Monday, March 15, 2010


Malaysians recognise that Sabah and Sarawak now hold the position of kingmakers in national politics. In the wake of the political tsunami of March 8, Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR) are now finely balanced in the peninsula, even if both Umno and PKR are still struggling to make sense of the debris left behind.

Yet this deluge of political awakening and intrigue seems to have missed most parts of Sarawak altogether. A vast chasm still exists, in income, education and internet access, between Sarawak’s 40% urban and 60% rural people.

According to 2005 figures from the Chief Minister’s Department and the Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Commission, only 9.6% of Sarawakians own personal computers, compared to 49.3% in Kuala Lumpur and 19.6% nationwide.

A dial-up Internet connection is an option for only 6.7% of Sarawakians, a far lower figure than the 34.5% in KL and 13.7% throughout Malaysia.

NONEWe may safely assume that wireless internet access in Sarawak is even more woeful, since mobile networks have poor coverage of the state’s vast hinterland. A favourite pastime of rural Sarawakian drivers, moving logs or conveying passengers from villages to towns, is to find a hilltop where they might detect a faint, distant mobile telephone signal. There, the drivers stop their vehicles and clamber up slopes so that they can call loved ones in the towns.

It has been twenty years since the birth of the worldwide web. Even if the internet revolution finally reaches rural Sarawak in years to come, villagers will still be relying on diesel-powered portable generators for a few hours of light every night. They would be hard-pressed indeed to read Malaysiakini and Malaysia Today by candlelight.

Ignorance and tyranny

George Orwell was quoted as saying “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”

Urban Sarawakians have relished their access to alternative media sources. They have begun to voice their concerns, through animated debate in blogs and national news sites.

Before the 12th general election, public demonstrations, an essential part of political awareness and democratic expression, were all but unheard of. Now, gatherings in the main towns, tiny though they may be, have included candlelit vigils to support human rights, to reject ‘1BlackMalaysia’, and to protest the arrests of lawyers during the overthrow of the Perak government.

It is often forgotten that the swing away from Umno and BN on March 8, 2008 was presaged by the state assembly elections in Sarawak in 2006. The BN sustained a surprising haemorrhage of 9 seats out of 71. The DAP won an unprecedented six state seats, while PKR won one seat, all in urban areas. Two other seats were won by non-BN candidates, but both Gabriel Adit and Johnical Rayong are perceived as political misfits, hopping towards the arms of the BN.

chong chieng jen interview 141108 01However, the March 8 parliamentary elections saw Sarawakian voters return to form. Only one opposition candidate won, DAP’s incumbent Chong Chien Jen (right) in Bandar Kuching.

Many angry Malaysians from the peninsula, who want a new government in Putrajaya, condemn Sarawakians and Sabahans for voting for BN on March 8, chastising Sarawakians as ’stupid’ or ‘happy with the status quo’. The 2006 state election results certainly contradict these accusations.

These irate commentators should, of course, be reminded that peninsular Malaysians also voted for BN for 50 years. A majority of peninsular Malaysians were swayed by Mahathir’s ‘Bersih Cekap dan Amanah’ tagline for over two decades, and by Abdullah Badawi’s empty promises of reform. Even now, many in the peninsula continue to place their hopes in Najib’s ‘1Malaysia’ rhetoric, despite the mutilating damage done to our national institutions by the current administration.

It would be far more rewarding for all Malaysians to dissect the reasons for Sarawakians’ voting patterns, as Malaysiakini’s Sim Kwang Yang has done , rather than to heap indiscriminate abuse on Sarawakians.

Money, the root of all power

The pervasiveness of money politics is even more blatant in Sarawak than in the peninsula. Money, and the love of money, is the root of all power.

bn supreme council mt meeting sapp sabah issue 190608 taib mahmudThe main party in Sarawak is Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), steered by aging Abdul Taib Mahmud (right), who bears a striking resemblance to the ‘Big Man’ in VS Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River.

The PBB was successful in all 35 state seats it contested in 2006, out of a total of 71 on offer. The BN’s anchor party also won all 14 parliament seats it vied for in 2008, out of 31 seats. The dominant PBB plays a similar role to Umno’s in the peninsula or Sabah.

The PBB has been successful as an acquiescent instrument of Umno’s policies, even though it claims to represent Sarawakians’ interests and denounces ‘peninsular’ parties like the DAP, PAS and PKR.

Abdul Taib has agreed publicly that Sarawak is a component of an Islamic state, a remark that incensed many among Sarawak’s 70% non-Muslim majority.

The PBB claims to represent Sarawak’s Dayaks, who are mainly Christian and speak some Malay. But the PBB failed to make even the faintest squeak about Umno’s ban on the use of the word ‘Allah’ by Malay-speaking Christians in Sarawak, despite serious misgivings expressed in private by Dayak members of the federal and state cabinets.

Umno has allowed Abdul Taib and PBB free rein in Sarawak as long as it continues to guarantee its ‘fixed deposit’ of parliamentary support.

NONEThe tactics of buying votes in Sarawak have been firmly in place since independence. After the growth of the timber export market in the 1970s, Abdul Taib’s predecessor and uncle Abdul Rahman Ya’kub (left) established a creeping network of political patronage, He began allowing timber tycoons untrammeled access to rural communities’ Native Customary Rights (NCR) land, in return for political contributions to shore up his political power.

After Abdul Taib succeeded Ya’kub in 1981 as PBB president, and by convention, chief minister, the powerful family suffered an acrimonious split. Both uncle and nephew released details of huge, lucrative timber contracts, awarded by the other, to political allies and cronies.

This vicious cycle, of contracts in return for political power, has intensified since Abdul Taib’s ascent. Sarawakian Malays, Chinese and Dayaks pay less attention to the obsession with race that poisons national politics. Instead, they are more concerned about Sarawak’s moribund economy, and the economic hegemony enjoyed by Abdul Taib’s family and friends.

Carrots, sticks and gambling bets

The purchase of a vote for RM50 – a paltry sum for many in the peninsula, but a large sum for most rural Sarawakians – is common practice. Inventive ways of buying votes have been described to election monitors.

Identity Card (IC) numbers of potential supporters have been ‘registered’ by party workers during campaigning, so that the IC holder can visit the party offices to claim a reward, if its candidate wins. Political parties have also blown stacks of cash, on placing huge bets on rival candidates.

As a result, the odds on a party’s own candidate would shorten, encouraging voters to bet on the wealthy party’s own candidate, and to rally votes for that candidate.

National Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) has pointed out that 41.7% of rural Sarawak has no access to treated water. It is hardly surprising that many rural communities vote for BN, in the hope that promises of a water or electricity supply will finally be fulfilled, or out of fear that development plans will be shelved.

The abject poverty of many rural communities, and the fact repeatedly observed by Suhakam, that ICs and birth certificates are withheld from many rural Sarawakians, also contribute to the low turnout rate in rural elections.

I have witnessed rural Sarawakians being ferried to and from voting stations by logging companies flying BN flags, and offering incentives to vote for the BN.

bn banners in sarawak 190605 road junctionThe local press and broadcasting stations have also played a leading role in ensuring BN dominance. They intimidate and threaten rural communities with withdrawal of development funds, if the communities vote freely.

The BN is invariably equated to “the government”, and no alternative is ever described. These organs of state information wield disproportionate power, because of Sarawak’s enormous income and education inequalities.

Many rural communities also remain bound to a strict, traditional class structure, particularly among the Orang Ulu, such as the Kelabit, Kayan, Kenyah and Lun Bawang communities.

The BN has exploited these customary hierarchical power structures, by nurturing political patronage among chiefs, pemanca and penghulu, and by portraying the BN as a patriarchal power. The BN has demonstrated repeatedly that it will arbitrarily remove a community’s chief, or a village’s ‘growth and development centre’ status, if the village votes against it.

How are these political weaknesses to be overcome? Can any alternative to the patriarchal image of the BN ever make an impact on Sarawakians’ consciousness? These issues demand further consideration, leading up to the crucial impending elections that will determine our nation’s future.

courtesy of Hornbill Unleashed

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