Testing ground for a bigger battle
The battle in Sibu will be for the Chinese votes, where politics not only revolves around people and development but is also about big business and family connections.
Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak pressed all the right buttons when he flew into Sibu a few days ago.
He called on the widow of the late MP Datuk Robert Lau and paid tribute to the diligent and entrepreneurial culture of the local Chinese. He even took a walk through the heritage garden named after the founder of Sibu, Wong Nai Song.
But the Prime Minister is not under any illusion about the by-election in Sibu. It will be no walk in the park for the Barisan Nasional and that is why Najib is, again, taking a close-up interest in the upcoming campaign.
The Sibu polls will be a battle for the Chinese vote and, as recent experiences have shown, it is not easy to win the Chinese heart and mind.
The Chinese, mainly of the Foochow clan, make up 60% of the electorate and they will call the shots on who becomes the next MP of Sibu. The Chinese vote will be tempered by the Melanaus (20%) and the Ibans and others (3.8%).
The by-election could not have come at a more crucial time in Sarawak politics and for the long career of Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib Mahmud.
State elections are due next year and Sibu will be the sounding board for the bigger battle ahead.
The still very powerful Taib has to do well so that he can confidently call for state elections next year as well as push through a successor of his choice.
On top of that, Barisan is banking on Sarawak as its “fixed deposit” in the next general election.
At another level, the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) is under immense pressure to deliver the Sibu seat. It lost eight of the 19 state seats it contested in the 2006 state elections; six of those defeats were at the hands of the DAP.
The outcome in Sibu will have implications for other Chinese-majority areas like Miri and Kuching.
SUPP is the next biggest Barisan component in Sarawak after Taib’s Parti Pesaka Bumiputra (PBB) and it has to win this one at all cost.
In that sense, much is at stake for Taib and SUPP president Tan Sri Dr George Chan, who, as everyone knows, are related – Taib’s son is married to Dr Chan’s daughter.
This by-election will see DAP testing its strength on what might be considered rather unfamiliar territory and against another Chinese-based party.
The opposing sides in Sarawak are more than prepared for it because Lau Sr, a deputy transport minister at the time of his death, had been stricken with cancer for some time.
As such, the selection of candidates went like clockwork. Barisan’s Robert Lau Hui Yew (namesake and cousin of the deceased) is set to face DAP’s Richard Wong Ho Leng in a contest that may or may not see independent candidates joining the fray.
It is more than just a contest between two arch rival parties.
Lau Jr belongs to one of the wealthiest families in Sibu. His family’s business, KTS Trading, began with timber and has since diversified into all kinds of investments, from hotels and travel agencies to speedboats and instant noodles.
“We are lowering our expectations. We are fighting one of the richest families in Sarawak,” said DAP strategist Liew Chin Tong.
Issues of development, floods and education will be played out over the next week but some have also painted the fight as a contest of the politics of rich Chinese and ordinary Chinese.
Chinese big business in Sarawak has always been on the side of the ruling party; it makes business sense to be on the winning side.
Wealthy families here like to see one or more of their family members in politics because a great deal of their business is, after all, about having the right connections.
Lau Jr, in that sense, is as much the choice of SUPP as he is the desire of KTS Trading to maintain their political linkages.
But Lau Jr, 44, is not the kind of rich man’s son stereotyped in Hong Kong movies.
The wealthy Chinese here actually work for a living and Lau Jr is no exception. He has begun to refer to himself as “xiao Loubo” or “Little Robert” as opposed to the senior Robert who was 23 years older.
The family background of DAP’s Wong could not be more different from that of Lau Jr.
The Australia-trained lawyer came from a poor family and grew up in a small village on the edge of Sibu. He struggled his way through school and university and had to work to supplement his studies.
“When he started practising as a lawyer, he could not even afford a car and went around on a motorbike,” said Kuching MP Chong Chieng Jen.
Today, Wong, who is fluent in English and Chinese, is the DAP’s state chairman and assemblyman for Bukit Assek. The campaign will likely see some form of class politics at play, a portrayal of big money versus the small man, of the establishment versus the underdog.
The quiet town, the third largest after Kuching and Miri, has been astir with activity and political chatter the last few weeks.
As one local resident pointed out after Najib’s visit, “No Prime Minister has ever visited Sibu before.”
Even Andy Lau, the Hong Kong pop star, would not have met with so much excitement. Life in Sibu is about to turn topsy-turvy because of politics and no one seems to mind.