Friday, April 15, 2011

BN feels the Sarawak HEAT

by Ooi Kee Beng

Judging from recent events, the ruling coalition in the Malaysian state of Sarawak is feeling very unsure of its ability to retain its two-third majority in tomorrow's state election.

Not only are the rallies of the Barisan Nasional (BN) not drawing the crowds, its candidates are failing to excite voters except through offers of money and apparent quid pro quo development.


This has caused Prime Minister Najib Razak and a host of other Federal Cabinet ministers to fly to Sarawak to provide whatever support they can to their coalition partners there.

Long-time Chief Minister Taib Mahmud has adamantly refused to provide his apprehensive allies with a definite date for his retirement from office.

While the Prime Minister has publicly stated that the Chief Minister would leave after the elections, Mr Taib himself, claiming that he has been grooming a successor, said he will not leave until sometime in the middle of the next mandate period.

The Prime Minister's concern is national, while the Chief Minister is about securing his own retreat.

Mr Taib's defeat may not be on the cards but an impressive advance by the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in Sarawak three years after its triumphs in the last general election will ensure it smoother sailing into the next one.



Breaking BN's two-third majority in Sarawak would be a bonus for the PR.

The BN's Achilles heel this weekend may not be Mr Taib's party, the Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), but the Chinese-supported Sarawak United People's Party (SUPP).

The latter is the one feeling the heat of the effective campaigning being carried out by the opposition Democratic Action Party and Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

In desperation, it has now called in the top brass of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), the Chinese-supported BN member from West Malaysia.

MCA president Dr Chua Soi Lek, secretary-general Kong Cho Ha and former party president Ong Tee Keat have all agreed to fly in.

Being politicians who have recently suffered bad drops in voter sympathy and moral standing, their presence may be more a bane than a boon for the SUPP.

It is doubtful that they can counteract the dynamic campaigning being carried out by the Opposition and its supporters.

This is despite several key PR supporters being refused entry into the state. The BN tactic of handing out goodies and long-delayed development fares badly in the face of accusations of power abuse aimed at them by the Opposition.

The more talk about money the BN throws into its rhetoric, the less trustworthy its candidates appear.

But alongside the obvious disenchantment in the BN felt by the Chinese community throughout Malaysia, flows the trend among urban populations with access to cyber information and who participate in that new arena to turn against old discourses of race, religion and patronage.

The BN's sense of desperation is also seen in the incessant cyber attacks on chosen websites it considers hostile to the government.

But although effectively crippled, these sites' contents have been quickly made available elsewhere.

Malaysiakini.com, which since the 2008 general election has been a key source of streaming information during elections, has suffered a denial of service, and is now available at sites such as www.facebook.com/MalaysiaKini and malaysiakinicom.wordpress.com/ instead.

Sarawak Report, a London-based website that is highly critical of the power abuses of Mr Taib Mahmud and his relatives, has suffered a similar fate. Some of its contents became nevertheless immediately accessible at www1.sarawakreport.org.

These attacks come too late and are never as effective as the shutdowns may imply.

Strangely enough, the issue of religion has not been playing as big a role as one would have expected, given the recent controversy over the delayed import of Malay language Bibles.

Sarawak is, after all, the Malaysian state that has the largest population of Christians.

This avoidance could be a conscious effort on the part of the Opposition to avoid diluting the highly effective tactic of focusing on Mr Taib himself and on the power abuses of the BN government.



The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies

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