happen without a widespread Dayak swing as it is the voting pattern of the Dayaks which will make or break PR’s bid to win power. Ironically the people who are the most marginalized and abused are the ones instrumental in keeping their oppressors in power

The Batang Ai and Sibu by-elections show how difficult it is for PR to make inroads into the Dayaks. In Batang Ai, where the Dayaks make up more than 90%, BN won with a bigger majority and the Sibu by-election shows a marginal decrease in Dayak support for DAP.

How then can PR dream of capturing Sarawak? To answer this question we must look closely at the mechanics of the voting loyalty of the Dayaks.

The Dayaks are unhappy captive voters for BN due to their poverty, dependence and lack of education. They are easily exploited as a vote bank for BN using the twin strategies of money and intimidation. There is a strong undercurrent of discontent here which can be tapped but to tap it is neither straightforward nor simple.

BN has in place a system where the ‘tuai rumah’ (longhouse headman) is given a monthly salary and threatened with losing his salary and position if he does not bring in all the votes for BN.

But there are glimmers of hope. Young Dayaks no long vote for BN as a matter of course; like the young of other races they tend to vote for the opposition. The Dayak youth are frustrated with their poverty and the lack of lack of local employment opportunities. Many of them work in urban centres and are exposed to the alternative media.

The young Dayaks may be the vanguard of a trend to break free of BN’s captive voting but the change will not happen in time for the next state election. They are outnumbered by older Dayaks who vote for BN according to what the ‘tuai rumah’ tells them. What is needed is a sea change in mindset and the key to unlock this may be found in a united opposition coalition which brings fresh hopes of change.

A Dayak tsunami

Although the Dayaks are sometimes seen to be too powerless to break free from Taib’s Machiavellian control, there is an admirable fighting spirit in them in the way they take the government to court over NCR land issues and set up road blocks to protect their forest from indiscriminate logging. More importantly, they are aware and angry of what Taib has done to them.

Hence it is inaccurate to view the Dayaks as a tragic and ignorant people who sell their votes to BN in exchange for some short term election goodies. The election goodies are nothing compared to the loss of their NCR lands and lack of basic facilities. The Dayaks vote for BN because they feel they have no choice or they will be penalized for voting the opposition who has no chance of winning power.

The only way to overcome their reluctance to vote massively against BN is to convince them that for the first time ever, a change of government in Sarawak is possible. This must be the primary election campaign message of PR. BN’s exhortation to ‘undi perintah’ (vote government) must be replaced with ‘ubah perintah’ (change the government). This message must be conveyed to the deepest longhouses through political leaders, community leaders, NGOs and the young Dayaks working in urban centres.

When there is a possibility of changing the government, threats are ineffective and bribery loses its impact. They may as well take the bribes and vote for their future without fear of repercussion.

The Dayak have suffered long enough. They are ready for a ‘Dayak tsunami’ led by a new political coalition to lead them out of their Egypt.

A huge swing needed

The 71 seats Sarawak Assembly is made up of 11 Chinese majority seats, 16 Malay/Melanau majority seats, 24 Dayak majority seats and 20 mixed seats. Mixed seats are those where no ethnic group exceeds 50% of voters. However in the mixed seats Chinese and Dayak form the majority.

The Malay/Melanau groups are a tough nut to crack but with a total of 55 Chinese-Dayak majority seats or 77% of the Assembly it is clear that if both the Chinese and Dayak vote against BN, the Taib regime can hardly survive.

The Chinese are expected to support PR strongly. If PR can get 55% support level from the Dayak, BN will be swept away. With Dayak support hovering at about 15% for the opposition this means a huge swing of 40% away from BN. To put this in perspective Indian support for BN swung towards the opposition by 35% and Chinese support for BN by 30% from the 2004 to the 2008 general election.

40% is a huge swing but not impossible considering that the voting loyalty of the Dayaks is a house of cards maintained by threats, promises and immediate rewards. Once there is a possibility of changing the government this house of card may collapse spectacularly.

It is possible to wrestle the Sarawak from BN but the opposition must be united and a lot of hard work lies ahead.

From Malaysia Chronicle