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Sarawak political machine will keep propping up Najib

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In Brief

On 7 May residents of Sarawak, the larger of the two Malaysian states located on Borneo island, will be going to the polls. Sarawak is the only one of Malaysia’s 13 states to hold its state and federal polls separately.


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This is the first election in Malaysia since the emergence of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) crisis engulfing Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Many Malaysian and international pundits are using the results of the upcoming Sarawak polls to see if the 1MDB scandal will affect Malaysian voter behaviour. Najib has taken a personal interest in the polls, visiting Sarawak more than 50 times since he took power in 2009.

It is fairly obvious that he is looking for a big win in Sarawak to use as political capital and momentum for the next federal polls, due in 2018. Many international and Malaysian observers are speculating about how Najib’s political position may have been weakened by allegations that US$1.1 billion (or more) from the 1MBD fund ended up in his personal bank account. But they often overlook that a major part of Najib’s political strength has been his considerable ability to maintain a majority in parliament.

It is important to understand that Malaysia’s elections are free, but not fair by any standards. Gerrymandering, vote buying, the use of government machinery for voter mobilisation and state control of the mainstream media are all part and parcel of the game. Far more seriously, the Election Commission of Malaysia is consistently accused of bias towards the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government.

But the key is the way parliamentary seats are divided. Essentially, there are three blocs of constituencies in the 222-seat Malaysian parliament. The first is the urban constituencies, almost all of which have an ethnic Chinese majority. Second are the semi-rural and rural constituencies in the Malayan Peninsula — by contrast, almost all are ethnic Malay majority seats. While Najib has been able to win about 60 to 70 per cent of the rural Malay vote, BN has consistently lost the Chinese urban vote.

The third, and most important, are the 57 seats in the states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo (collectively known as East Malaysia). The majority ethnicities in these two states are the native Kadazandusun in Sabah and the Dayak in Sarawak. For the past two decades, these two states have voted overwhelmingly for BN. In the 2013 general elections, BN won 47 of 57 East Malaysian seats. Sarawak alone contributed 25 BN MPs to the federal BN government.

Currently Najib has a 21-seat majority in the Malaysian parliament. In other words, without East Malaysia (or Sarawak alone), Najib’s government would have fallen in 2013. Sarawak’s main party, Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), is now the second largest BN component party after Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Is it any wonder that Najib has taken a personal interest in the upcoming Sarawak polls?

The good news for Najib is that he has nothing to worry about. As they say in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, ‘BN is sure win, lah!’ Sarawak is much like a foreign enclave in the Malaysian federation. Sarawakians do not really see themselves as part of Najib’s ‘1Malaysia’. Rather they see themselves as Sarawakian first and Malaysian second. The ethnic, religious and partisan cleavages that dominate politics in the Malayan Peninsula have comparatively little relevance in Sarawak. In fact, it is the only state where UMNO does not have a single branch.

Local issues predominate: things like the 1MDB scandal and Najib’s other shenanigans are non-issues outside the urban settlements. The most prominent political campaign in this state election is for a movement called ‘S4S’ or Sarawak for Sarawakians. S4S is pushing for the eventual secession of Sarawak from the Malaysian federation, claiming that Sarawak (and Sabah) have not benefited from being in the federation for the past half century.

On top of this, Adenan Satem, Sarawak’s new chief minister, can expect to benefit from a ‘honeymoon vote’. He took power in 2014 after the controversial former chief minister Taib Mahmud stepped down (or rather stepped up, since he became Governor of Sarawak) after more than three decades in the job.

Just to make sure, 11 new state constituencies were created for this coming state election, bringing the total to 82 state seats. The way the boundaries were drawn, it is impossible for BN to lose 10 of these 11 new seats.

The only group of Sarawakians that is expected to vote against BN is the urban Chinese. They have never forgiven Taib’s alleged kleptocracy. Being better educated, and with access to the internet and social media, the urban Chinese want to send a clear message to BN that while it is good that UMNO is not in Sarawak, nothing is politically forgotten until Taib and his proxy Adenam give up their stranglehold over Sarawak politics.

The upcoming Sarawak elections will likely amount to nothing but a big yawn. Chief minister Adenan will get the all-important two-thirds majority in the state legislature and Najib will claim some credit for the results. Those who know Sarawak politics well will realise that this is pure nonsense — the results will be the same as usual regardless of how many times Najib has shown his face in Sarawak.

Professor James Chin is Director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania.

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