AS a Sarawakian, I am constantly frustrated by comments on Malaysian news websites and blogs by West Malaysians telling East Malaysians that they “get who they vote for”. These comments are inevitably made whenever human rights issues affecting East Malaysia are discussed. Most of these comments are made by people who probably have little regard for the welfare of East Malaysians, let alone knowledge of our social and political concerns.
Well, the next Sarawak state election needs to be called before June 2011. This election will likely reflect Sarawak’s direction, and could be a harbinger of the next general election’s outcomes, given that Sarawak could tip the balance for or against the ruling federal government. Therefore, as a Sarawakian and a voter, I would like to offer my perspectives on the complexity of Sarawak politics primarily for West Malaysian readers.
Sarawak voters are split primarily by age. Older and younger voters have their own distinct voting trends.
How older voters will vote:
Familiarity with candidates
Many older Sarawakians tend to vote for candidates instead of parties. A familiar and well-connected candidate, linked by familial relations or friendship, is more likely to topple the odds than a strong political party agenda. Among Chinese Sarawakian voters, outstanding figures from their community can easily gain more votes than other candidates from established parties. A similar pattern can be seen with the indigenous community.
To generalise, Sarawakians, especially those of indigenous background, are very straightforward when it comes to their relationship with figures of authority. They are not likely to receive gifts from political parties and then vote for the other guy or gal. Among certain members of the Sarawakian community, loyalty to a particular Yang Berhormat is seen as a virtue.
Familiarity with the logo
This may seem ridiculous until you realise that many of the voters in the heartland are seniors, up to 70 years old or older. The dacing has built a reputation for itself — it is also, coincidentally, the logo of a popular brand of rice. Its closest rival, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat logo, has yet to build that reputation.
Therefore, local issues as well as familiarity of the candidate will be the core factors in deciding the older community’s vote.
How younger voters will vote:
Jobs and economic opportunities
Poverty and economic opportunities are crucial issues concerning young Sarawak voters. Many young Sarawakians are now in West Malaysia, either to study or work. Like many urban West Malaysians, these young Sarawakians are strongly pro-opposition. However, monetary limitations and expensive flights may mean that they will not be able to return to cast their votes.
Religion and culture
East Malaysian native tribes in Sarawak identify as bumiputera but are predominantly Christian. Young Sarawakians have been affected by the “Allah” issue, but it remains to be seen if this issue is large enough to activate protest votes. My bet is it isn’t. This is because the ban on non-Muslim usage of “Allah” will be more painfully felt among urban dwellers or those in West Malaysia, who face a stronger likelihood of arrest or fining. For their sentiments to make a difference, these young voters need to vote in their rural constituencies, and they are unlikely to be able to return there in time.
Lack of civic awareness and trust in established institutions
Among young Sarawakians who are residing within the state, many do not see politicians, lawmakers and law enforcers as people who can safeguard their safety and security. Instead, I believe a disturbing amount of young Sarawakians are turning to gangs or gang-like violence for protection. If my speculation is true, these youth will have no interest in registering as voters. Desperation, a strong factor in pushing West Malaysian youth to vote, will probably not cause many young Sarawakians to turn to the electoral process. They simply do not see it as an institution that can safeguard their interests.
In conclusion, just as in West Malaysia, the crucial change factor lies with Sarawakian youth. However, lack of finances for West Malaysian-based Sarawakians to return in time to vote, and lack of trust in elections among Sarawak-based young voters, means this voting demographic is virtually absent.
Bread-and-butter issues shall be
a primary concernThe following are my predictions for the upcoming state election. I have not taken into consideration local issues that are still developing and will continue to develop in the crucial few months prior to the election. These will also shape the outcome of the elections.
Kuching and its surrounding areas will be easily won by the opposition because it is culturally closer to West Malaysia, and the issues here are more complex. Issues such as corruption and freedom of religion are more relevant here.
Miri is likely to be won by the Barisan Nasional as it is the hometown of Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr George Chan. Recent years have seen a lot of development in the city. Miri is also more likely to be anti-Peninsula in sentiment, owing to the animosity some locals have towards wealthy “West Malaysian expatriates” working in petroleum companies such as Shell.
Sibu has always been a very pro-DAP town due to Chinese Sarawakian voting patterns. However, as with the last election, infighting among influential ethnic Chinese leaders may split votes as some may choose to contest as independents.
For every other location, typical rural voting trends will prevail, with bread-and-butter issues as well as local factors being the primary concerns. This is a similar pattern in both East and West Malaysian communities.
Catalina Rembuyan grew up in a family of civil servants in Kuching before moving to Kuala Lumpur to study seven years ago. She not-so secretly hopes that her predictions will be met with some surprises. She is a Sarawakian voter, works as a writer for a local educational institution, and reads The Nut Graph.