Hornbill Unleashed

April 30, 2010

Pragmatism will win in Sibu

taib mahmud 241008By Keruah Usit

Voters in Bandar Sibu’s May 16 by-election are less likely to be concerned about the ethnic and religious fault-lines that have shaken peninsular politics over the past 40 years, than about issues of material development and livelihood.

Pragmatism will decide the winner, rather than the ethnic voting patterns that peninsular politicians constantly bang on about. Sibu residents, Iban, Malay, Orang Ulu, Chinese and Melanau alike, are stricken by chronic, crippling ailments of under-employment, economic monopolies by Cahya Mata Sarawak (CMS) and other companies linked to the Chief Minister Abdul Taib (right) Mahmud, and poor infrastructure and social services.

Material considerations will drive voters to welcome the circus of cash, building projects, promises of development, and even free karaoke and beer parties, that the campaign will bring to town. Among the hard-nosed Foochow merchants of the town, endless cyclical flooding, rising prices and declining business opportunities are prime voting issues.

Resentment of the chief minister’s policies and his family’s ostentatious wealth, and the high price of renewal of land strata titles (with some leaseholds as short as 60 years!) contributed to the loss of seven BN Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) seats to the DAP and PKR in the 2006 state polls.

But even urban Chinese voters appeared surprised with the huge swing that year, and may have feared they had gone too far. They returned to a conservative status quo in the parliamentary elections in 2008, handing victory to the BN in 30 out of 31 seats, including Bandar Sibu.

A minority of politically aware voters in Sibu will cast a protest vote against corruption at federal and state levels. But esoteric concerns like good governance, transparency, accountability, clean elections, or justice for Aminulrasyid Amzah, M Kugan or Teoh Beng Hock, will carry as little weight among rural migrants and the urban working class, as among the Felda settlers of Hulu Selangor.

Money politics welcomed

Money politics will be welcomed, not demonised, in this large frontier town. As in the rest of Sarawak, the co-mingling of business and political interests, fuelled by the timber and oil palm industries, is essential to lubricate the flow of massive profits from logging and plantation licences.

The lack of political sophistication among the urban poor will mean they will reciprocate with their votes, rather than taking the money and voting for the other party. Poverty provides cheap votes for willing buyers, as we have seen in Batang Ai and Hulu Selangor.

Sibu was built up by the Foochow clan, invited in by the colonial ruler Charles Brooke at the dawn of the twentieth century. The vision was to tap the promise of agriculture and trading access to the upper reaches of the Rejang. But weighty dreams sank slowly in this sodden marshland. Development has been painfully sluggish, with the exception of a handful of hotels, mansions, shopping malls and office blocks belonging mostly to timber industry giants KTS and Rimbunan Hijau.

Rural migrants to Sibu, made up of Iban, Kayan, Kenyah, Penan and other natives from the vast Rejang hinterland, have changed the town’s demographics, although the Chinese remain in the majority among its 260,000 inhabitants.

sarawak energy board slide show hydropower project in sarawak 180608 bakun damThe rural poor have been drawn to Sibu, thanks to affordable river transportation on the Rejang, in the hopes of finding better employment, education and health care. Many have also been driven off their farms, having lost their ancestral Native Customary Rights (NCR) land to plantations, timber companies and the mammoth Bakun (above) and Murum dams.

Shanty communities from the ulu with no clean water or electricity have mushroomed. Their inhabitants work in massage parlours, coffee shops or construction sites for 300 to 400 ringgit a month. Many have become estranged from their proud longhouse roots and have grown steeped in despair and alcohol.

Some rural migrants have given up the ghost of finding sustainable employment in Sibu, and have uprooted themselves even further, to the distant shores of the peninsula, Singapore, or the oilfields of the Middle East. This exodus may have given these workers greater access to the alternative media and political awareness, but most of these migrants will not be able to afford the airfare, nor the time off work, to return to Sibu to vote.

Keeping it safe

Sibu’s voters have chosen BN MPs in nine of the last ten contests in the two neighbouring parliamentary seats, Bandar Sibu and Lanang. The only exception in the last twenty years was a 1990 victory for the DAP’s Wong Sing Nang over the SUPP’s incumbent MP Tieu Sung Seng in Lanang.

The SUPP has been virtually invincible in Sibu parliamentary elections, assisted by the traditional appointment of a federal cabinet post for one of its MPs from the town. It is clear that voters in Miri and Sibu, the second and third largest urban centres in the state respectively, have traditionally favoured BN MPs over the DAP, unlike voters in Kuching.

sibu by election dap candidate wong ho leng latestOn May 16, the ingénue SUPP candidate, Robert Lau Hui Yew, 45, an heir to the immense KTS family fortune, is tipped to defeat a fellow lawyer, the DAP’s Wong Ho Leng (left), 50.

DAP Secretary General Lim Guan Eng has already admitted it will be a “tough fight” for Wong, the DAP state chairperson.

Wong is a more seasoned politician than Lau. Some voters would be sympathetic to Wong, because his wife was splashed with acid on Feb 6, an attack with unclear motives. Wong also won the state assembly seat of Bukit Assek in the 2006 state polls, a rare thrashing of the SUPP. But Wong has lost his all four of his parliamentary contests, beginning in1995.

The DAP faces a daunting task in winning votes from rural migrants. The party has largely been fenced into representing urban Chinese voters, although Kidurong state assembly representative Chiew Chin Sing, and other like-minded DAP members, have built bridges by fighting NCR land rights battles alongside his rural Iban and other native constituents.

The DAP’s Pakatan Rakyat (PR) allies may be able to do little to help in Sibu. PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim has been reluctant to commit significant resources to campaigning and grassroots organising in this vast state, in the run-up to the imminent state assembly elections. PAS is still struggling to gain support in Sarawak.

PKR, PAS, and to a lesser extent, the DAP, are still tarred with the brush of ‘peninsular-based’ parties, making them unpalatable to many Sarawakians who resent peninsular domination over the poverty-stricken state. The state BN component parties, such as the controlling Parti Pesaka Bumiputera and the SUPP, have been able to portray themselves as ‘locally based’, although they clearly take their orders from Umno.

NONEIn the opposite corner, Lau (right) has the resources of the federal and state BN, as well as media and timber conglomerate KTS behind him. Local newspapers have already praised him to the rafters for the unexceptional feat of walking around a hawkers’ market. There was some jostling for the candidacy among SUPP members, but the party is likely to close ranks behind its candidate now.

Regardless of the frantic huffing and puffing by politicians, by-elections are not a reliable weather vane for prevailing political winds, and Sibu will be no exception. Local issues and practical considerations will be paramount in voters’ minds, rather than national sentiment.

Still, we can look forward to the day, despite voters’ pragmatism, that they will see the tangible benefits of nationwide political competition, and of establishing a viable two-party democratic system.

After all, it is obvious that physical development in Sarawak has generally been the least desultory in those constituencies which have changed hands most frequently. Conversely, development has been the slowest in those “safe seats”, or uncontested seats, home to entrenched, immovable (and inert) people’s representatives.



  1. We are like flies trapped in the web of corruption. There is no institution, no government authority that will or want to help us. They are there to keep us deluded, distracted and denied. I appealed from the people of Sibu to be brave and vote in confronting this fact, the ineffectiveness of the PM in dealing with this serious matter.Is the PM going to help us poor Malaysians ? I don’t think so. He say nice things and deliver instant corruption monies and he is not interested in Sibu but POWER.

    Comment by Romli — May 13, 2010 @ 8:20 AM | Reply

  2. Yes, known to all men and women of Sarawakians who is taib n CMS (Cahaya Mata Sarawak/Chief Minister sons). But then what a pity nothing all these men n women try to do other then just swallow whatever r all there. It’s a pity…pity…pity… poor Sarawakians. Well that’s the notion saying always fresh in the mind of all Malaysians, Sarawak the rich state but the poorest people of the sloganistic Malaysia, the Bolehland. Why? Who to blame? All answers are there, but the bottomline is still the rakyat of Sarawak as a whole who r still in a sleeping state. Hasn’t wake-up yet to realized how they have been xploited n descriminated for the last 47 yrs with the formation of Gagasan Malaysia. I’m very sure n pretty sure Sibu will the eye-opener. Let PR/DAP win the by-election in 16 days time n put ur vote for WHL of DAP representing PR. Make Siburians as the true warrior of Sarawak wake-up.

    Comment by Minda Mandol — April 30, 2010 @ 9:52 AM | Reply

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