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Sibu – another referendum

najib eyeing sarawak, which is going eeek!

DATUK Seri Najib Razak called the Hulu Selangor parliamentary by-election a referendum on his premiership. The justification was rather obvious as it was formerly a Barisan Nasional (BN) stronghold with an ethnic composition mirroring Peninsula Malaysia’s. The campaign was largely fought by Umno, even though the BN’s candidate was from MIC.

Sibu has also been a BN stronghold where the late Datuk Robert Lau Hoi Chew won with a comfortable margin of 3,235 votes or 9% of the total valid votes in 2008. And in the center of the ongoing campaign is not the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) candidate Robert Lau Hui Yew, but Najib.

From a larger perspective, the Sibu by-election is actually an unpronounced referendum, not so much on Najib’s premiership but more subtly on Umno’s entry into Sarawak.

Sarawak is almost a different country compared to West Malaysia. Ethno-religious relations are much more harmonious and multiculturalism is truly celebrated.

The “Allah” issue does not seriously bother many Sarawakians
You have halal food sold at one end of Sibu’s pasar malam and roasted pork at the other end, with canned beers sold in between. The only other place I know personally where pork is not an issue for Muslims is Tumpat, Kelantan where pigs reared by Thai Malaysians roam freely in Malay Malaysian kampungs.

That’s why many Sarawakians are not seriously bothered by the “Allah” row. For them, this is pure monkey’s business staged by West Malaysian politicians. Yes, many East Malaysians do look down on West Malaysians when it comes to social relations and civility.

Even Najib admits that Sarawak is the embodiment of his 1Malaysia campaign. To digress, doesn’t that mean we have 2Malaysias — one where 1Malaysia is already actualised while in the other, 1Malaysia remains but a goal?

Taib as Sarawak’s defender

What makes Sarawak different from the rest of Malaysia? One simple explanation is the absence of Umno.

In fact, many Sarawakians have a love-hate relationship with Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) president, Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, because of Umno.

They probably hate him for the corruption, cronyism and nepotism that have left the state’s vast natural wealth in the hands of the few while the majority are trapped in poverty. But they also believe that had it not been for Taib and PBB, Umno would have entered Sarawak and eroded if not destroyed the pleasant and easy-going Sarawakian lifestyle.

For the state’s business class, Taib also protects state resources from their West Malaysian competitors.

In a sense, Taib is the protector of Sarawak’s socio-economic interests from Umno and other West Malaysians for different groups of Sarawakians. His hegemony is built on more than just patronage, repressive state power and media control.

Taib as Umno’s representative

James Brooke, first White Rajah of Sarawak
(public domain | Wiki Commons)
Taib’s success is that Umno is happy with an indirect rule of Sarawak through him, a bit like former British control via Sarawak’s White Rajahs.

From the birth of Malaysia, Umno leaders have distrusted East Malaysia’s Christian natives who — not coincidentally — tended to defend the rights of their states more staunchly compared to their Muslim cousins.

Just look at Sarawak’s Tan Sri Stephen Kalong Ningkan, who was removed unceremoniously as chief minister in a Perak-coup style defection ending in federal-imposed emergency rule. Sabah’s Donald Stephens was sidelined in favour of Tun Mustapha Harun and was reinstated only after Mustapha fell out of favour with Kuala Lumpur and Stephens converted to Islam and became Tun Fuad Stephens.

Umno’s handpicked Muslim rulers in Sabah and Sarawak and their governance models, however, turned out to be very different in both states.

In Sabah, Mustapha and his successor Datuk Harris Salleh embarked on aggressive Islamisation to increase the number of Muslims vis-à-vis other ethnic groups.

This eventually resulted in Christian Kadazandusun revolts, which eventually gave birth to Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS). PBS and some NGOs later accused the federal government of engineering mass influxes and naturalisation of Indonesian and Filipino Muslims since Mustapha’s time to dilute the non-Muslim population and strengthen Kuala Lumpur-preferred Muslim control. 

After a few years of marginalisation in the BN, PBS eventually left the ruling coalition in the 1990 elections just after the nomination day. The defection led to Umno’s eventual entry into Sabah to take on PBS directly.

Mustapha’s United Sabah National Organisation was absorbed and transformed into Sabah Umno with Mustapha as state chief, hence ending Umno’s option of indirect rule by Sabah Muslim natives.

In Sarawak, Umno’s indirect rule has been entrusted to Melanau Muslim Sarawakians since 1970. Chief Minister Tun Abdul Rahman Ya’kub was succeeded by his nephew Taib in 1981.

Yet, neither Rahman nor Taib embarked on Islamisation to strengthen their control. Sarawak remains the only Malaysian state without a state religion.

Nested controls within Sarawak BN
The Melanau Sarawakian dominance is established more subtly through nested controls. First, Melanau Sarawakian elites dominate Malay Sarawakians within the larger umbrella of “Muslim natives”. Secondly, Muslim natives dominate their Dayak junior partners within PBB. Thirdly, PBB dominates SUPP and two Dayak-based parties, Parti Rakyat Sarawak and the Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party within Sarawak BN. In turn, Sarawak BN dominates the entire state.

Exactly because of the Melanau Sarawakian elites’ subtleness and sophistication, Sarawak has not experienced political turmoil and regime change as Sabah did. Dayak and Malay Sarawakians have tried to alter Sarawak’s political balance but have failed thus far.

The successful dominance gives Taib tremendous bargaining power vis-à-vis Umno, which in turn allows him to secure autonomy for Sarawak which legitimises his rule.

Post-Taib arrangement

But Taib’s game will not last forever. Ruling Sarawak for 29 years, he will have to go one day.

There is no guarantee that his successor can maintain the nested control like he has. While Dayak Sarawakians are fragmented, Malay Sarawakians may rise to challenge Melanau Sarawakians in the succession war. Urban Chinese Sarawakians are also increasingly alienated by corruption and abuse of power.

Taib Mahmud
The post-Taib uncertainty is too much a risk for Umno to bear. More than ever, BN’s survival at the federal level now needs Sarawak’s 31 parliamentary seats (with BN currently controlling 30) as the coalition’s “fixed deposits”. So, the Muslim indirect rule model must end in Sarawak as it did in Sabah.

Also, Umno politicians have immense incentives to directly control Sarawak. Ideologically, it’s the “last frontier” for the Malay nationalist party. It would be an achievement of “1Malaysia under Umno”. Organisationally, whoever controls the future Sarawak Umno will have 14% of the enlarged Umno divisions in hand.

The challenge is: Umno has long been subtly portrayed by Sarawak BN as a remote threat to the state. Sarawakians have thus far been convinced that they can and should vote for BN because, ironically, that’s the way to keep Umno off Sarawak’s shores.

So, how could one prepare Sarawakians for Umno’s direct rule there, as in Sabah?

One way might be to capitalise on the popularity of Najib the premier so that voters may accept Najib first and Umno later.

What would be a better place to test the waters than in Sibu, an urban seat with two-thirds Chinese Malaysian voters? The thing is, one out of four or one of out five Chinese Malaysians in West Malaysia have been rejecting Umno in most of the post-March 2008 by-elections, notwithstanding Najib’s goodwill gestures. But all Najib needs to claim victory in Sibu is perhaps 35% to 40% of Chinese Malaysian support.

And if this is coupled by big victories in the native precincts, Najib can claim to be the BN’s vote-puller in Sarawak. The dissidents in PBB and other Sarawak BN parties can then start calling for a merger of Umno and PBB for more effective representation of Sarawakian interests in Kuala Lumpur.

Would that not make Umno’s entry into Sarawak — the unannounced referendum question — perfectly natural?

Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. He observed and campaigned for Pakatan Rakyat in the Sibu by-election because he prefers Sarawak to be Umno-free.

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17 Responses to “Sibu – another referendum”

  1. ben says:

    I am a Sarawakian and I want Sarawak to be Umno-free, too. Saw how Sabah turns out after all these years.

  2. Ellese A says:

    I know you will censor and won’t publish my comments as the last time but I will write in anyway.

    Your article should not even merit publication [as it] demeans your stature. It’s highly speculative without basis of support. It also does not make sense and is disconnected with reality. In fact it’s downright mischievous and [has] bad intentions.

    At the current moment it’s better for Umno not to enter Sarawak. There’s no reason whatsoever to enter Sarawak. You know why? Taib has secured Sarawak for Sarawakians and solidly delivered for BN. Najib gas too many battles to handle. Najib went to Sarawak only to support BN and ensure BN wins. There is no anecdotal evidence to show otherwise and the writer couldn’t offer none.

    Sarawakians and in fact BN and DAP knows that Sarawak is under Sarawakians. Why in hell would they want to give up this for Umno or DAP for that matter? Don’t forget DAP is a national party and not Sarawak based party.

    So Wong, be objective. As in previous articles [where] you did not publish my comments, it reflects your low level of thinking.

  3. chinhuatw says:

    @Ellese A,

    Honestly you really believe this is just speculation?

    Najib did deny Umno’s intention to enter Sarawak as late as this March. His argument is exactly like what you said here: Umno does not need to enter Sarawak as long as PBB and Sarawak BN can deliver.

    That indeed is the point I made in the first half of the article: keeping Umno out is PBB/BN Sarawak’s merit.

    And the questions I pose are: how long can Taib’s tight control last? How will it likely end?

    You want to know the signs of the possible trouble for Taib?

    Taib’s uncle and nemesis Rahman Ya’kub just named Alfred Jabu as Taib’s likely successor just before the nomination. Does he really support an ethnic Dayak CM? Can the Melanaus and Malays in PBB accept a Dayak CM? Can Umno accept a Dayak CM?

    The intention of Rahman Ya’kub cannot be clearer. Now, should there be a succession war in PBB, where will the opponents of Alfred Jabu (should he really be named) turn to?

    Now, as late as 2006, there was an attempt to bring Umno into Sarawak to replace certainly not SUPP or the Dayak parties.

    And didn’t Rahman Ya’kub express support for Umno’s entry in Sarawak?

    You want more signs that triggered my “speculation”?

    Look at SUPP. When did SUPP campaign by putting Umno leaders in the centre? The entire press conference after nomination saw only Muhyiddin speaking with the SUPP candidate Robert Lau smiling like a schoolboy.

    Why so? SUPP in the past would sell themselves and Sarawak BN with the subtle line that “we are the ones who keep Umno out”. Now that Taib has become increasingly unpopular amongst the voters, and SUPP cannot win support on their own merits, they now [rely] on Najib’s personal charm.

    In other words, SUPP’s “ideological” resistance to Umno’s entry has been quietly dropped because SUPP hopes Najib can win them the Chinese support like Mahathir did for MCA in the 1990s.

    Is this not another early sign of Umno’s entry into Sarawak?

    I welcome you to challenge my “speculation” for I believe Sarawak Umno will be an issue in the next state elections unless Najib stays out of the campaign.

    Time will tell if my “speculation” is worth publishing and Sarawakian friends will be the best judge.

  4. Tiong says:

    Ellese A , I strongly agree with you. Sarawak only needs a local party to rule the state, not a West Malaysian party. DAP or PKR or PAS are all foreigners’ parties to me. I grew up as a DAP supporter, but over the years, I have seen what DAP can deliver. Even after taking the majority of seats in Perak, Lim Kit Siang still cannot turn around to fullfill his wishes [on appointing] the menteri besar. [Is he now] trying to say [they] can deliver at the national level with PAS and PKR? The problem with all of them is that even though they are already running and ruling, they still treat themselves as the opposition, and point fingers at the previous leadership. Learn from Obama – change. When you take power, deliver. Don’t point fingers. I am not in the state, but every time I return I see development, and the feeling is so different. Sarawak is for a Sarawakian party, not Sarawakians under a West Malaysia party, as they cannot bring what has happened in the West to the East, as our people have not lived or been brought up like that from young.

  5. Chong says:

    Dear Ellese A,

    It would seem you do not understand the history of M’sian politics in general and you seem to misunderstand Chin Huat’s argument. The question is not why would Sarawakians give it up but rather can Umno afford to let Sarawak [be] as the only state that is not under Umno’s control. Unless Taib’s successor can skillfully negotiate with Umno on why Sarawak should be under PBB then I do not see how Umno will not be tempted to go into Sarawak, given the large amount natural resources in the state.

  6. Joe Fernandez says:

    This article is a load of nonsense by someone who needs to study political science again within the context of Borneo. The Dayaks, the 30 per cent literate Ibans in particular, will never accept Umno. It’s the Ibans that keep Taib in power.

    The main issues to consider in Sabah and Sarawak are state rights, the 20 Points, the Malaysia Agreement and autonomy. How can you expect Umno to defend the autonomy of Sabah and Sarawak?

    In Sabah, it’s Pairin through PBS that props up Umno Sabah. Without Pairin, Umno Sabah will collapse like a house of cards.

    The only reason that Umno came to Sabah is to make up for the party’s expected loss of seats in Peninsular Malaysia. It is for the same reason that Umno is eyeing Sarawak.

    PKR is eyeing Sabah and Sarawak for the same reasons as Umno i.e. to pick up at least ten parliamentary seats each in Sabah and Sarawak to help it form the federal government in Putrajaya. This is why PKR is not popular in Sabah and Sarawak besides the fact that it is from Peninsular Malaysia and led by Anwar Ibrahim whom no one trusts in Malaysian Borneo.

  7. Allan Roland says:

    My comments are very simple – to maintain or to change for the better. My comment relates to the native status (of native Sarawakians) which I have personally experienced. Why is my status of being a bumiputera being questioned? Every year during the renewal of our Petronas licencing…It really hurts, as if we are second class bumiputera. We seek reasons why? The answer is simple. [It is the format of the SSM (Suruhanjaya Syarikat Malaysia) column where we are supposed to tick] “non-Malay”. Correct me if I’m wrong. For your info I’m one of the directors in one of the companies, [with an] operating base in West Malaysia. My comment is: change and put things right in order to gain confidence from the rakyat. I strongly believe that nothing is perfect but [the situation] can always improved [by correcting] mistakes.

  8. born says:

    It’s time for the non-Muslim to have more babies..otherwise… democracy will yield its ugly head one fine day…

  9. high level thinking says:

    Anyone who harps on objectivity in an article such as this has low-level thinking, who in turn posits its own opinions without the “anecdotal evidence” it demands for “objectivity”. Please read an academic journal for full citations, and perhaps a dictionary to satisfy a desire for objectivity.


    This is a column, and the opinions within it are the columnist’s. He has provided sufficient demarcation to differentiate between what is opinion and what is fact.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  10. hamzah says:

    Sarawak to be Umno-free?

    I want Malaysia to be Umno-free!

    To Ketuanan Rakyat!

  11. Keruah says:

    There was a small error in the third paragraph from the end: three out of four Chinese Malaysians rejected Umno in the post 2008 by-elections.

    I agree CM Taib has played the “keep Umno out” card effectively over the years. He nearly lost power in 1987, before Umno penetrated Sabah in 1994. Umno may redouble its efforts to take over Sarawak, citing the Sibu defeat as an excuse. Are Pakatan and Anwar willing to commit enough resources to win Sarawak in a general election? If they are, and if a threatened entry by Umno increases the prevailing “Sarawakians for Sarawak” sentiment, Umno may find itself in the opposition after the 13th general election.

  12. Ellese A says:

    To Chin Huat,

    First and foremost I thank you for publishing my commentary. I have read your reply and its links, honoured that you reply to my comment but find your deduction as simply amazing. Based on your reply and links, the premise of your argument on the reason why Umno wants to enter Sarawak is because some people in Sarawak (like JPUNS – see your linked article) wanted Umno to be there. There isn’t the slightest of evidence that Pak Lah or Najib even considered them but yet you claim that this evidence [of] an intention of Umno. This is a bewildering conclusion. For all that you know Umno probably have not even heard of them.

    Your reasoning is certainly flawed. If I take your reasoning through, the fact that I and a few friends go and invite the Tories in UK and Democrats in US to participate in the Malaysian election shows that Obama or Cameron already have the intention to participate. It doesn’t matter whether Obama or Cameron responded or whether they have heard of you, but because of my invite it therefore shows Obama and Cameron want to participate in the Malaysian election. This deduction is preposterous and illogical but somehow is the premise of your argument. It’s highly speculative and in fact shows malice against anything Umno.

    So Chin Huat, it was a worthy reply but clearly lacks the basis and premise expected of an academic lecturer.

  13. Ellese A says:

    Dear Chong,

    I think you don’t understand politics at all. Umno will not go into S’wak when BN there is loyal and able. Why in the world would you want to replace a friend who is loyal and able. Assuming I take your theory of replacing BN Sarawak, don’t you think it will push those factions to Pakatan of which Anwar is more than willing to accept? Thus there is no benefit for Umno to go into Sarawak unless they want more problems. This is politics 101.

  14. vp says:

    Why argue so much between Umno and PBB? Both are blood suckers. Get rid of both is the best way.

  15. Kong Kek Kuat says:

    Wow. The amount of crap written here by the majority of readers (excluding Wong Chin Huat since he is the article’s writter replying to a reader) are a joke.

    From those who gospel about Sarawak politics (see for example Joe Fernandez´s comment, who conveniently and ignorantly lump Sabah and Sarawak together) to those who are just plain ignorant (see for example Ellese A, who’s just basically making wild guesses about Sarawak politics).

    I have been living — FULL-TIME — in Sarawak for many years already, and I still have work to do if I want to fully understand the politics here.

    At least Wong Chin Huat is making an “educated speculation”.

    Please, readers, just stay quiet if you don’t know anything about beautiful Sarawak.

  16. Ellese A says:

    To Kek Kuat,

    What makes you think that since you’re living in Sarawak full time your view is the only right and authoritative view and others cannot comment? You sound like all the leaders of facist and communist regimes who disallow views of others simply because one does not belong. The funny thing is that Kek Kuat’s style of argument is what many Chinese [Malaysian voters] are against. But yet it’s used against others of different opinions. Is this another pot calling the kettle black?

  17. de says:

    Kong Kek Kuat. Your comment makes me laugh! Not that I find your comment ridiculous but tyou do make sense when you said that.

    Most of the comments I find about this issue of Umno and Sarawak are rather speculative.

    Sarawak’s CM is smart. When Pak Lah became the PM, the first thing that happened was a visit to Sarawak, official or unofficial. I would wonder what actually happened…if you know what I mean. Correct me if I’m wrong but when Najib became the PM…among the first things he did was to convince that Umno will not make their way to Sarawak.

    My problem here is that it sounded rather too convincing for comfort…but maybe I am wrong.

    Again, when Tun Mahathir was “fighting” Ku Li/Semangat 46, Sarawak “helped” financially.

    Don’t forget…Sarawak’s CM has managed to “befriend” the right people and skillfully exploited this political networking to his advantage.

    For Umno to enter Sarawak, among the things that Sarawakians are concerned about is the racial politics and racial divide that would be brought into the state.

    Another issue is religion. Sarawak is happy with her 20 Points including that the state shall not have an official religion. It has worked and still continues to work until today. From Umno’s track record where religion is concerned, they give many Sarawakians the chills. They have the tendency to play with the emotions of a small number of religious extremists. For centuries, Sarawak has always maintained religious and racial harmony and Umno’s history of playing with such is just something many Sarawakians are not comfortable about.

    Despite many Sarawakians’ sentiment against their current CM, everyone has some form of fear and lack of confidence of whether his successor is able to keep Sarawak’s autonomy as promised and Sarawak’s agreement to be a so-called partner in forming Malaysia.

    By allowing Umno to come into the state, it means the natives will face religious issues like what happened in Sabah. Even without Umno coming to Sarawak, they have played the “Allah” issue: what more if they are in. Nobody knows what else they would do to the very fabric of the state’s racial and religious harmony.

    For a number of Sarawakians, voting is a pain […]. To vote for Opposition means we may admit Umno (if Opposition wins like in Sabah) into the state to win it directly…to vote for BN means to endorse the current CM and whatever evil he is doing…

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