No dancing in Sarawak
Opposition up against a mountain in Sarawak polls.
THIS could be the first Sarawak election where politicians won’t be able to sing and dance their way to the ballot box because of the pandemic.
Sarawak politicians are not like those from Peninsular Malaysia. They do not obsess about race and religion, they cannot understand the fuss over the Timah whisky and one can find food stalls selling pork noodles next to a halal food stall in Kuching.
They believe in moderation and all of them seem to be able to dance.
Their former chief minister, the late Tan Sri Adenan Satem, lit the flame for the “Sarawak Dream” and sang his way into the people’s hearts.
His successor Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Abang Openg is no singer nor is he as profound and inspiring.
But Abang Johari is going into his first election as Chief Minister with a pretty impressive track record.
Beneath the unpretentious demeanour – that toothy grin and floppy hairdo – is a highly astute politician.
Not only does Abang Johari intend to continue the “Sarawak Dream,” he has been riding on the Sarawak for Sarawakians sentiment.
“Sarawak regionalism is so strong this time around, you can feel it everywhere. Some smaller parties are even calling for Sarawak independence,” said a young property developer.
Abang Johari has tapped into this regionalism fervour by asking voters to support genuine Sarawak parties and not those imported from “Malaya”, which is how Sarawakians refer to peninsular Malaysia.
But, said political analyst Dr Arnold Puyok, the feather in Abang Johari’s cap is that Sarawak is the first state to secure the right to impose a 5% sales tax from gas and petroleum products and which has since pumped almost RM7bil into the state coffers.
Oil revenue has long been a contentious issue and many Sarawakians get angry when they see the Petronas Twin Towers, which they believe was built with money that belongs to Sarawak.
At a leadership level, Abang Johari has shown his mettle in the way he turned Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) into a solid and stable coalition that every party now wants as an ally.
GPS has become like a rich and beautiful bride with many suitors.
For instance, a delegation of Umno leaders led by deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamed Hasan flew all the way to Kuching just to wish Abang Johari good luck for the election. It was first class PR – one might even call it courtship – on the part of Umno.
Abang Johari has also been on an infrastructure spree that is set to open up parts of the state like never before.
A multi-billion ringgit scheme to extend piped water to the interior is in progress.
Work has begun on two major highways that are more ambitious than the Pan Borneo Highway because it involves spectacular bridges over the massive rivers Sarawak is known for.
These schemes will create jobs for engineers, workers as well as generate trickle-down opportunities in the years ahead.
This is what the opposition parties are up against in the state election – a powerful, wealthy and well-oiled ruling coalition that has consistently won with a two-thirds majority.
As such, the question is not whether GPS will win, but whether it can do better than the 72 out of 82 seats won in the 2016 election.
Nevertheless, opposition parties, especially DAP, have slowly advanced on the fortress.
Its best year was 2011, when Chinese anger against then chief minister Tun Taib Mahmud was boiled over and delivered 16 seats to the opposition.
But the Adenan wave came along in 2016 and pushed the opposition back to only 10 seats.
State DAP chief and leading opposition figure Chong Chieng Jen is under pressure to deliver.
DAP actually has quality candidates, where many of whom were groomed by Chong.
Chong was once a rising star but his image took a tumble after nothing came out of the grand manifesto by the Sarawak chapter of Pakatan Harapan in the general election.
Chong became a deputy minister but Pakatan failed to deliver on the promises to get 20% oil royalty for Sarawak, as well as 50% sales tax on petroleum and gas products.
His party is seen as taking the Chinese support for granted while he has often been described as arrogant.
DAP’s Impian Sarawak scheme to penetrate the rural areas has also came to naught.
Despite the grouses, DAP is still likely to get the lion’s share of Chinese votes because the Chinese are still itching for change. They also want to have check-and-balance in the government.
Another big headache for Pakatan is that the opposition vote this time will be split between Pakatan and the home-grown Parti Sarawak Bersatu (PSB).
PSB is led by Datuk Seri Wong Soon Koh, who has deep roots in the state and it poses a real threat to DAP.
The battle for Sarawak will be largely fought out in the clusters of Chinese seats in the Sibu-Sarikei river basin, in the oil town of Miri and the capital region of Kuching.
If Abang Johari wants to improve on his seat count, GPS will need to do well in these three areas.
The Chinese were bowled over by Adenan, but it is unclear whether they will throw their support behind Abang Johari.