Prepare for Battle of Foochows

THOUSANDS of outsiders are making their presence felt in Bandar Sibu in central Sarawak, where a parliamentary by-election has been called. Easy-going locals have to share their lifestyle with quick-paced outsiders.

The by-election is seen as an indicator of the upcoming Sarawak elections.

Many see the contest as more interesting than the recently-concluded Hulu Selangor by-election, where Barisan Nasional wrested the seat from Pakatan Rakyat.

And with BN now focusing its attention on Bandar Sibu, Pakatan Rakyat candidate, Sarawak DAP chief Wong Ho Leng, is digging in for a challenging fight.

Liew Chin Tong, DAP strategist and Bukit Bendera member of parliament, said: “It’s a tough battle, although DAP won the seat once.”

Dr Mohamed Agus Yusuf, a political analyst from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said some voters from the lower-income group may reject BN.

He said unhappiness about those with political connections getting the bigger share of the development pie could influence voters, especially among the mainly Chinese electorate.

Mohamed said voters might also be dissatisfied with the control of the state’s resources by the family of Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud.

Observers said DAP’s success in winning an unprecedented six seats and PKR winning one in the 2006 state polls was fuelled by urban resentment against allegations of graft and cronyism surrounding the state leadership.

But urban Chinese voters appeared to think they had gone too far in supporting the opposition and returned to give BN a resounding success in the 2008 general election, in which BN won 30 of 31 seats, including Bandar Sibu.

Mohamed said: “As always, voting patterns in Malaysia depend on issues raised during campaigning.

“Politics is after all about hopes and fear.”

Moreover, in Sarawak and Sabah, Malay and native Bumiputera votes have usually gone to BN.

In past elections, Sarawak United People’s Party, which has picked lawyer Robert Lau Hui Yew to defend the Bandar Sibu seat, is known to have won on the back of Bumiputera support in longhouses and villages.

Hui Yew — the cousin of the late Bandar Sibu MP and deputy transport minister Datuk Robert Laui Hoi Chew, who died of cancer on April 9 — will face Wong, who is Bukit Assek assemblyman, on May 16.

However, Sibu community leader Temenggong Vincent Lau said he thought the constituency was still a grey area for BN because of the many fence-sitters who would decide only after weighing arguments from both sides during campaigning.

He was quoted as saying that he hoped the two-day visit by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak to Sibu would sway the opinion of these voters.

Voters want an assurance from Najib that BN will bring changes for all races.

SUPP vice-president Datuk Yong Khoon Seng, while conceding that infrastructure was still lagging in the constituency, said BN had always been sincere in addressing people’s problems.

Yong, who is Sarawak deputy works minister, said infrastructure projects, including bridges and roads, were being carried out at all times.

Professor James Chin, a Sarawakian who teaches at Monash University Sunway campus in Petaling Jaya, said besides the usual flooding issue, the by-election was being billed as a “Battle of the Foochows” as Lau and Wong were from the Foochow clan.

Foochow traders in Sibu town are concerned about flooding, rising prices and fewer business opportunities.

Absentee voters will also influence the outcome of the by-election as they may reduce voters’ turnout.

Many young voters are either working in the peninsula or overseas and they are unlikely to return to cast their ballots.

Among the 54,695 voters in Bandar Sibu, 36,389 (66.7 per cent) are Chinese, 12,050 (22.1 per cent) Bumiputera, 5,740 (10.5 per cent) Malays and 2,537 postal voters.

Analysts said if Pakatan Rakyat failed to get 60 per cent or at least 20,000 of Chinese votes, it would be impossible for DAP to win this BN stronghold.

DAP won the seat in 1982 by 141 votes when its candidate Ling Sie Ming defeated SUPP’s Dr Wong Soon Kai.

Bandar Sibu has three BN-controlled state seats: Nangka, Bawang Asan and Pelawan.

The size of the constituency (8,278 sq km) and its geographical landscape won’t benefit Pakatan, considering its limited resources.

Those campaigning in Batang Ai, Sarawak, last year, when PKR lost badly to BN, faced logistical problems, unfamiliar terrain and a lack of understanding of local cultures.

A Pas official said the opposition would have to depend on outsiders since Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Pas and DAP did not have strong bases in Sarawak.

It’s too early to tell whether Bandar Sibu will turn out to be a battle of old foes between SUPP and DAP as nomination will only take place on Sunday. Some Independent candidates may join in the fray.


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