Malaysia Votes 2018

Why villagers in Sarawak are faithful to Barisan

Development support for remote areas there keeps villagers voting for ruling coalition

A Malaysian flag draped outside a house at Nanga Singat village in Sarawak. The Igan village, which is 90 minutes by boat from the nearest town, uses purification tanks installed by Barisan Nasional to make river water or rainwater drinkable.
A Malaysian flag draped outside a house at Nanga Singat village in Sarawak. The Igan village, which is 90 minutes by boat from the nearest town, uses purification tanks installed by Barisan Nasional to make river water or rainwater drinkable. PHOTO: REUTERS

SAWAI (Sarawak) • One answer to why Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is likely heading for another victory in next week's general election can be found in the remote village of Sawai, tucked between vast oil palm plantations and a river in Sarawak.

Few of Sawai's residents have heard of 1Malaysia Development Berhad, let alone the multibillion-dollar scandal surrounding the state fund that has dogged the country's Prime Minister since 2015 and fuelled opposition to his bid for re-election next Wednesday.

But everyone here knows about the cash handouts, fishing and farming subsidies, crates of mineral water, and life jackets for children who take river boats to school - and they know all that comes from Datuk Seri Najib's long-ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN).

"We are 100 per cent Barisan," said villager Usup Sirai. "The government has done a lot for us. If we support other people, it would not have the same outcome as supporting the government."

BN is facing its toughest election yet thanks to a challenge led by Malaysia's former strongman, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a one-time mentor of Mr Najib and now his fiercest critic. But the chances of Mr Najib losing are seen as slim, in large part because of villages like Sawai that faithfully vote for BN.

Sawai is part of the Igan parliamentary constituency, which BN won uncontested in 2008 and took again in 2013 with 87 per cent of the votes. It helps that votes in sparsely populated rural areas carry more clout than votes in cities, where popular disgust over corruption and the cost of living favour the opposition.

Igan, with just 19,592 voters, is the country's smallest constituency in terms of electorate size. By contrast, Bangi, an urban constituency in Selangor state held by the opposition, is the biggest, with 178,790 voters. Both elect one lawmaker.

Two-thirds of the constituencies in the East Malaysia states of Sabah and Sarawak are rural or semi-rural, which means they are important for BN to secure a parliamentary majority even if it loses the popular vote, as it did in the 2013 election. The two states together account for a quarter of all Parliament seats.

Critics accuse Mr Najib - as they did Dr Mahathir before him - of gerrymandering to tilt elections in his favour, and point to a recent redrawing of electoral boundaries as further evidence.

The Election Commission insists it is independent and says its electoral map changes in March did not favour BN. The government says there was no political interference.

Mr Eric See-To, deputy director of BN's strategic communications, said claims of "dirty election" tactics of patronage and gerrymandering in East Malaysia are part of an "ongoing script of (the opposition) to win sympathy votes".

He said the Malaysia Agreement of 1963, under which Sabah and Sarawak joined Malaya and Singapore to form Malaysia, stipulated that the two states get representation in Parliament that reflects their size. Sabah and Sarawak account for about 60 per cent of Malaysia's land mass.

As a result, nine of Malaysia's smallest 10 parliamentary constituencies in terms of electorate size are in Sarawak.

Mr Baru Bian, an opposition leader in Sarawak, said he struggles to win voters over in rural areas, where sometimes he has to explain even the concept of elections.

"To some of these old folks, they see the party as the government and the government as the party... (they) think if there is no BN, then there will be no development in their areas," he said.

The development support is indeed impressive, running from prayer halls and river jetties to schools and solar panels.

Take Nanga Singat, an Igan village without electricity that is 90 minutes by boat from the nearest town. Its 500 residents, who mostly live in the same wooden longhouse, use purification tanks installed by BN to make river water or rainwater drinkable.

"If we vote for the opposition, maybe it will let the longhouse suffer. So we just follow and vote BN," said Mr Francis Kiah Pengarah, village headman for the past 40 years. Villagers around him nodded and said they would take the headman's advice on who to vote for. They were unaware that Dr Mahathir was now leading the opposition, but dismissed the 92-year-old as too old.

Mr Najib, on the other hand, is popular for introducing BR1M, a cash handout for the poor, and for launching a coastline highway that will connect Sabah and Sarawak.

Asked which party she supported, a 66-year-old, who gave her name only as Gata, pointed to a framed photo of Mr Najib. "It's because of that man that we got BR1M. We like him," she said.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2018, with the headline Why villagers in Sarawak are faithful to Barisan. Subscribe