The much-anticipated Sarawak state election has come and gone. People may understandably be disappointed that Pakatan Rakyat could not deny Barisan Nasional’s (BN) two-thirds majority in the State Assembly but there are useful lessons to be learnt from the campaign.
First, it is clear that Sarawak and Sabah are no longer “fixed deposits” for BN. Pakatan Rakyat, once labelled as “outsiders”, have now well and truly established themselves in East Malaysia. BN used to win big in Sarawak and overall Pakatan has made inroads in most constituencies.
DAP and Keadilan’s success in the Chinese-majority seats disproves the argument that the community is not as eager for political change as their fellow citizens in Peninsular Malaysia. The turnout at the ceramahs and the election results showed that the exact opposite was the case.
The inroads we’ve made into the Dayak communities were also significant. It is true that many of the interior areas continue to be BN strongholds but the argument that the Dayaks would not vote for the Opposition, especially for Keadilan which has been labelled by detractors as a peninsula-based party does not hold water.
Keadilan’s Sarawak chief, Baru Bian, was elected in the interior constituency of Ba’kelalan while the young Iban businessman Ali Biju scored a handsome victory in Kerian.
Even in Nangka (where I was campaigning), the Ibans in the longhouses voted for the Opposition. One of the tuai rumahs there actually spoke in support of Keadilan during the campaign while another listed all the broken BN promises to his area.
At the same time, SNAP, which left Pakatan Rakyat over Keadilan’s supposed “disrespect” was crushed in the elections. All but one of their candidates lost their deposits, despite being propped up by certain ex-Keadilan members.
True, Keadilan fell far short of the targets it set, but we need to bear in mind that being a multiracial party meant that we had to bear the burden of contesting — Malay, Dayak and Chinese — rather than focus only on one type of constituency.
In this regard, we’re proud to now have representatives from the Iban, Chinese and Lun Bawang community. And although he did not win, I was happy as a Youth politician that our candidate Norisham Mohamed Ali — an engineer and activist — was the same age as me and recorded Keadilan’s highest vote ever in the Nangka constituency.
Keadilan also fielded a generally improved slate of candidates from various backgrounds: engineers, lawyers, doctors, activists, preachers. The party had a rigorous candidate selection process — for example, it took us a long time to settle on Norisham as the party wanted the best qualified person for the seat.
Not a single candidate “disappeared” or “withdrew”, providing BN with fights in each and every constituency for the first time.
PAS can also be proud of the gains it made, particularly in Beting Maro where it lost by less 400 votes. It will take them more time but PAS is slowly gaining ground in Sarawak.
2011 has proven therefore that Sarawakians are just as eager as other Malaysians for the fledgling two-party system. All the talk about a third force (i.e. SNAP or PCM) seems premature now as voters realise the need for stable parties to exist in order for Malaysian democracy to mature.
Still, it’s disheartening that BN used its usual array of dirty tricks, including abuses by the Election Commission; cyber-attacks on internet news portals; and misuse of state machinery to defend its turf. Even the “Datuk T” sex video was used in a bid to destroy Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim at all costs.
And despite Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s continued use of the 1 Malaysia mantra, his government continued its same old policy of divide-and-rule in Sarawak. In the Malay-Melanau areas PBB played up the prospect of a Christian and Dayak Chief Minister should Pakatan win and Baru Bian takes charge.
In the Chinese areas Gerakan and MCA accused Lim Guan Eng of abandoning the Chinese in order to win over the Malays in Penang. BN took advertisements lambasting “outsiders” and asking the rakyat to vote for “State BN”, yet used Najib instead of Taib in their campaign due to the latter’s unpopularity.
Pakatan played the anti-Taib sentiment to the maximum in the election, hoping that the winds of change in the Middle East would blow all the way to Sarawak. While Taib clearly has been weakened by the results, PBB was able to win in Malay-Melanau areas by removing unpopular incumbents such as in Saribas and Nangka.
Should Pakatan not face Taib in the next election, Pakatan needs to pin the blame for Sarawak’s deprivation on BN as a whole and not just Taib.
Most importantly, Pakatan needs to find a way to win the Malay votes. This is of course not just a challenge in Sarawak, but the rest of Malaysia as well. Any successful movement for change must have multiracial support, and needs substantial support among the Malay community as it is the majority.
Since all three Pakatan parties are multiracial, the burden of winning the Malay votes should not be confined to only certain parties. For instance, DAP needs to increase its engagement with the Malay community.
Having one or two Malay leaders is not enough to win over the Malays. All speakers at their events should at least speak a bit of Malay along with Mandarin or English in order make their events more inclusive.
We need the support of all groups to win power in Putrajaya. 1999 proved that we cannot do this with Malay support alone. The last couple of by-elections also showed that relying on Chinese or isolated swings among the Dayaks won’t get us over the finishing line either. A truly multiracial approach is necessary.
For the next election, I believe Pakatan needs to change tack. At present, both BN and Pakatan settle seat negotiations and candidate selection at the last minute. While this does not adversely affect BN due to their incumbency, misuse of government institutions and control of the media, Pakatan suffers due to the short time period given to a candidate to establish him or herself in the community.
Pakatan should settle seat allocations in advance, and then proceed with selecting prospective candidates early (as in the United Kingdom). Any disagreements from seat negotiations can thus be sorted out early while the candidate will have more time to go to the ground.
It will also give the parties sufficient time to evaluate whether or not the candidate is really suitable to be a legislator. This, I believe is a better system for West Malaysia but all the more in Sabah and Sarawak due to the difficulties we face in reaching out to the deep interiors.
I believe these are the key issues that Pakatan needs to sort out before the next general election. We cannot rest on our laurels or just keep making dents: A strategy for growth and change is needed.
Photos from my 2011 Sarawak campaign can be seen here.