Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Mohd. Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak probably did not expect the Sarawak state elections turning out to become such an intense battle. He even proclaimed that this is the toughest electoral battle in the history of Sarawak.
Well, he may well be right. PM Najib’s may have tasted sweet victories in the last few by-elections in the Peninsula Malaysia and Sabah but his 1Malaysia spirit is slow to catch on in Sarawak. There is a danger than the gains he had accumulated in the last year may be easily overwhelmed and drowned by the outcome of Sarawak state elections.
There are simply too many issues presented on a silver platter for the opposition parties to use against the state leadership of Chief Minister Pahen Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud.
Taib is the most favourite punching bag for the Dap leaders and candidates in their election campaigns. They have created jingles, songs and slogans taunting his leadership, alleged controversies and rather unkindly, his white hair.
But the state elections have long thrown out civility and courtesy. Both race and religion cards have been used to the tilt especially the desecration of Alkitab and the use of ‘Allah’ in Malay Bible issues.
Personal attacks, sexual misconduct allegations, vandalism of election posters and billboards and intimidation of election workers have been reported throughout the state.
On the other hand, both sides are also engaged in cyber attacks. One side trying to bring down or hack into sites which critical of the state government, the other side trying to use the online platform and social networking tools to circulate and generate more criticisms and negative perception of the state ruling coalition.
Surprising, a few Peninsula based activists such as former Bar Council chairperson S. Ambiga, Bersih’s Dr Wong Chin Huat and MCLM chairperson Harris Ibrahim had been denied entry into Sarawak. It is not too hard to gauge if this is a right move taken by the Barisan state government.
Both sides have been engaged in very negative election campaigns.
Apart from taunts, crude personal attacks and political rhetoric, none of the contesting parties have stepped out to engage in proper and beneficial policy debates to demonstrate how they can help to make Sarawak a better place to live in.
There is crucial need to address several critical socio-economic issues which are affecting the livelihood of the people.
On a short visit to Sibu, I have heard complaints from local businessmen of a lack of business opportunities in the state. In this regard, it would be crucial for an aspiring government to discuss solid plans on how to rejuvenate the economy of Sarawak.
Sibu was a prosperous town. Some of the locals boasted to me that even legendary songstress, the late Teresa Teng, had visited and performed in the clubs here.
It is quite obvious that the perceived ‘wealth’ of Sarawak which is resource rich does not match the state of its infrastructure and public amenities. It is not difficult to find huge and tastefully designed bungalows in the cities but the roads and public infrastructure could easily put Sarawak 30 years behind Peninsula Malaysia.
Slightly 20km from the city centre, the glaring socio-economic disparity slowly sinks in. We saw some shabby wooden houses along a busy street of Sibu. My local host told me that these houses are at least 100 years old but still a mile better than some of the long houses.
The disparity and socio-economic contrast has created mounting resentments against the state government.
Sarawak is going through a socio-political transition which may be beyond the comprehension of the ruling regime. This is a common dilemma for any regime after a long spell in power. Leaders become detached from the reality on the ground.
PBB leaders had warned the opposition not to bring into Sarawak their crude and aggressive brand of politics. However, judging from the response of Sarawak voters, they may allow their curiosity to rule the day.
Pakatan election campaigns which are colourful, loud and complete with a mascot have attracted massive crowd to their ceramah. On the other hand, the presence of their West Malaysia counterparts has strengthened the opposition parties in Sarawak. Many of the curious voters came out to listen to what Lim Guan Eng, Khalid Ibrahim and Nik Aziz have done for their respective states. There is bound to be a comparison with Sarawak.
Moreover, with accessibility to the internet Sarawak voters have access to some information which is normally not covered in local mainstream media and they are not going to tolerate any raw deal.
It is difficult or impossible to compartmentalize Sarawak politics and keep it away from the influence of West Malaysia. Both coalitions must be ready to face a more assertive Sarawak electorate.
Another transition which would be interesting to watch is the dominance of conglomerates and local tycoons over the state politics. Some of the biggest conglomerates are putting up their candidates in the state elections.
The outcome of the electoral contests in seats contested by candidates supported by these conglomerates is going to determine if family ties, wealth and social status can continue to dominate local politics.
So far, I sense a growing awareness among voters of their democratic rights to choose a government which can serve the people and serve them honestly.
The ruling coalition cannot afford to ignore the plights and grouses of Sarawakians. Some of the allegations against the state leadership should be addressed immediately to show that it is not oblivious to their concerns.
Another myth – Sarawak is fixed deposit for the ruling coalition – might be broken this coming 16th April. Whatever the outcome, the state is set for a regime change in the near future.
For the opposition, they may have successfully made a political figure a very effective punching bag but their political rhetoric needs to grow into something more solid especially for a state which is in need of viable solutions to address its lack of socio-economic development and to catch up with some of the more developed states in West Malaysia.
Change is set to happen in Sarawak regardless of the winners.