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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Sarawak forces federal opposition to do deep soul-searching. But can it?

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By Ooi Kee Beng

For the Edge Malaysia, 16 May 2016.

Practically all pundits predicted that the Barisan Nasional (BN) in Sarawak, headed by the PBB under the leadership of Chief Minister Adenan Satem, would win big in the Sarawak state election held last Saturday, 7 May. They were right, no surprises there.

What was surprising was how many fronts the Sarawak BN won on. It took the coveted two-thirds majority, in fact winning 72 of 82 seats; its share of the popular vote went up to almost 62% from 55% in 2011; the introduction of direct BN candidates succeeded as well, diffusing tensions within the coalition; and its Chinese-based party, the SUPP, came out looking like it still has a future, unlike the Chinese-based BN parties on the peninsula.

Following any election, the figures tend to get heavily over-analysed, and comparisons back in time tend to forget that apples have sometimes along the way become oranges. It is instead the broader trends that need to be noted.

Firstly, this election is very much a Sarawak election, and what has been happening in the last decade is that, in light of the weakened situation of the BN at the federal level, the uniqueness of Sarawak state has become politically prominent and salient.

Sarawak has its own profound provincial politics, its own self-image (‘othered’ often vis-à-vis West Malaysia) and its own special mix of multiculturalism. All these cannot be subsumed under and analysed with categories generated in West Malaysia the way politicians and pundits from the peninsula wish to do.

It is in fact through portraying Sarawakian exceptionalism well in policy and public statements that made Adenan the unquestioned man of the hour. His assertion that he just wants one more term to finish what he started – and given his health, few doubt this to be other than sincerely stated – went down well with the population. Since he had clearly over the last two years as Chief Minister been mending fences among Sarawak’s diverse communities (in stark contrast to the opposite tendency manifesting on the peninsula under the UMNO-led BN there) and pressing for increased autonomy for Sarawak in public discourses—and as a clear of success on these fronts have had the Prime Minister Najib Razak endlessly calling on and courting the Sarawak state government—there is little reason for most Sarawakians not to allow him a strong mandate for a few more years.

Secondly, the re-delineation exercise in Sarawak, which created 11 new constituencies favoured the incumbent coalition, as such exercises tend to do. This, together with other measures that only the incumbent can undertake, such as banning key opposition politicians from the peninsula from entering and campaigning, tweaking the extremely difficult logistics involved in campaigning in Sarawak in favour of BN candidates; as well as disburse huge sums of money in dubious ways, made for a very uneven playing field.

Looking at the results, much of this tweaking seems to be overkill. A lot of the bullying seems unnecessary now, and does taint the victory for Adenan. He would have won handsomely in any case, based on the popularity he accrued as a leader, and on the moral capital he had collected. But the lethargy of change within any complex system is always strong. Much of how things were done, continues to be how things are done. And political culture is one of the hardest things to change.

Thirdly, Sarawak exceptionalism, a sentiment that the opposition parties had fanned in recent years as a strategic move to weaken the BN, seems now to have worked against them. Today, the Sarawakian government knows it can control the federal government’s influence in Sarawak much better than it can control the opposition.

Sarawak exceptionalism would therefore require that the latter be effectively curbed. After all, the federal government comes a-courting while the opposition comes a-challenging. There are definitely painful lessons in strategy to be learned here for the opposition parties as they now withdraw to lick their wounds. And these considerations should go beyond simple electoral campaigning mistakes.

The options that were open to the incumbent in Sarawak should not have – and would not have – come as a surprise to them. The opposition was really hoping against hope in any case.

In truth, the next big battle, which is the general election due by mid-2018, requires a re-focus by the opposition on two major points, if they are to have even a small chance at winning. The first concerns their failure to rule in exemplary fashion in the states that they have controlled since 2008, and the second is the failure to develop a national discourse that goes beyond broad principles, towards integrated policies that expresses good governance.

By “rule in exemplary fashion”, I mean that the newly entrenched ruling parties’ interlocutions with their constituents must be genuine, structured and allowed to mature; and that the quality of their power holders at all levels must improve so as to replace patronage practices with meritocratic ones. Without these, convincing a rightly skeptical electorate to move in sufficient numbers to defeat a sitting long-term federal government at the ballot box is quixotic.

The two major points mentioned above are interlinked. Having power at the state level allows not only for policy thinking to be based on genuine public consultation, but for resultant sound policies to be showcased. This was the process through which the Reformasi discourse should have since 2008 developed into concrete and integrated ideas for raising the level of governance in a concrete and evident manner.

Considerations of these points are necessary. Otherwise, more fiascos await the opposition.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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