As Najib shores up leadership amid criticism, tiny Gedong may play a big role

April 15, 2015

KUALA LUMPUR, April 15 — The oil palm-growing district of Gedong in the eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak is too tiny to get its own zip code. Even so, its 6,712 voters will soon have their own government representative.

Electoral officials are adding 11 seats to the Sarawak legislative assembly by carving out new constituencies ahead of a state election due by next year—wards that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak will want to go to his ruling coalition. The Sarawak vote is a test for Najib as he seeks to shore up his leadership amid criticism of his economic and social policies and public demands by a former leader that he step down.

Najib’s efforts to retain support in the resource-rich state has seen his government build more municipal facilities from hospitals to water treatment plants. His Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition is banking on the states of Sarawak and Sabah on Borneo island — its traditional strongholds — to keep it in power as Chinese voters on Peninsular Malaysia defect.

“BN not doing so well in Sarawak will weaken Najib within the coalition and add to criticisms against him,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of the Kuala Lumpur-based Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. “A strong win will give him a reprieve from all the unhappiness on imposing a goods and services tax this year and concerns about growing debt of government entities.”

BN lost eight seats in the Sarawak state poll in 2011, and in the 2013 general election it lost the popular vote for the first time since independence in 1957, even as it retained power. Sarawak has 31 federal seats of which BN holds 24.

Sliding ratings

Najib, 61, has seen his approval rating slide to around 40 per cent as he moves to plug a budget gap with steps including an unpopular 6 per cent consumption levy that started this month. At the same time, the debt of 1Malaysia Development Bhd., a state investment company whose advisory board he heads, is weighing on the nation’s sovereign rating.

Ex-Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in power from 1981 to 2003, has lashed out at Najib, saying Malaysians no longer trust the premier and the coalition will lose the next general election due by 2018 if he stays. He has cited the mounting debt at 1MDB and the consumption tax.

As Mahathir stepped up his attacks, Najib spoke for an hour on national television last week, saying he has a mandate and will stay leader as long as he has the support of his party and citizens. His deputy later spoke out to back him.

Sarawak, with its oil fields, hydroelectric dams and rainforests, was Malaysia’s third biggest contributor by state or federal territory to gross domestic product in 2012, accounting for almost a 10th of output. Together with Sabah it has 60 per cent of Malaysia’s oil and condensate reserves, according to government data.

The states are politically significant, dubbed “fixed deposits” because they are depended on to keep the coalition in power. Sarawak and Sabah were key to BN securing a parliamentary majority in 2013.

Favourable districts

Even in those two states the opposition has made headway in recent years, said Maria Chin Abdullah of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih.

“They don’t want to lose Sabah and Sarawak,” said the chairwoman of the non-governmental group that seeks electoral changes in Malaysia. “They want the boundaries redrawn in their favour for state assemblies to make sure they control East Malaysia.”

The Prime Minister’s Office didn’t reply to three e-mails and two calls seeking comment on whether the redraw will help the national government retain control of the states.

The result of the Sarawak state polls is key in part because the assembly’s composition determines if the chief minister is an ally to Najib. The opposition has gained voters with pledges to stamp out graft in government and to fight for a bigger share of oil revenues.

Oil royalties

Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem, who has sought greater oil royalties for the state, is popular with voters. His BN coalition party would be well placed to win the new seats, said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania.

Najib has visited Sarawak several times in recent months, to lay the foundation stone for a new hospital and break ground on a community centre, state news agency Bernama reported. He’s pledged to build a 1,663-kilometre toll-free Pan-Borneo Highway at a cost of RM27 billion.

Tan Sri Dr James Masing, a Sarawak assemblyman and president of BN’s coalition member Parti Rakyat Sarawak, said it’s necessary to raise state seats to 82 from 71.

Jungle life

“For a less-developed Sarawak, one must give a lot of weightage to rural areas,” said Masing, who is Sarawak’s land development minister. “Human life in town is also as valuable as human life in the jungle of Sarawak. They deserve our service as well.”

The election commission’s proposals to redraw Sarawak’s electoral map garnered 64 objections, of which 41 were deemed valid. Those included a lack of effort to clean up electoral rolls, Bersih’s Abdullah said.

“We welcome the objections and have looked through them but we have to do our job for Sarawak,” said Election Commission of Malaysia Chairman Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof. “It can be so remote. We need to make more seats for the people.”

The proposed increase in assemblymen in Sarawak will “dilute the presence of the opposition,” according to Democratic Action Party lawmaker and state opposition leader Chong Chieng Jen. The DAP doubled its seats in 2011 to 12.

“They are also raising the seat numbers to ease friction among the BN parties who are fighting for more allocations,” said Chong. “They want more share of Sarawak’s economic cake.” — Bloomberg

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Wednesday, 15 April 2015 - 10:25 am

    My question to Pakatan and DAP in particular, why PR and DAP has to started the real conservative truth – THAT GOVT OWNS NOTHING – EVERYTHING THE GOVT GIVES AND DOES COMES FROM THE RAKYAT IN THE FIRST PLACE..

    If Sarawakians and Sabahan are to be weaned of their feudal and depedency mindset, they have to be believed that “development” is something that belong to them in the first place, the govt is merely the means to realize their belonging..

    If Sarawakians and Sabahan understand that voting opposition will only enhance development, not be grateful when its done, rightfully belongs to then, then their focus will be on what UMNO/BN does wrong, not what belongs to them in the first place..

  2. #2 by cemerlang on Wednesday, 15 April 2015 - 11:17 am

    What does the individual really want ? If the individual only follow the thinking of others, he will forever be a follower and accept everything without question. A developed country versus a developed mind.

  3. #3 by pulau_sibu on Thursday, 16 April 2015 - 9:41 am

    I think the opposition should meet Mahathir to discuss about the issues he has raised, such as GST, Hudud, 1MDB, Mongolian lady, police state, etc. For the common issues of interest to the people, the oppositions should support this 90-year old man. Let’s put aside the wrong things that he has done during his administration.

    • #4 by cemerlang on Thursday, 16 April 2015 - 9:38 pm

      …and 2020 is just 5 years away. Sarawak, Sabah looks almost the same as yesterday. Any hi tech sampan ? Any halogram technology in the rumah panjang ? Any real fast vehicle that can reach say Kapit in just half an hour ? Solar powered electricity for all interior villages ? Not just Bario ? Any communication technology that is smarter than the smart phone or smart watch or smart something ? It is only 5 years away. What are we doing now ? Many people want high technology in their lives. Why should anyone still paddle the sampan in the middle of the night with one miserable torch shining into the wide river ?

  4. #5 by boh-liao on Thursday, 16 April 2015 - 11:45 am

    Dis is NOT gerrymandering
    It’s 4 d good of d nation, M’sia Boleh!

  5. #6 by pulau_sibu on Thursday, 16 April 2015 - 8:06 pm

    Please don’t tell me it is good for NR to stay on because it is good for the opposition to win the next election

  6. #7 by boh-liao on Friday, 17 April 2015 - 8:44 am

    Sabahans n Sarawakians WILL continue 2 vote 4 UmnoB/BN n ensure UmnoB/BN 2 rule M’sia 4 a long long time

  7. #8 by pulau_sibu on Friday, 17 April 2015 - 2:45 pm

    Samy, are you another sleeping retired politician? He wanted to give NR a chance to perform.

    Isn’t it NR has shown his best performance with 1MDB? You want something worst than that in order to be called performance?

  8. #9 by boh-liao on Saturday, 18 April 2015 - 10:09 pm

    Some1 powerful fr Pahang openly praised AhCheatKor sky high
    Rakyat not sure how 2 react
    OK 2 tell dat person “R U sure meh?” n “U wrong lar”? No seditious meh?

  9. #10 by pulau_sibu on Sunday, 19 April 2015 - 12:45 pm

    rakyat can’t react because you may be arrested and sent to jail. he may be pressurised to say so

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