Malaysia’s Ruling Coalition Loses a Sarawak Race

Asia Sentinel
Chinese voters refuse blandishments of school and development money, go for the opposition

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s 1Malaysia campaign, designed to bring the country’s three main ethnic groups back together and abate racial tension, suffered a setback Sunday when Chinese voters in the Sarawak town of Sibu deserted the national ruling coalition to narrowly elect a candidate to Parliament from the opposition Democratic Action Party.

Najib had made three trips to the town of Sibu, some 50 km up the Rajang River from the coast, and offered a cornucopia of goodies including RM18 million in financial assistance to 65 Chinese schools in what was called the most intensive campaign in the district’s history as the Barisan sought to win back the seat. That included RM10 million for Chinese primary schools, RM5 million for Chinese independent secondary schools and RM3 million for Christian missionary schools. Government workers repaved roads in an attempt to woo voters.

Najib promoted his 1Malaysia slogan as being “the only spirit and philosophy that can hold this country together.” He added that, “There is no reason why Muslims and Christians cannot work together under the spirit of 1Malaysia.” One blogger, however, wrote that Najib should just have abandoned the Chinese voters in Sibu and spent the education and development funds on poor rural voters, who are mostly other ethnic groups than the majority Chinese.

Indeed, on Monday Najib was asked about a controversial bid he had made for Sibu voters, saying he would deliver RM5 million in flood mitigation money for the city, which is perennially subjected to floods, if they would vote for the Barisan candidate, Robert Lau. That kicked off an uproar in the district, with the opposition charging Najib with attempting to “blackmail” voters with the offer and asking the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate,

On Monday, asked by a flock of reporters if he would refuse to deliver the flood control funds, he answered: “We’ll have to see first because we haven’t made a decision on that.”

In the end, despite the efforts by Najib and a host of other major Barisan leaders, the voters picked DAP chairman Richard Wong Ho Leng by 398 votes over the Sarawak United People’s Party’s Robert Lau, whose family is linked to timber, oil palm plantations, printing and newspapers of the KTS group. The National Front has now lost eight of 11 by-elections since national polls in March of 2008 cost the coalition its two-thirds majority in the parliament for the first time since the country became independent.

Both parties in Sibu are predominantly Chinese. Well-to-do Chinese voters, however, appear to have abandoned the SUPP en masse. The SUPP appears to have done relatively well in rural, poor areas and among other ethnic groups. The constituency has 54,695 voters, of which 66 percent are predominantly Foochow settlers. The other groups are Malay/Melanau (17 percent), Ibans (15 percent) with the remainder from the Bidayuh, Orang Ulu and Indian communities. Turnout was relatively low, with only 69.32 percent of the voters turning up at the polls.

The Barisan Nasional had been expected to win the seat, which would have brought the coalition closer to reclaiming its two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat, or national parliament. But, combined with a narrower-than-expected win on April 28 in a northeastern Selangor by-election, which split along racial lines with Malay votes going to the Barisan candidate and the Chinese largely abandoning him, the two elections appear to mean Najib is having problems not only healing racial divisions in the country but pulling voters back into the ethnic parties that make up the components of the Barisan. It takes 148 votes and the Barisan now has 136 but the allegiance of several undecided members against 77 for the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition.

The DAP was said to have made major headway in Sibu by giving widespread publicity to a controversy unleashed in Kuala Lumpur last year when the government banned the use of the word “Allah” by the Catholic Christian Herald as a substitute for the Christian word for God. Despite a threat by Sarawak police to charge them with sedition, DAP campaign workers used the affair to devastating effect, SUPP leaders claimed.

SUPP President George Chan Hong Nam told reporters that the issue, plus claims by the opposition that Bibles had been burned in Peninsular Malaysia, played a major role the DAP win.

“The tide turned against us because the opposition used such controversial and sensitive issues,” Chan was quoted as saying in the Kuala Lumpur-based daily The Star, “We (the SUPP) were not prepared to answer such allegations because we never encountered such religious problems in the state. We were overwhelmed by the issues they brought up.”

Despite Chan’s assertion that the DAP was bringing race into the election, the SUPP itself attempted to use religion as an issue, accusing the DAP of condoning the formation of an Islamic state with Parti Islam se-Malaysia, and termed them “strange bedfellows” with opposing ideologies.

One of the big questions is what the loss means for the long-serving Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, who has been accused for decades of looting the state’s plentiful timber and other resources. The DAP has set its sights on Taib in the next state general election, which must be held in Sarawak in 2011. Thus the Sibu race has been regarded as a barometer for the state race.


Borneo Surprise | The Wall Street Journal

Malaysia’s voters want more than just cash handouts.

Malaysia’s ruling National Front coalition has a time-tested campaign strategy: Promise voters steady leadership and direct development funds their way. The problem is that tack does little to allay mounting concerns over the country’s endemic corruption and lack of real economic reform.

That’s the lesson of the opposition Democratic Action Party’s win in a Sunday by-election in the Borneo Island state of Sarawak. Four-time candidate Wong Ho Leng beat a ruling party candidate backed by Prime Minister Najib Razak by a sliver. The win was such a surprise that one DAP leader dubbed it a “miracle.”

Given that the National Front has had an iron grip on Sarawak for decades, it was. No DAP candidate has ever won in the Sibu constituency. The government also wasn’t taking any chances: Mr. Najib personally traveled to Borneo three times in the past two weeks, and promised 5 million ringgit ($1.6 million) for infrastructure upgrades plus 15 million ringgit for Chinese-language schools. Ethnic Chinese voters compose around 67% of the local voting base.

Yet according to initial reports, Chinese voters flocked in numbers to the DAP, an ethnically Chinese party. Even more significantly, the opposition picked up Malay votes too. In part, that’s because the DAP and its coalition partners are getting smarter about cooperating to physically reach more voters and explain their platform. But it’s also because voters are getting tired of the same National Front strategies they’ve been fed for years as they watch investment capital and jobs go elsewhere in Asia.

That’s why the opposition coalition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, has won eight out of the 11 by-elections held since the March 2008 national election. Even in the tightly contested Hulu Selangor last month, which the opposition lost, Chinese voters swung by almost 20 percentage points to the opposition.

Mr. Anwar attributed Sunday’s victory to a maturing electorate that’s ready to vote on issues rather than on ethnic groupings. If that’s indeed what is happening, that’s a positive sign for Malaysia, if not for its current government.

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 18 May 2010 - 9:24 am

    The big problem is that Najib does not have the intellectual capacity to understand what it means to rule a sharply divided country. The tendency is for him to take the Mahathirist and Perkasa hegemonistic view and abandon the Chinese vote.

    Every comment coming out of his party about the Chinese vote is that they are unable to regain power in Selangor and Penang without the non-Muslim. The issue is much larger than that and worst than they think if they ignore the Chinese vote. Ignoring the Chinese vote means in large part marginalising the entire community from the tycoons, to the small business people, the professionals down to the everyday man. These are people that have never seen what it means if the Chinese community mobilise against the ruling party, not just ignore it. We in the Chinese community understand what we are capable off, they don’t. MCA knows it and their problem is that they are incapable of voicing it, explaining it in terms that UMNO/BN understand. Worst, Najib has no ability to understand it.

    Times are going to be bad not just for Najib but for this nation. Its a price that has to be paid. Better to be paid now than in the future – for ourselves and our children’s future.

  2. #2 by k1980 on Tuesday, 18 May 2010 - 9:29 am

    //”Let’s make a deal. If you deliver me Robert Lau Jr on Sunday, I will sign the cheque on Monday”.//

    Now what if some rich schoolchildren decide to follow the noble example above?

    “Let’s make a deal, teacher. If you cook up my marks and enable me to pass my mid-term exam, I will sign the cheque on Monday”.

  3. #3 by k1980 on Tuesday, 18 May 2010 - 9:34 am

    1malaysia. Money First. Bribe Now.

    How to get rid of corruption when the PM himself is openly promoting it during public rallies?

  4. #4 by buy election on Tuesday, 18 May 2010 - 9:35 am

    Mr LKS, please issue a certificate to all of us in Sibu.

  5. #5 by yhsiew on Tuesday, 18 May 2010 - 9:56 am

    Racist Perkasa played a big role in the defeat of SUPP candidate Robert Lau Hui Yew – thank you Perkasa.

  6. #6 by HJ Angus on Tuesday, 18 May 2010 - 9:57 am

    Najib has disgraced the office of the Prime Minister by blatantly bribing the voters in Sibu.
    Reports should be lodged with the police against such corrupt practices and such a person is not fit to be the PM.

  7. #7 by rahmanwang on Tuesday, 18 May 2010 - 10:30 am

    Huh I watch the video by MalaysiaKini.Najib promised RM5 million for Rejang park for flood mitigation.Helloooo, doesn’t he know firstly the $ belongs to the people.Secondly these monies should have been spent long ago.Why does it have to wait for Buy-election for flood mitigation project?Does it mean if there is no Buy-election then Rejang Park will stll be flooded?What rubbish?

  8. #8 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 18 May 2010 - 10:36 am

    One pleases TDM/Perkasa’s agenda to win Malay votes, the Chinese/non Malay votes are alienated – and vice versa. Trying to please both sides wins in the end no side! Its a dead end road. To please only one side is also a dead end and leads to the nation’s unravelling. There is only but one way : do the right thing and side that which is fair moderate and right. Thats the only moral compass for leadership that is good for long haul. To be sure, thats easier said that done, when one is surrounded by vipers in a snake pit. But its a risk worth taking for any leader, even if he has to fall trying. It is always the desire to hold on to something, whether its position or power desperately, and in that process shirk from the duty to do right and fair, which in the end exposes all of one’s weaknesses and brings out all contradictions that bring one down the sooner. One lives but once and rule but once. Why not try for Greatness of leadership even if one has to go down trying? There are out there many moderate Malaysians who will support you if you have the guts to put in place and have political will to implement the right and fair policy with the good of all at heart. The fact that their voices are not as shrill as the extremists does not mean that they are not out there ever ready to be galvanised at the right time by the right person doing the right thing. The question is whether you have the strength of mind, fortitute and moral compass to brave doing the risky but right and fair thing and prepared to give up everything if you fail against overwhelming odds…. Thats all.

  9. #9 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 18 May 2010 - 10:57 am

    Look at the dance going on in BN. Perkasa and Mahathir is going around saying just abandon the Chinese vote, Najib is saying the machinery need to be updated, while MCA says all UMNO/BN has to do is drop the more sensational issues and it should work. All three are wrong, each of them do not move anything forward, at best keep things were they are. If UMNO/BN abandon the Chinese vote, it might as well abandon the moderate path that is eventual formula for disaster. Any sort of improvement in machinery is marginal and unrealistic without fundamental change such as a reformed judiciary, police, MACC etc. UMNO/BN need the sensational issues or its the Malay vote will move to PAS/PKR. Especially PAS which is disasterous for it.

    Like it or not, the Chinese vote represent the real long term future for BN/UMNO. Abandon it and it abandon its future for ever shorter interest which will run out quicker than they think because those short-term gains run out of steam pretty quickly. Go ask the Taliban and Ahmadenijab or Hugo Chavez.

    Again the problem is all of them – Najib, Perkasa don’t get it and MCA don’t know how to explain it. The really don’t and its our cross to bear.

  10. #10 by Hishamuddin on Tuesday, 18 May 2010 - 11:54 am

    After many years of neglect they think the can just get the votes for 10-20 million of the people’s money.

    The Chinese are already paying 90% of the taxes. What more do they want from the Chinese?

    No opportunity in local University, no more opportunity for grants, no AP etec etec. They have to work their butt out to survive.

    You still think they are stupid after 50 over Years ? Even the Malays knows that it is never the intention of the UMNO goverment to help them. They want them to be kept like Zoo animals.

    Many present generation UMNO “Kings” no longer know how to hunt and feed anymore. Most are just waiting to be fed. Future generation will continue to stay in teh Zoo…. waiting for the next meal

  11. #11 by SENGLANG on Tuesday, 18 May 2010 - 12:27 pm

    PM has committed one of the most corrupt election offense when he ask Sibuans to make a deal with him ie if they vote in BN he will sign the flood mitigation allocation tomorrow . This was one of the most daring promise and the sickest and can only come out from a politician most tinted with corrupt practices. It was also the most insult the people intelligence by selling the notion that if you want to eat comply with what I say kind of mentality.

    We have to understand that all federal fund does not belong to the political party who form the government of the day, it always belong to the people. The government of the day only act as custodian of the federal fund collected from the tax payers. How can BN use this federal fund allocation as a bargain to gain support? If you think deeper we are in the most danger now as we are govern by one of the world most corrupt coalition party.

    It is time to rethink and we have no choice and vote BN out to give PR a chance to prove its worth.

  12. #12 by loveandgratitude on Tuesday, 18 May 2010 - 1:10 pm

    The Chinese in Sarawak, like the Chinese in Penisular Msia CANNOT be easily by Bought!

    PRINCIPLE, TRUTH, JUSTICE, EQUALITY,etc are important to them. Hope the Bumis will emulate them for the betterment of Msia society.

    Syabas to DAP, Wong Ho Leng[for his resilent to contest Sibu for the 4th time}, PAS,PKR & SNAP for their unselfish teamwork.

  13. #13 by HJ Angus on Tuesday, 18 May 2010 - 1:13 pm

    Do you think the PM has any idea that he has committed a grave offence?
    The way he made such a blatant and corrupt offer makes one wonder that he thinks that sort of offer is legitimate.
    When you bribe a policeman, you pay out of your own pocket.
    Here he is offering the bribe from the nation’s coffers; ie not his own money.
    Based on his speech when he said he would never have come to Sibu if not for the buy election, he clearly made a deliberate effort to bribe the voters.

  14. #15 by writecom on Tuesday, 18 May 2010 - 8:48 pm

    What can we do in this country when UMNO dominates everything including their half baked component parties which are also turning irrelevant to their own communities, VOTE for CHANGES.

    They are not helping the rakyat but are forcing their rakyat to park their votes at a safe haven. These are the actual realistic view of the political scenario in East & West Malaysia.

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