Politics of development has been his main mantra since 1981 when he replaced his maternal uncle, Abdul Rahman Ya’kub, as Sarawak Chief Minister.
It was a tried-and-tested recipe, if not formula, for many decades. Taib and those related or close to him grew fabulously rich – an understatement somewhat – during the period.
The politics of development has been found more than wanting given the state’s undeserved status as the second poorest state – Sabah is poorest – in Malaysia, as announced by the World Bank in Kota Kinabalu in December 2010.
Taib has the dubious distinction of presiding over this spectacular development in reverse. During the same period as his tenure in office, strait-laced Singapore grew by leaps-and-bounds to build an economy larger than Malaysia’s by end 2010.
In the wake of deep-seated public cynicism on his notion of development, Taib discovered that the politics of development had become a double-edged sword. He went back to the political drawing board in 2009 after many Chinese and urban voters deserted his ruling coalition in the state election.
Taib, unable to magically conjure up a new rabbit from the hat, has been forced to accept his severe shortcomings and return to his bad, old ways in recent weeks.
A leopard, after all, cannot change its spots.
Despite having his back to the wall, given the debacle in Chinese and urban areas, Taib has begun beating the drums of war anew on the politics of development mantra. He claims that the opposition can only “cakap kosong” (indulge in empty talk) and that only Barisan Nasional (BN), under him of course, can bring development to the state.
He stressed as much this week when he ticked off Kuching MP Chong Chieng Jen on the question of him stepping down and warned him that such a move, prematurely, “would affect the flow of investments”.
If investments are only just coming in, what has Taib been doing in office since 1981? Obviously, Taib hasn’t read the World Bank report.
Finger in every economic pie
Taib being Taib cannot be anything but himself, albeit with a death-wish. He appears determined to swim or sink with the politics of development.
The Chinese and urban voters, conscious of their status as long-suffering taxpayers, are going to be even more alienated from the Taib regime given its fixation anew with the politics of development. The Chinese in particular are not amused by the Taib family, friends and cronies having a finger in every economic pie in Sarawak. Enough is enough, they scream in cyberspace.
Taib’s stock mantra, playing to the rural gallery, is that his family members are all “smart” and this explains their wealth “which has become the envy of the Chinese in particular”.
The Sarawak chief minister appears to have rightly reckoned that the rural majority are still with him, at least until the government in Putrajaya falls.
Analysts attribute this rather unusual level of support in rural Sarawak to a combination of factors. The first is the alarmingly high illiteracy rate (70%) among the Iban community in particular. This helps keep them blissfully ignorant of the excesses of the Taib regime for over three decades. The Ibans, a Dayak people, are the largest community in Sarawak.
For another, Taib enjoys rock solid support from his own Melanau community who are also Dayaks like the Ibans, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu. Unlike the other Dayaks, a third of the Melanau are Muslim.
He doesn’t hesitate to play the Dayak card (mantra) when it suits him and, at other times, the Muslim card (mantra) against the Dayaks who are largely Christian.
His strategy since taking office has been to keep the Muslims united under his Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) and the Dayaks, the majority community, divided among four parties, namely PBB, the Chinese-led Sarawak United Peoples Party (SUPP) and two mosquito Dayak parties – Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) and the Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP), the last two sponsored by PBB moneybags.
The Melanau aside, the one other major Muslim community in Sarawak are the Sarawak Malays, mostly coastal Bidayuh in the First Division and mainly coastal Iban in the other divisions, who converted to Islam from their previous mixture of paganism and ancient Hinduism.
If push comes to shove, Taib is expected to lose anything up to 12 parliamentary seats in the forthcoming 13th general election which has to be held by April/May next year or by October/November next year if Parliament’s five-year term is allowed to expire without dissolution.
That would leave Taib with a still respectable 19 parliamentary seats to enable Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to hang on to Putrajaya by the skin-of-his-teeth.
Like the Chinese and urban electorate, more significant sections of the Dayak votebank – Bidayuh, Orang Ulu and non-Muslim Melanau – are Malays expected to turn against Taib the longer the general election is delayed. These communities, unlike the Iban, are better educated and IT-savvy.
Taib’s politics of development mantra is no longer working with these communities. They complain that the Sarawak government is indulging in patchwork development with a fraction of the funds, that is, 10 % to 15 %, while the rest is pocketed by “a lucky few” in the corridors of power.
Increasingly, more and more people in Sarawak are finally waking up to the fact that the very few haves in the state can only be getting richer all the time at their expense and that of their children, grandchildren and future generations.
If the general election were to be held today, Taib can do better with 24 to 25 parliamentary seats. He has not been too damaged so far by the loss of the Chinese and urban votes. But the situation can quickly change as voter dissatisfaction and disenchantment catches up with the non-Chinese, especially the Sarawak Malays and the smaller Dayak communities.
The bottomline, swear PBB insiders, is that Taib would not hesitate to form a coalition government with DAP in a desperate gamble to win back Chinese and urban support. He has all but written off SUPP which has degenerated into in-fighting and name-calling among its Chinese leaders as the Dayak members look on helplessly.
The other option, according to the same insiders, is to support Pakatan Rakyat to form the federal government if it looks like BN’s hold on Putrajaya would at best be tenuous.
This would be a political necessity for the Taib family to buy political protection and immunity from being dragged behind bars for abuse of power and criminal breach of trust.
If such protection would not be forthcoming, no matter which way he turned, Taib might resort to an old and final mantra once trumpeted by the Sarawak National Party (SNAP): a unilateral declaration of independence.
That would be the mantra of all mantras.
If that doesn’t swing Chinese support firmly behind Taib, nothing ever will.
In an independent Sarawak, it’s reckoned that the Chinese would be able to reinvent themselves and become relevant again in the economic field, which, unlike now, would be thrown wide open and free from government and political interference.