Sibu – another referendum

By Wong Chin Huat (
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 SarawakiansYou 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

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 BNThe 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.
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.