Sibu poll could herald change

Terence Netto (Malaysiakini)
The vacancy created by the death of Robert Lau, SUPP MP for Sibu, occurs at a time when a fledgling alliance between DAP and PKR in Sarawak meets with a test that can only bode well for both parties’ prospects in the fast approaching state election.
There was an unofficial electoral understanding between DAP and PKR that prevented three-cornered fights at the last state election in May 2006, but there was no such pact for the parliamentary election of March 2008.
azlanReports vary as to why there was no electoral cooperation in the later election whereas there was such a pact, albeit unofficial, in the earlier outing.
Some say the DAP, flushed by their relative success in the state election where they won six seats, were intent on extending their claims to seats that did not possess a Chinese majority, thus encroaching into areas to which the more multi-racial PKR felt they had a better chance of winning.
Other reports held that the personalities of individual PKR and DAP leaders made the give-and-take of negotiation formidably difficult.
The upshot: an electoral understanding in the first election that issued in relatively good results, for the DAP especially, redounded to the detriment of both parties in the later parliamentary poll, due in part to three-cornered fights and the resultant acrimony that that spawned.
BN’s 30-1 rout
The DAP won six seats and PKR won one in the state poll, but at the parliamentary election DAP won Bandar Kuching that was the sole consolation for the opposition in a 30-1 rout by the BN.
azlanThis was strange because Sarawak’s voters had hitherto been more likely to give the opposition a better chance at winning parliamentary seats than state seats on the theory that the opposition is more useful for making noise in the federal legislature.
At the state level, this theory held that opting for the BN was the more practical choice because the development and economic prosperity of the state, facilitated by cooperation from federal authorities, was more readily obtained through BN channels.
Few communities are as pragmatic towards life and politics as Sarawak’s Foochow – the main ethnic group in the Chinese majority seat of Sibu.
This pragmatism has enabled SUPP and the late Robert Lau, a Foochow, to parlay their monopoly of the ‘3Ms’ – money, machinery and media – into a stranglehold on the Sibu parliamentary seat.
Robert won the seat five elections in a row, using the superior financial resources of his family’s businesses in timber, construction and newspaper publishing, to great effect in SUPP and in the state BN.
Boom city
The nexus between business and politics, once seen as inevitable and beneficent overall, has yet to become a canker in Sarawakian politics, which is the case on the Peninsula.
But the logic of this exceptionalism has apparently run its course in Sarawak.
NONEUnder SUPP control, Sibu city has boomed but not enough to keep enough young Foochow graduates in employment.
“Practically, every family in Sibu has a member who has left for employment either in other parts of Sarawak or more likely to Singapore, Klang Valley and Penang,” said Wong Ho Leng, the state DAP chief.
Wong said the Foochow emphasis on education has resulted in a tertiary-qualified category within the Chinese population that cannot all find employment in the city despite the boom of recent times.
Also, with higher education and Internet access, docile acceptance of constricting political realities and dwindling economic prospects are not things increasing numbers of the population are prone to.
Winds of change?
The winds of change are blowing but are they strong enough to free Sibu from the clutches of the SUPP?
It all hinges on the question of whether the Chinese voters who compose 60 percent of the electorate view their position in the evolving political landscape of the country.
They have seen how Chinese voters on the Peninsula had voted in the general election of March 2008, which was largely for the opposition, including a hitherto unpalatable PAS.
This surely would weigh in their calculations when the Sibu by-election is held, more so in the wake of auspicious signs that the DAP and PKR will not engage in a three-cornered fight for the seat, as was the case in the March 2008 election.
Thus a changed scenario awaits the BN this time out and Chief Minister Taib Mahmud’s serene confidence at regularly checking in Sarawak’s bloc of MPs under the BN column may be a thing of the past.
TERENCE NETTO has been a journalist for close on four decades. He likes the occupation because it puts him in contact with the eminent without being under the necessity to admire them.