Batang Ai, but for whom?

Malasysian Insider
FEB 26 — Fate has not intervened in the destiny of Malaysian politics for a while until now. The last time it did, we lost several national leaders in the 1970s, bringing forth Tun Hussein Onn and later Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Since Election 2008 that ended Barisan Nasional’s traditional two-thirds parliamentary majority, there have been two parliamentary by-elections and there are a few more by-elections coming due to either deaths or resignations.
At this point in time, it’s the two hills — the Bukit Gantang parliamentary seat and Bukit Selambau state seat in the peninsula — while one batang — the Batang Ai state seat in Sarawak — are up for grabs. The fate of the Bukit Lanjan state seat very much depends on its Pakatan Rakyat representative Elizabeth Wong Keat Ping’s political destiny.
Either way, it is a second chance both political coalitions have been looking for since March 2008 although the chaotic constitutional stalemate in Perak now is slowly and possibly developing into emergency rule if a political solution is not found.
Pakatan itself is setting its sights on capturing Sarawak in the next state election due in 2011 but the Sarawak BN under the firm hand of long-serving Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud is equally as confident, boosted by the ruling coalition’s takeover of Perak.
It is still unclear which side will prevail at the next state election as Sarawak is still largely rural based and immune from the extreme politicking in Peninsular Malaysia.
The phenomenon of digital democracy is not widespread in Sarawak. Therefore Pakatan does not have the powerful weapon of the Internet to win over enough voters to take power. But they do have thousands of Sarawakians who have left Sarawak to find work in the peninsula to help spread their anti-BN message back to their families.
In my opinion, the problem for the ruling coalition in Sarawak is not the component parties but more of the leader who has overstayed, not unlike the situation former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed faced before 2003.
Taib has two remarkable achievements. He has been chief minister for 28 years and a MP for 38 years, records that are unlikely to be broken in Malaysian political history although Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah is coming close at 35 years in Parliament.
He has done a lot for the people of Sarawak throughout his long service. But his greatness is also his biggest drawback and he has become Sarawak BN’s greatest liability, just like Dr Mahathir was to BN before.
He holds the fate of Sarawak BN in his hands. If he can demonstrate significant rejuvenating changes in the party leadership and engineer a smooth transition plan to an acceptable younger person, I believe Sarawak BN will continue to gain the trust of Sarawakians.
The voters of Sarawak are holding their breath waiting for Taib’s next move since the March 2008 elections. But it’s been business as usual for the old warrior.
However, the gods, depending on your beliefs and no disrespect meant, intervened last Monday and took the life of BN’s Batang Ai assemblyman Datuk Dublin Unting to trigger a by-election.
Maybe the supreme beings are anxious to find out what Sarawak voters are thinking now too and can’t wait to see the outcome as much have been debated about the Malaysia’s largest state and its next elections.
In that sense, the Batang Ai constituency is homogeneously Dayak and should provide a good test of support for the contesting parties.
Pakatan will be eager to peddle their promise to the Dayaks to turn their collective customary land into freehold individual titles, a wish long denied by the state constitution.
This strategy may succeed in Batang Ai considering the smaller majority of 806 votes that the BN obtained in the 2006 state elections.
But it is still unclear whether the voters there would be enticed by the promises of freedom and land ownership or they would vote for practical reasons.
In the end, the voters of Batang Ai, which is near the Kalimantan border, may not be swayed by Dayak nationalism or be influenced by politics of hate.
They would probably be more interested in development and improving their standard of living. There’s no point owning land in a remote area without infrastructure like roads, electricity and water to serve it.
Still, it may be a tough election campaign but Batang Ai is not an indicator of the outcome of the next state election. One swallow does not a summer make and Pakatan’s strategy of bestowing land titles to buy Dayak votes or bring anti-BN politics could backfire.
Yet, a BN win in Batang Ai would not necessarily mean victory in the next state polls if Taib does not make the ultimate sacrifice and remove him and his family as a target for Pakatan.
Ironically, the BN may wish that Sarawak still had Rajah Brooke to overcome another political stalemate like Perak finds itself in today if the political situation remains marginal at the next state elections.
While Batang Ai decides aye or nay to either party, Taib too will have to decide his next political move as it could lead to either more ayes or nays for BN.
An aye for an aye, on his part agreeing to quit, could well be the new politics for Malaysia.
Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed is a two-term MP for Pulai. Apart from being in the new politics, he also writes for The Malaysian Insider while debating other matters at