Sarawak polls: Is it GPS’ race to lose?

Sarawak State Assembly
Sarawak State Assembly
This is the home stretch. With under a week to go to the 12th Sarawak elections, analyst JAMES CHIN runs us through the main highlights and strategies in play as candidates navigate the pandemic SOPs and pressure from the peninsula.

We are mid-way through the Sarawak state polls. On the surface, it looks just like a regular election. The main urban towns are full of billboards and flags (in fact, in terms of the “flag war”, I can declare that the outright winner is Parti Sarawak Bersatu or PSB), and every day the press covers news of the ongoing election campaigning.

But that’s just on the surface. This is not the usual Sarawak election I know.

The SOPs imposed by the Election Commission (EC) due to the pandemic has dampened the atmosphere considerably. 

In the urban areas, the atmosphere is almost dead (well, more dead than you’d expect during election season). Without the kopitiam (local coffee shop) ceramahs and the massive rallies, it just doesn’t feel like there’s an election coming up at all.

All the political parties are trying to campaign online. But in Sarawak, people want the personal touch.

Plus, many of the online sessions on Facebook and YouTube are also very amateurish in their production, causing many people to turn off within 10 minutes.

In one session I was watching, I suddenly realised I was the only viewer not part of either the party or its Facebook live production team. 

To their credit, the campaigners carried out the session for the full 2 hours. This despite the fact that I left after 15 mins!

Sarawak's consituencies
Sarawak's consituencies

In the interior, as far as I can tell, the SOPs are taken as mere suggestions rather than hard-and-fast rules. 

The usual ‘beer and makan (food) parties’ have been taking place as in elections past, while candidates have been moving around freely, spreading happiness and hopefully some political messages.

On the caretaker government side, the biggest problem the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) coalition is facing is meeting and ensuring all longhouse dwellers understand the hornbill symbol is the new blue dacing (scales), with the component parties having won under the BN ticket the last time round.

GPS is a little bit worried that some naughty people are trying to confuse voters by using Parti Bumi Kenyalang’s (PBK) symbol, also featuring the hornbill.

For context, Sarawak is also known as the Land of the Hornbill.

The GPS (left) and PBK (right) logos
The GPS (left) and PBK (right) logos

Weeding out the weak

After a week of campaigning, two things have become clear to me.

First, GPS, Parti Sarawak Bersatu (PSB) and Democratic Action Party (DAP) have emerged as the serious contenders. Even PKR is on the sidelines now. It’s almost like the rest are there for our entertainment only.

Second, parties are throwing “money promises” at the voters like there’s no tomorrow.

Take PSB. It may be the “new boy” on the block, but it’s being seen as a credible party with resources to match.

It has spent millions getting its machinery ready in the past year and over the past few days, has spent hundreds of thousands on paid advertisements in all Sarawak newspapers.

It looks and feels like a heavyweight. 

It’s being led by Wong Soon Koh, who spent 30 years at the top of the Sarawak BN/GPS political ladder.

It is widely known Wong has the backing of certain tycoons and business families. With 70 candidates, his ambition to take over the state government certainly seems credible (you can see the full list of candidates here)

Among the candidates are ex-elected representatives, civil servants and other politicians who were never given a chance to stand previously.

And what of DAP? One thing is clear — although Sarawak Pakatan Harapan (PH) exists on paper, in reality, at least as far as this election is concerned, DAP is a standalone party.

Its partner Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) has been without a single leader since Ba Kelalan incumbent/Selangau MP Baru Bain and Julau MP Larry Sng left it hanging. PKR can only realistically win one seat – and even that is not a given as they could very well repeat the Melaka fiasco of zero seats.

Going into a Sarawak election without a single “general” is not an option in Sarawak, and Anwar, the big towkay in KL, flew in and flew out.

Maybe he knows what’s about to happen? Like the way he flew in and out of Melaka?

Sarawak DAP has a good machinery and a disciplined group of candidates. Other than a few, most of its 26 candidates are credible.

DAP is not without problems as its longtime leader, Chong Cheng Jen (better known as Ah Jien or CCJ) is suffering from reputational damage. He was made deputy minister at the federal level during the short PH administration.

The consensus among many Sarawak Chinese seems to be that he did not do a good job in meeting the interests of Sarawakians while in office. Some Chinese are still angry that he wasn’t made a full minister to help the state.

GPS, as the incumbent ruling coalition, is trying to act as if it’s above the fray by repeating the mantra that only GPS has the experience to run Sarawak.

As usual, GPS is in full control of the airwaves and much of the social media. Its “Sarawak First” mantra has gained ground in the past few days.

So far so good, but this does not mean there’s no undercurrent. GPS’ strategy is simply not to make any big mistakes or have any big controversy until next Saturday, when voters take to the ballot.

Their greatest fear is any event linked to caretaker chief minister Abang Johari Openg, a.k.a. Abang Jo, where they’d be unable to control the narrative.

Abang Jo took over the chief ministership from the late, very popular, Adenan Satem. As such, an election win would enable the former to secure a mandate for himself, as well as GPS in its maiden election.

Abang Johari Openg (left), Chong Chieng Jen (centre) and Wong Soon Koh (right)
Abang Johari Openg (left), Chong Chieng Jen (centre) and Wong Soon Koh (right)

Money, money, money

As mentioned above, another thing that’s obvious in the first week is “free money”. The two biggest items were announced by PBK and PSB.

PBK introduced its “PBK Passport“, in which it’ll pay the holder a “special hardship relief fund” RM3,000 in cash or kind, providing she/he votes on Saturday.

If a single household holds 3 passports, that’s an easy RM9k.

PBK has also managed, incredibly, to nominate 73 candidates, although the bulk of them lack credibility and are guaranteed to lose their deposits. 

Nevertheless, PBK’s mantra “in quest of independence” is genuinely popular among the polity. Still, asking them to vote on an actual ballot paper could be a bridge too far — nobody I spoke to believe PBK can form a government.

PSB this week also promised plenty of money to voters in the form of a child endowment programme to encourage Sarawakians to settle and raise families in the state, IF it forms the next state government.

This involves monthly aid of between RM200 and RM500 per child, as well as RM600 per senior citizen and RM1,200 per disabled Sarawakian.

Although GPS did not announce any cash incentives, the reality is that it has been giving out moolah since the start of this year.

In May this year, prior to the extension of the emergency order in the state, Abang Jo announced the RM1.4 billion Bantuan Khas Sarawakku Sayang (BKSS 6.0) financial package to help Sarawakians. 

This included payments of RM250 per month for 6 months to heads of households beginning July 31 and RM200 – 300 per month to frontliners, while single adults, ferry operators and e-hailing drivers would get a one-off RM500 payment.

Meanwhile, RM1,500 was to be paid to hawkers and small traders in the form of special grants and to media practitioners in the form of appreciation payment.

With money (and in some places, beer) flowing, and promises of big money, no wonder thisis the most fascinating Sarawak election ever, despite cries of “vote-buying” by NGOs.

Next week is the final week of campaigning. I expect big announcements in the later part of the week from GPS, PBK, PSB as they make a last-minute dash to the finishing line.

As I write this,  Voon Lee Shan, the PBK leader, is alleging that he was harassed by men claiming to be from the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). He says he is now afraid for his life and safety. If this is true, it will bring a lot of sympathy votes to PBK and may even win them a seat.

The last 48 hours are crucial as this is the time to focus on swaying the fence-sitters. 

One final thing: Turnout will likely lower in the urban areas. Older people are afraid of COVID-19 so they are likely to skip this election. Some told me they are skipping the election because they are fed up with both the GPS and the opposition!

So, who’s going to win?

In my opinion, unless there is political news equal to an earthquake somewhere, anywhere in Malaysia, GPS will win. The only question is the margin of victory.

James Chin is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania. He is widely regarded as the leading scholar of contemporary politics in Sabah and Sarawak.

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