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MGG: Symbolism, not power, at stake in S'wak elections
By M.G.G. Pillai
30/9/2001 6:03 pm Sun
27 September 2001
Symbolism, not power, at stake in S'wak elections
Nothing would change in today's Council Negeri elections in
Sarawak: the National Front would romp home without difficulty,
perhaps up to 15 seats would be hotly contested, the personal
fiefdom Sarawak has become to the chief minister, Abdul Taib
Mahmud, would continue. It should have been, but is not, life as
National UMNO wanted a state UMNO, as in Sabah. This
despite a solemn promise when Malaysia was formed it would not.
The former federal defence minister and putative Sarawak UMNO
leader, Abang Abu Bakar, made it known he is the vanguard of
federal UMNO. But federal UMNO could not sustain it without
confronting the state National Front (BN) coalition. And
distanced itself from him.
Taib was too powerful to defy. How federal UMNO decided to
put down the Sabah strongman, Tun Datu Mustapha bin Datu Harun,
is a classic example on how not to behave in unwelcome territory:
UMNO has to watch its back there even if the chief minister is
from it. Forced into a corner, federal UMNO tries to distance
itself from its putative Malay forces in the state.
All it did was strengthen the Malay animus for Tan Sri Taib
and his Melanaus, a conflict between race and religion. But this
federal belief that it must depend upon Malays, more than
Melanaus and Muslims, for succour when the chips are down, makes
for an unhappy presence in Sarawak, as already in Sabah. For all
the traditional aristocratic power of the Malays in Sabah, the
community has yet to have its chief minister.
The Ibans and the other non-Muslim tribes, a sideshow of the
overwhelming non-Iban Muslim governance, look upon the
machinations with ill-concealed impotent disgust, unable to react
and forced to link with the Muslim-led government and hope for
the developmental crumbs off the Taib dining table.
Like the Kadazans in Sabah, the Ibans in Sarawak are the
dominating cultural presence, but sidelined by federal
machinations, waiting for a chance to hit back. Few talk of this
hurt, but it is there for all to see.
The other large community, the Chinese, are divided, as in
the peninsula, between those grown fat off the crumbs of the
chief minister's table, and the large, largely still disorganised
community which confronts fitfully under the opposition, more
likely DAP, banner. If it were the DAP alone that had it, the
governing coalition need not have worried.
Or so it thought. The attacks on the World Trade Center and
Pentagon bombings in the United States, its attendant claims of
Muslim terrorists, the federal government trying desperately to
to make it synonymous with the tepid local variety, and attacks
on DAP for colluding with PAS forced DAP to break away and go it
alone for two reasons; to make known its horror for the Islamic
state PAS espouses, and to take the wind off the sails of the
National Front campaign. It also broke up the fitful opposition
coalition, but that would have come about anyway.
The other federal opposition parties, especially Parti
Keadilan Negara (Keadilan) and Parti Islam Malaysia (PAS), join
the Democratic Action Party (DAP) to challenge the might of BN in
They were not, when the campaign began last week, given much
of a chance. But the ill-concealed confrontation between the
Sarawak Malay and the Sarawak Muslim Melanau has upset the
confident predictions of a complete sweep.
The Malay independents of Abang Abu Bakar felt left down by
the federal Malay UMNO; with those in some constituencies where
they do not contest, more likely to vote for the opposition.
Surprisingly, they back PAS where that party has candidates.
Federal UMNO is frightened at this prospect. Which accounts for
the electoral heat against PAS in the campaign, and by extension,
Keadilan, since those two parties would benefit from federal UMNO
cold shouldering the Sarawak Malay.
In other words, the beneficiary of Malay alienation, Iban
frustrations, and Chinese fear of an Islamic state would not be
the state governing coalition but the opposition parties.
But since the opposition parties are fitfully organised, and
can operate only in areas around the towns and the immediate
interior, and without the huge electoral paraphernalia the
government has at its disposal, this is insufficient to unseat
the government. Not yet. So, the government would romp home.
It is how the opposition would fare that worries the
National Front no end. The presence of national parties in the
state forces the state to look at its problems and needs within a
But local issues dominate. The governing coalition claims
the opposition should be ignored because it cannot form a
government under any circumstances.
This is true, but the opposition admits, individually and
collectively, it is there to put the government on the straight
and narrow, forcing it to work within the constitution, and make
sure issues are aired and properly considered. This is not one
the National Front coalition is noted for, in the states and in
the centre. Not used to such questioning, it fears any
The twin fears of fundamentalist Islam and of the presumed
fallout of mayhem under an opposition is played to the hilt in
the campaign, widely reported in the National Front-controlled
newspapers and government radio and television stations.
The opposition voice is, by and large, stilled. Compound
this with sudden concern for the poor, and formal opening of
government projects and facilities, with the added promise of
more and continued development, the opposition should be on the
defensive. But it is not. It is the government which is.
Taib had to shift his constitutency to confront his Malay
nemesis, who contests there and has the edge in this election.
He retreats to another where his Melanau compatriots would cause
him to win. No one admits this, but it is a sign of a larger
malaise in the politics of the state. This is why it is the
National Front, not the opposition, which needs to show it is
still to be reckoned with.
The politics of divide and rule, a particular National Front
speciality, comes home to roost. The government loses if the
opposition wins in only ten seats out of the 58 at stake. It is
symbolism, not power, that is at stake. The next five years in
office for the National Front would be like none other.