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Signs from Sibu

WHAT is the biggest significance of the Sibu by-election outcome?  I now believe it is not that Sarawak Pakatan Rakyat (PR) won its first seat since the recent establishment of its Sarawak chapter or that Barisan Nasional (BN) remains five seats away from retaining its parliamentary two-thirds majority. 

Najib glaring at Sarawak on map, Sarawak saying 'HAH!'

It is the outright rejection of clientelism in the face of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak‘s infamous and indecent “you help me, I help you” proposal. Among other things, he offered Rejang Park residents RM5 million to mitigate floods in return for them supporting BN candidate Robert Lau Hui Yew in the by-election.

The outcome?  A drop in support for the BN by nine percentage points, and an increase in DAP’s margin by some 400 votes in the Chinese Malaysian-majority polling district.

Earlier, Najib had pledged RM18 million for 67 Chinese-language secondary and primary schools in Sibu and asked Chinese educationists to reciprocate favourably. Now, overall, in Sibu, Chinese Malaysian support for the BN is estimated to have dropped from 38% to 31%.

No one knows if the BN would have done better if they had not made those conditional offers. But many voters were probably angered by such cheapskate campaigning offers which made the prime minister sound more like a traffic police officer asking for bribes.

It is telling that Rejang Park — incidentally where DAP also held rallies almost every night — has registered the highest rise in support for DAP of all the polling districts in the Sibu parliamentary constituency.

Ungrateful Chinese Malaysians

This is not the first time that a by-election has backfired on the BN. Less than a month ago, Najib made another conditional offer of RM3 million to the Rasa community for an 81-year-old dilapidated Chinese-language primary school in the Hulu Selangor parliamentary by-election.

The outcome? The Rasa polling district gave PR a support level of 82%, the highest for PR in the entire constituency. After a two-day delay, Najib eventually presented the cheque as BN did win the seat after all.

About a year ago, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin gave RM1 million to a Chinese-language school in Simpang during the Bukit Gantang parliamentary by-election.

Does the BN understand the Chinese Malaysian voters?

What did the BN get? Again, lower Chinese Malaysian support for the BN to the extent that Muhyiddin complained about Chinese Malaysians being ungrateful.

What did the Chinese Malaysian voters want in all these cases? This is an old question that probably started being asked as early as 1990 when 70% of Chinese Malaysian voters supported the opposition coalitions led by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.

Umno’s Chinese Malaysian dilemma?

Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad implies that the recurrent phenomenon is Umno’s Chinese Malaysian dilemma.

According to Mahathir, “In trying to win over Chinese [Malaysians] with allocations and abolishing New Economic Policy (NEP) provisions, the BN will lose Malay [Malaysian] support as indeed it did in 2008.”

“On the other hand, no matter how the government tries to satisfy Chinese [Malaysian] demands, Chinese [Malaysians] have clearly rejected the BN,” he said.

Now, I doubt that many Malay Malaysians would punish the BN if they could be assured that all poor Malay Malaysians will be taken care of alongside the poor of other races. Similarly, I doubt that Malay Malaysians would revolt if all competitive Malay Malaysians, alongside competitive non-Malay Malaysians, enjoyed adequate support to thrive in international and domestic competition.

Mahathir (© Amrfum | Wiki Commons)

Mahathir got it wrong in thinking the majority of Malay Malaysians who deserted the BN in 2008 did so in protest to keep the NEP. The fact is a significant number of Malay Malaysians supported Parti Keadilan Rakyat, PAS and DAP for a fairer deal for all.

Only uncompetitive Malay Malaysians wanting to continue enjoying protection stand to lose, should bumiputeraism be done away with and replaced by “market-friendly affirmative action” or some sort of pro-competition “welfare state”.

In other words, if Umno has a problem transforming itself beyond its 1Malaysia campaign, the problem does not lie with the majority of Malay Malaysians, as Mahathir implied in the first part of his theory. Of course, Mahathir would have organisations such as Perkasa and Gerakan Kebangkitan Rakyat rallying behind him, a bit like Mao Zedong’s Red Guards but in a different historical context.

I would agree, however, with the second part of Mahathir’s Umno’s Chinese Malaysian dilemma theory — Umno has no idea of how to win back Chinese Malaysian voters.

The majority of Chinese Malaysian voters will not enter into any short-term deal with Umno until Umno truly understands who they are now. They are neither grateful for Umno’s offers nor are they afraid of Umno’s threats.

More dilemmas

What’s wrong with Chinese Malaysians? For starters, they are citizens now, no longer clientele of some modern feudal patrons.  

Chinese Malaysian voters know that the government
should serve the people
Neither the carrot nor the stick works for them now. For they know the carrot belongs to the nation and the stick cannot be effectively used against them without hurting Umno first. They know that the people are the boss, and governments their servants.

What needs to be stressed here is that the problem is not “Chinese” in character. The “declientelisation” process has happened to most urban Malaysians now. For example, most urban Malay Malaysians no longer buy into the notion that they need ketuanan Melayu to protect them.

Ten out of 11 parliamentary constituencies in the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur and 10 out of 13 state capital parliamentary constituencies, including Kota Baru, Kuala Terengganu and Shah Alam, are represented by the opposition. Could this have happened without the support of Malay Malaysian voters?

After all, wasn’t the NEP meant to help Malay Malaysians become urbanised? And so, why would Malay Malaysians abandon Umno after being urbanised? Is it that “Melayu mudah lupa” or “Melayu sudah sedar”?

To label it Umno’s Chinese Malaysia dilemma would therefore be inaccurate — it is really an urban Dilemma. Umno could still refuse to transform itself and find a life beyond patronage politics. But in that case, it should be prepared to shrink into a rural party that reigns only where “instant noodle” projects and handouts can still buy votes because there is no wi-fi coverage to spread democratic values.

Yet, to be even more precise, this staunch ungratefulness and irresponsiveness to Umno is not even limited to urban areas. How much has Umno put in to buy Kelantanese voters over throughout the years? Why haven’t they reciprocated?

And so, how would one ultimately explain Umno’s disappearing clientele? One could attribute it to either the voters’ own dignity or democracy. In either case, the citizens don’t thank Umno for what they rightly deserve. Rather, they shun Umno for withholding their rights.

In Sibu, unfortunately, many rural voters are still trapped in clientelism because of poverty. But how long can the internal colonisation made possible by Umno’s indirect rule via Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud last? favicon

Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. He observed and campaigned for the PR in the Sibu by-election because he prefers Sarawak to be Umno-free. He believes Umno’s Chinese Malaysian, urban and Kelantanese dilemmas are blessings for Malaysia and looks forward to the day Umno can no longer speak patronisingly.

See also: The BN culture of “balas budi”

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15 Responses to “Signs from Sibu”

  1. rainstorm says:

    “Ten out of 11 parliamentary constituencies in the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur and 10 out of 13 state capital parliamentary constituencies, including Kota Baru, Kuala Terengganu and Shah Alam, are represented by the opposition. Could this have happened without the support of Malay Malaysian voters?”

    Isn’t KB parliamentary constituency is under PAS and PAS is the [Kelantan] state government and NOT the opposition?


    Editor’s note: Wong is talking about Parliament, so in this case PAS is part of the federal opposition. Wong’s wording is therefore accurate.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  2. burunghantu says:

    Wong is spot on for his characterization of Najib as a policeman asking for a bribe in these ‘buy’ elections!

    You vote for my man and I’ll give you another ‘satu lagi projek pembangunan Kerjaan BN’ (menggunakan wang dari rakyat)!

    But Wong should also be fair and try to figure out why Najib did what he did during these ‘buy elections’. Did he learn the ‘trade’ from the partners within that coalition known as BN? Will BN repeat the mistakes of Perikatan during the 60s’ in Singapore?

    God will not change the fortunes of a nation unless the people of that nation change themselves.

  3. thokiat says:

    MCA reps [who are] ex-front benchers, like Ong Ka Ting and Fong Chan Onn shall do their community a good service by resigning as MPs within this year, to enable their constituents to get instant allocations for whatever projects they need to carry out. Don’t worry, you help us, we help you. We will give the vote back to the MCA candidate, provided they are approved by B-end to stand for elections.

  4. Ellese A says:

    Dear Chin Huat,

    I think your reading has to be read by a number of facts and events. Even with 67% voters being Chinese [Malaysians] and from there mainly Christians, DAP only won by a wafer-thin majority. I sincerely believe even with a slight change of demographics ie with 65% percent Chinese [Malaysians], DAP will lose. There’s too much hyperbole after the event. But a clear analysis would reveal that non-Chinese [Malaysians] are overwhelmingly supportive of BN. (If it is claimed that Chinese [Malaysians] [overwhelmingly supported] Pakatan, then surely an extreme majority of non-Chinese [Malaysians] supported BN. Otherwise BN can’t lose by the smallest of margins.)

    This is also the conclusion in Hulu Selangor. Further, without the sensitive Allah issue (which cannot be replicated in the Peninsula because it will have a negative effect on Pakatan) it’s unclear how the Christians in Sarawak would vote without the widespread instigation. After all, the churches seemed to accept the grant and did not reject it. On the balance of things my view is that it’s still insurmountable for Pakatan to overcome Sarawak. It’s still too early to say it’s a harbinger of new politics by the Sarawakians.

  5. Ming Hock Chai says:

    In the current BN political model, banking on rural voters’ support is not sustainable in the long run.

  6. kahseng says:

    I’m looking forward to read how your loyal and dedicated detractors (who cannot understand forward-looking analyses) trash you for writing something hypothetical, speculative, and nonsensical.

    Dr M is trying something more than figuring out a dilemma. His constant harping on “extremism” and the alleged insatiability of Chinese Malaysian voters is just baiting for someone else to threaten violence, then to retreat and say “I never advocated it.”

  7. Eskay says:

    Why can’t those top [people] in Umno/BN get this through their thick skulls? Chinese Malaysians should not be perceived to be opposition supporters. For half a decade, MCA leaders have been bodek-ing and being [sycophants] to the ruling party. And only less than 5% have been rewarded with titles, awards and business opportunities.

    The rest have to work very hard like buffaloes to survive in this ” land of uneven playing fields” or else many would have become prostitutes. No thanks to those 5%. Now, we ask only to be treated fairly, is that too much to ask?

    And ruling politicians should have known by now that not everyone, especially the Chinese [Malaysians], can be swayed or bought-over with money. Most find vote-buying very, very revolting.

  8. Peter says:

    Chin Huat’s article echoes what I feel as a Malaysian Chinese.

    Oh, and I like “Urban Dilemma” much more than a “Chinese [Malaysian] Dilemma”. Much more accurate and much less racist.

    I hate being portrayed as the common enemy of the Malay [Malaysians] as propagated by certain leaders in the country and for being blamed for whatever insecurities they have.

  9. marilyn says:

    I agree with you. You have the guts to speak on our behalf.

  10. Muslim says:

    @ Eskay & Peter (particularly)

    But Chinese Malaysians are not ‘portrayed’ as the common enemy of the Malay [Malaysians]. They generally DO behave like one in many occasions.

    What with all those greedy and kiasu attitudes they seemed to value so much. What the heck, while owning the lion share of the country’s riches, they still whine about uneven playing fields. Jeezzz!! This lot!!

  11. steve says:

    The Chinese [Malaysians] should think long-term gain rather the short-term windfall. Remember during Tunku Abdul Rahman’s time the Dayaks, Kadazans and ethnic Chinese married Malay-Muslims and religion was your choice. Today Umno is responsible for amending Article 121(1a) which means not only the spouse will become Muslims but all the children too. Why, why? Is it a ploy to make all non-Muslims become Muslim, but the Chinese language is encouraged? I smell a rat here because the white man too, has learnt the native language to spread Christianity.

  12. Merah Silu says:

    Contrary to the popular view, I think the current trend of Chinese [Malaysians] to vote the extreme Chinese [Malaysian]-based party could be good for Umno/BN in the long run. The trend was not just intended to deny Umno its [power] in the current federal government, but also to highlight the power of Chinese [Malaysian] voter. Let these Chinese [Malaysians] show to Umno or to Malay [Malaysians] in the country that Chinese [Malaysians] will pick and choose who should be in power in the future. With their economic muscle, these Chinese [Malaysians] could topple the government and install the government that will assuredly promote their [own] interest.

    Yes, they have managed to convince PAS that their intention is good, which is to promote universal values, fairness and meritocracy. They are also successful in convincing Malay [Malaysians] in PKR that the common enemy is Umno. Let’s make sure Umno is no longer in power, then a reformed Malaysia with universal values of fairness and competitiveness can be established. But can these overseas Chinese [Malaysians] be trusted to promote these values, or they are just playing the game.

    Look at the history of China and Chinese. Full of betrayal and suppression, even in their own motherland country. Look at Tibet. Look at Sinkiang [or Xinjiang] where the unbalanced population and suppression [by the China government] have undermined the values and culture of the native people. And what happens if you are employed in a Chinese [Malaysian’s] company in Malaysia. Do you think you can get fairness and promotion based on meritocracy? The answer is no! Do you think the Chinese [Malaysians] will be fair and set a same level playing field if you want to start a business that is in direct competition with their business? The answer is again NO!

    So the Malay [Malaysians] should think very carefully. The Chinese [Malaysians] have shown through their long history that only a very tough leader can control their manipulative and traitorous attitude. No point in ‘bribing’ them, as they are the ones who promote bribery. They will betray you and should be the last group to deserve your trust. In most of Southeast Asia, they are the ones that control the economy through bribery and manipulation. Look at Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and other Asean countries. The moment they are strong, they will start to introduce many ‘universal’ policies that promote their interest to further consolidate power in these adopted countries.

    Malay [Malaysians] are too generous and sincere to have shared with these kaum pendatang, similar to natives in Thailand and Cambodia. The Malay [Malaysians] should bangkit and work as hard as we can. After all there are a sizeable [number of] intellectuals among us now. The Chinese [Malaysians] are known not to be too clever, except that they are very hardworking and enterprising. In fact without them, we could make a lot of progress after the British left 50 years ago. Just focus, think and give priority to the of future of Malays. I am sure we can make it. Just remember, to develop a bangsa will take time and let us start doing it now. But do not trust these Chinese [Malaysians].

  13. vaisanavadas says:

    The Chinese will be the trend setters for future voting patterns in Malaysia.Where they do not enjoy the majority the Malay [Malaysians] will be divided. Using this premise, it is easy to see that the natural death of Umno/BN is not far off.

  14. garuru156 says:

    I totally agree with Chin Huat’s urban dilema theory. But in order to get to Putrajaya, the rural kampung areas pose a great barrier for PR.

    Let’s see if PR can break the BN’s rural stronghold in next by-election, possibly in Kerdau.

  15. shan says:

    Helping Chinese [vernacular] schools have been used has a bait to attract Chinese [Malaysian] votes and is no longer feasible. Mandrain has become important worlwide. Even in Indonesia, Mandrain has become a important language to attract business. I think the Chinese [Malaysians] are worried more about religious extremism. Umno has carried out Islamsation with a Malay [Malaysian] agenda.The famous Article 121(1a) makes many non-Muslims worried. Not only does it restrict religious freedoms but it also extends forced conversions of children when one spouse converts. Christian bumiputras of Sabah and Sarawak have not demanded we convert to their religion when interracial marriages takes place with non-Muslims. Has Umno hijacked the social contract? Can 1Malaysia really unite all Malaysians[?]

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