Loosening Sarawak BN's hold no walk in the park

Children playing on the tibau, a traditional swing of the Melanau ethnic group, at a beach in the town of Mukah in Sarawak. The flags are those of Barisan Nasional and its Sarawak linchpin, Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu.
Children playing on the tibau, a traditional swing of the Melanau ethnic group, at a beach in the town of Mukah in Sarawak. The flags are those of Barisan Nasional and its Sarawak linchpin, Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

BN's splinter parties are likely to complicate matters but the opposition has to face PAS Sarawak - the only state in Malaysia that holds its polls between the country's general elections - is slated to elect members of its state assembly in April. The Straits Times looks at how the battle for Sarawak is shaping up. The election results will be an important gauge for the Barisan Nasional federal government led by scandal-hit Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Despite turmoil in the Barisan Nasional's (BN) dominant but scandal-hit political party Umno, Malaysia's opposition will have a struggle on its hands to loosen the ruling coalition's iron grip on Sarawak in April's state polls.

The biggest change to the east Malaysian state since the 2013 general election, however, has not been the mounting allegations of financial misconduct levelled at Prime Minister Najib Razak and the scandal surrounding state investor 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

It is the fact that an even more controversial figure, Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud, finally quit as Sarawak's chief minister in 2014 after 33 years in power.

Referring to the 1MDB kerfuffle that has shaken Datuk Seri Najib, new Chief Minister Adenan Satem told Chinese language daily Sin Chew last week: "As a matter of fact, these issues have nothing to do with Sarawak, or me, in any way. I don't even know what exactly is going on there!"

Unlike Mr Taib, who was dogged by graft allegations, Tan Sri Adenan is wildly popular. He enjoyed a 74 per cent approval rating last year, according to respected pollster Merdeka Centre.

Mr Adenan has successfully played to Sarawak nationalism in a state known for its majestic hornbills and rainforests and Malaysia's longest river, the Rajang. Many of the 2.5 million people of Sarawak claim to be neglected by Kuala Lumpur's development policies and have little interest in issues of concern to the peninsula such as race, religion and now, 1MDB.

The Sarawak BN, led by Mr Adenan's linchpin Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), has always held more than two-thirds control of the state assembly - except during the fractious 1987 split in the coalition. It is heavily weighted towards remote areas.

The BN has used state resources to sway poor rural voters to stay in power. But the opposition swept nearly all urban seats in 2011, doubling its tally from seven to 15 seats in the 71-member House.

Observers view the state elections - the only mid-term polls in Malaysia - as a reliable indicator of not only how largely rural Sarawak will vote in the next national polls, but also how the vote might trend across the country.

The ruling coalition's hold on Sarawak - known as BN's "safe deposit" state over the past five decades - is crucial. This is because BN's 25 MPs from Sarawak supply nearly a fifth of the coalition's total.

Parliamentary seats are not up for grabs during this mid-term state election in Sarawak. But the balloting for assemblymen could indicate whether Sarawak will stick with the BN come the next national polls in 2018.

"They (Sarawak BN) are in the position of kingmaker, where they can demand anything from the federal government because it is at their mercy," Sarawak expert Faisal Syam Abdol Hazis told The Straits Times from his office at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies.

Mr Adenan has staked his leadership on an ability to extract more from the Najib administration. Last month, the federal government gave Mr Adenan more autonomy for Sarawak in 13 different areas, such as welfare projects and education.

But the opposition was quick to play down the achievement, saying Sarawak could not decide actual policy such as how much to spend on education. "Administrative autonomy is only the power to decide where to build schools and who will be the contractors," said Sarawak Democratic Action Party (DAP) chief Chong Chieng Jen.

Mr Adenan has insisted that greater autonomy and rights to billions in royalty from petroleum resources could follow only if voters showed they supported him. "I am relying on your wisdom on this. I need a strong mandate for me to face Kuala Lumpur," he said a fortnight before announcing his wish to face the electorate on April 30.

The Malaysian federal government extracts oil and gas from Sarawak but the state receives only 5 per cent of the royalties.

The state legislature, which currently has 71 seats, will have 11 more constituencies added for the April polls. All signs point to a good showing for Mr Adenan, as 10 of these 11 new constituencies are in BN's rural strongholds. Surveys even show that two-fifths of Chinese - who dominate urban areas - are ready to vote for the new chief minister, according to Mr Faisal.

"BN can look to continue its hold over the rural seats and perhaps even make some inroads into semi-urban areas," the Merdeka Centre's Mr Ibrahim Suffian told The Straits Times.

But infighting within both the BN and opposition ranks may lead to erratic results.

The opposition parties will now have to face Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) which is not part of the opposition pact any more.

PAS is insisting it will field its own candidates, putting the DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) in a bind.

The DAP and PKR themselves are fighting over the 15 seats they won in the 2011 polls.

The presence of BN splinter parties Sarawak People's Energy Party (Teras) and United People's Party (UPP) has also complicated what would have been straightforward contests for the ruling coalition.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2016, with the headline 'Loosening Sarawak BN's hold no walk in the park'. Print Edition | Subscribe