Sunday, 4 September 2016

Not necessarily a bellwether

Brave New World (The Star)
11 May 2016


SARAWAK politics is really weird. For one thing, I have never understood how the Sarawak people I meet seem so annoyed at the orang Malaya and their Federal policies, yet are so loyal in their support for the coalition which makes those policies.
Every time I try to get an explanation, I get the same brush-off: “You are not one of us; you won’t understand.” Maybe I’ve just been talking to the wrong people.
Granted, I am not Sarawakian (despite having a hairstyle that a Kelabit friend told me reminded him of his grandfather). Therefore, this piece is written from an outsider’s perspective.
The recent Sarawak state elections were rife with the usual complaints. Gerrymandering? Check. Accusa­tions of money politics? Check. Questionable spikes in voter numbers? Check. Unfair use of immigration laws? Check. Opposi­tion coalition can’t get their act together? Check.
If all these complaints are true, or even if only some of them are true, then they will surely have left an impact on the election results. But I am not here to discuss that.
Because true or not, there appears to me to be an underlying issue that will colour Sarawak state elections, even if they are as clean and clear as a baby’s conscience.
Sarawak politics are, quite simply, state-based. National issues do not seem to have an impact on voter sentiments.
If they do, they take a back seat to domestic concerns. Hence, despite issues confronting Putrajaya, a few nods towards Sarawak norms by their Barisan Nasional Chief Minister (no religious extremism, the recognition of English, plurality) have made him more popular than Watson Nyambek in his speedy pomp.
This sense of political “separateness” from the Federation is not particularly surprising. Generally speaking, states have their own personality and identity.
If there is some sort of physical distance involved, this personality becomes more apparent, be it a mountain range as in the case of Kelantan or a narrow channel in the case of Penang. Imagine, then, how individualistic a state can be when separated by the humungous South China Sea?
My point is that there exists in Sarawak an emotional “separateness” from the Federation and it follows that the same will be true with politics. It is even more pronounced because it is only in the Borneo states that you have exclusively state-based political parties.
Add to this the rules put in place by the Malaysia Agreement (separate judiciary, Attorney-General, Bar, immigration laws, government agencies and extra state jurisdiction to make laws) and the individuality becomes even more pronounced.
Thus, the general sense that I get is that when it comes to elections, in particular state elections, it is really and truly about what Sarawakians think is best for themselves. And if this means having a BN-led state government, then so be it. National issues don’t really matter.
This is very different from voter sentiment in the peninsula. National issues get very tangled up with state issues.
I honestly can’t remember a time when this was not so. In the peninsula, election campaigns tend to be based on certain overarching issues which tend to be national in nature.
What all this is leading to is that I am not sure if BN’s landslide victory in Sarawak is actually a portent of things to come.
It is not necessarily the signal that Sarawak is still very much a safe state for BN in the general elections due within a couple of years.
If it is possible for the opposition to show how their Federal policies will differ from BN’s in relation to the Bornean states and if they can prove that those policies are better for the people of Sarawak and Sabah, then it is very possible that the results of the parliamentary elections won’t be as emphatic as the state legislative assembly elections.
Only time will tell.

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