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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

MGG Pillai

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 usual.

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 crumbling

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 Sarawak.

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 national worldview.

Twin fears

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 opposition.

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.

M.G.G. Pillai

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