Hornbill Unleashed

March 1, 2014

All eyes on Taib’s possible successor in PBB stronghold Balingian

Anna Chidambar

Will Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud exert his influence over the choice of the PBB candidate to contest the Balingian state seat he is expected to vacate tomorrow?

Academicians well versed in Sarawak’s political scene think so. They believe that the PBB candidate would likely be a blood relation or at least, favoured by the outgoing Sarawak chief minister in order to ensure continuation of his legacy.

Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) historian Dr Suffian Mansor said: “Balingian has been a BN-PBB stronghold for over 40 years and has never fallen into the hands of the opposition. When Taib took over the seat in 2001, his popularity vote was over 90%.”

At that time, the Melanau constituents felt that the seat should be given rightfully to Taib, a Melanau, and as the CM, he could do a lot for the grassroots. Rightly so, Taib brought a lot of development and Mukah was upgraded to division status and transformed in terms of infrastructure.

Taib, who will step down as CM tomorrow after 33 years in power and vacate his Balingian seat to accommodate his appointment as governor, would favour another leader from his community to take over the Melanau-majority seat.

Political analysts predict that one possible PBB candidate is Taib’s eldest son, Datuk Seri Mahmud Abu Bekir.

Bekir was seen during the last state election when he made his appearance with Datuk Seri Muhammad Leo Michael Toyad Abdullah, the Mukah MP.

Political observers said that Bekir was present in various places in Mukah and believed that he was trying to introduce himself to the grassroots. Perception on the ground indicated that he was seen as more politically savvy than his younger brother Datuk Sulaiman Abdul Rahman, a one-term MP for Samarahan and former deputy tourism minister.

However, Bekir is embroiled in a personal court case and might not be the ideal candidate in the current scenario.

A second possible candidate is a former permanent secretary to the Ministry of Tourism, Akit Sebli, who is also Balingian PBB division vice-chairman. He retired from government service more than two years ago and is corporate advisor to an oil and gas company in Miri and a member of the board of directors of the Sarawak Convention Bureau. Akit is widely perceived as the right-hand man of Leo Toyad.

A third candidate on the radar is Dr Anthony Valentine Laiseh, former Deputy Resident of Mukah and currently Deputy Resident of Betong. However, it is understood that he has fallen out of favour with Leo Toyad.

A fourth person said to be in the running is a graduate in his 30s whose identity is closely guarded.

Suffian said: “The formula as to who can be picked has to be understood. During Tun Rahman Yakub’s time as chief minister in the 1970s, a gentleman’s understanding, a one plus one formula was formulated.

“As Balingian in Mukah division is a Melanau-majority area, if the state assemblyman is a Melanau Christian, then the member of parliament must be a Muslim and vice versa. Since Toyad, a Christian converted to Islam, both are now Muslims”.

There are about 130,000 Melanau in Sarawak comprising about 6% of the population. In Mukah, there are Christian Melanau and Muslim Melanau and also traditional believers as minority.

“Politically, the formula has been working well but of late, rumblings were heard as the community would also like to see a Christian representing them. The religious factor cannot be ruled out,” Suffian added.

Unimas senior lecturer Dr Jeniri Amir stressed the importance of PBB maintaining its performance, reminding the party that Taib’s majority in Balingian has actually been steadily declining.

“In 2001 he secured 7,307 popular votes; in 2006 it was 5,726 and in 2011 it dwindled to 5,154, about 80%, due to a lot of factors. One was the allegations of corruption and power abuse against him.

“In the last election it was a DAP Melanau candidate that contested and this time it is going to be given to PKR as the Melanau grassroots do not favour a Chinese DAP candidate.”

Political observers pointed out that PKR would be making the right move by picking a Melanau candidate to contest instead of an Iban or Chinese because of the Melanau sentiment factor.

PKR said it had two potential candidates in mind. The favoured candidate would be a Melanau from the Mukah or Balingan area who knows the local culture, sentiment, aspiration, problems and who could talk in the local Melanau Mukah dialect.

The grassroots prefer somebody seen as practical, down to earth and people friendly.

Unimas professor Dr Awang Azman Awang from Institute of East Asian Studies said that the Balingian by-election will reflect the pulse of the grassroots and their sentiment for the incoming Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem as it is an area with various ethnic groups.

“It will also emphasise that the issues in West Malaysia are not relevant in the Sarawak context, basically due to the fact that the various ethnic groups practise unity in their diversity. It will also act as a precursor to pave the way for newer faces to appear and test the response before the state elections due in mid-2016,” Awang said.

But BN and PBB should not be unduly worried about the by-election in Balingian as it has been a PBB stronghold and would remain so.

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