Cracking open the fixed deposits

The Economist

The next general election will be decided far from the capital
Long house in need of short wave?

A THOUSAND or so kilometres east of what is called Peninsular Malaysia, across the South China Sea, lies the other bit of Malaysia, the states of Sabah and Sarawak. The two form the northern part of the island of Borneo, encircling the oil-rich mini-kingdom of Brunei. Most Malaysians know little about the remote territories (11 of Malaysia’s 13 states lie on the peninsula). Yet Sabah and Sarawak, out of all proportion to their small populations, contribute two essential ingredients to the running of Malaysia under the long-standing national government in Kuala Lumpur: oil and votes.

Royal Dutch Shell, the Anglo-Dutch oil giant, first started pumping oil out of the ground in Sarawak in 1910. Since Sarawak and Sabah joined Malaysia in 1963, they have sent an outsize share of oil revenues to the federal government’s coffers. That the petro-charged government has remained in the hands of the same political coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN), since independence is also largely thanks to the same two states.

On the peninsula voters have gradually forced the coalition, led by the United Malays National Organisation and dominated by ethnic Malays, to loosen its grip. On Borneo, by contrast, the BN has maintained an electoral stranglehold. Indeed, Sabah and Sarawak are known as the BN’s “fixed deposits”. With the prime minister, Najib Razak, expected at any moment to declare a general election, the opposition coalition must find a way to raid those deposits if they are to oust the BN from power. As ever, the task looks daunting for the opposition and its leader, Anwar Ibrahim. Yet this time round, Mr Anwar’s foot soldiers have a secret weapon, a clandestine radio station.

The electoral arithmetic is simple. At the previous election, in 2008, which produced the best-ever result for the opposition, Mr Anwar’s coalition of parties, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR), won 82 out of 222 parliamentary seats. To take power this time, Mr Anwar needs to gain about 30 more seats. In just Sabah and Sarawak alone, 56 seats are up for grabs, a quarter of the total. In these states, the BN’s grip is near-total. In 2008 it lost two seats on Borneo (although an opposition party has since picked up another in a by-election in Sarawak). Tian Chua, an MP and strategist for the PR, acknowledges that to win the election his side must add ten or more seats in each of Sarawak, Sabah and the state of Johor, facing Singapore at the tip of the peninsula. In Johor, at least, the prospects look fair, but in Sabah and Sarawak the task is daunting. There, away from the cosmopolitan lights of Kuala Lumpur, the darker political arts hold sway.

One obvious way that the system works in favour of the ruling coalition is through the gerrymandering of constituencies. Throughout Malaysia, seats are skilfully carved up along ethnic lines to benefit the ruling party, but the practice is particularly strong on Borneo. Constituencies there tend to be rural and cover huge areas, but hold relatively few voters, usually ethnic Malays or other, local ethnic groups friendly to the BN. Potentially hostile voters such as ethnic Chinese, on the other hand, are lumped together into a smaller number of populous urban seats, where they are still often swamped by BN stalwarts. This way the BN maximises its number of seats with a minimum of voters. A local academic, Andrew Aeria, in a report submitted to the Sarawak parliament last year, underlined how the 16,000-odd voters in one rural constituency had as much clout as 67,000 voters in a semiurban one. Other countries attempt to equalise the number of voters in each constituency. The Malaysian constitution sanctions the gerrymandering.

In Sabah, which lies near the Philippines, there is a further refinement. Critics claim that hundreds of thousands of mainly Muslim Filipino immigrants have been given identity cards as an inducement to vote for the BN.

The BN-controlled governments of both Sabah and Sarawak operate well-funded patronage machines. In Sarawak, which has been run by the same chief minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud, since 1981 (when he succeeded his uncle), government funding is often linked to political affiliation. This can be quite brazen. One minister recently stopped welfare payments to a disabled man after he voted for the opposition. On the eve of elections, BN officials dole out cash to as many voters as they can find—“lunch money”, as it is known in Sabah.

Opposition politicians cannot match the cash, so instead they promise that the people of Sabah and Sarawak will in future keep a larger slice of their oil revenues. Currently, the states get only 5% of revenues, with the balance going to the federal government. The opposition offers a 20% share should it get into power. The PR’s promise to cut corruption is a message that also goes down well.

In this respect, the opposition is being greatly helped by the broadcasts of Radio Free Sarawak (RFS). Whereas most of the local media are controlled by government—and it shows—RFS, broadcasting on short wave from London, attacks the chief minister and his “cronies” for maladministration and alleged corruption. The station was founded in 2010 by a Sarawak-born British woman, Clare Rewcastle, who also happens to be the sister-in-law of a former British prime minister, Gordon Brown. A softly spoken and heavily tattooed disc jockey, Peter John Jaban, does most of the talking in a two-hour show every evening. Thousands of Iban and other ethnic groups now gather around radios in their longhouses in the forests to listen to him, which infuriates the state government. Radio Free Sarawak gives the PR a bit more hope. The opposition should pick up some urban seats in Sabah and Sarawak at the coming election. But to win it still has a mountain to climb.

  1. #1 by Dipoh Bous on Friday, 8 June 2012 - 8:43 pm

    It has been reported recently that Peter John was detained when he returned for the Gawai celebration. Anybody has any latest news about him?

  2. #2 by Winston on Friday, 8 June 2012 - 8:49 pm

    Looks like the fixed deposits are more like current accounts now.
    The natives in East Malaysia are getting wiser and this has resulted in the strong arm tactics being used.

  3. #3 by yhsiew on Friday, 8 June 2012 - 9:51 pm

    Not just crack open the fixed deposits, but make the fixed deposits lost deposits.

  4. #4 by boh-liao on Saturday, 9 June 2012 - 9:14 am

    They r not only fixed deposits, but also SOLID GOLD (priority accounts) 2 UmnoB/BN, Y!? ‘Cos Sarawak n Sabah’s voters r too fixated by UmnoB/BN 4 just a few miserable $$$ n a couple of bottles of tuak
    Sarawak n Sabah’s voters seem 2 enjoy wallowing in a stagnant cesspool of poverty n misery, while UmnoB/BN kakis sapu all n wine, dine n orgy merrily 24/7

  5. #5 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Saturday, 9 June 2012 - 12:50 pm

    Nothing can be forever. Not even umno or for that matter umno’s fixed deposit box. It is quite obvious that umno is crumbling. In-fightings and the constant own-foot shootings are quickly reducing umno to a spent force. It is obvious that umno is no longer ruling. Instead umno is merely reacting to needs and demands and situations, as and when they arise.

    The end is pretty near. I say that minus all the illegal and unfair advantages which umno holds, GE13 would be umno’s last GE. Be that as it may, stand on course for umno will collapse under the weight of its own wrongdoings sooner or later!

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