Wake-up call on Sarawak politics

Sarawak’s wake-up call has finally come.

The Sibu by-election shows that the political landscape of urban Sarawak can no longer be taken for granted.

DARK clouds loomed over the horizon just as polling closed for the Sibu by-election.

The mood at the DAP camp was only slightly less gloomy because the low voter turnout was not a good sign for them.

Barisan quickly took the lead in the first hour of counting. But the trend began shifting after that and DAP steadily climbed into the lead.

First it was by a few hundred, then more than 1,000. By 8pm, it was leading by more than 3,000 votes. By 8.20pm, it was ahead by close to 4,000.

The postal votes had yet to come in but by then the situation had begun to look quite hopeless for Barisan’s Robert Lau Hui Yew.

Despite the rain that began falling at about 7pm, a big crowd had gathered outside the perimeter fence of the Sibu Civil Centre, many of them huddling under umbrellas and shouting “Wang Her Lian,” the Chinese pronunciation of Wong Ho Leng, the DAP candidate.

By 9pm, it was clear that Wong, who is also Bukit Assek assemblyman, had won.

Sarawak’s urban political landscape has changed.

The tsunami had reached Sarawak and as one journalist said, “They can’t say there was no tsunami warning.”

The Chinese vote spearheaded the shift. Sibu had decided to follow in the footsteps of Kuching, which elected DAP’s Chong Chien Jen as MP in 2004 and again in 2008.

The impact of the result will have far-reaching implications for Tan Sri Taib Mahmud’s leadership in Sarawak and the standing of the SUPP, the party which Lau comes from.

His prestige is on the line and his own political future will have to be seriously considered in the months ahead.

To compound the situation, he has to call for state elections by May next year.

It is going to be a very difficult period ahead for Taib, who will mark his 29th year as Chief Minister next month.

It will also not be a very happy birthday for him next Friday when he turns 74.

Taib might have sensed that things had changed because he had surprised many people when he went down to campaign, especially in the Iban areas where he speaks their language and is at home with their customs.

But he has been an issue among the Chinese for too long.

They know him as “Pak Moh,” the Foochow reference to his silvery hair. Everywhere one went, they were critical of him, of his family’s dominance of the local economy and the fact that he had been around for decades.

The DAP had started its campaign playing up the Allah issue. But when the Sarawak United People Party (SUPP) retaliated by declaring that a vote for DAP was a vote for PAS and the Islamic state, they were forced to switch theme, and began harping on Taib and his family’s widespread business.

It became the rallying point at DAP ceramah.

SUPP is the other big loser in this by-election.

It has been under a cloud since losing six state seats to the DAP in the 2006 state polls. The grassroots had expected some form of political renewal and leadership transition in the party but it has instead discouraged any discussion on the matter.

The Sibu result means it cannot put off the issue of renewal for much longer.

The SUPP has been overly reliant on Malay and Iban support as well as postal votes to win in previous elections.

Like its Chinese cousins in the peninsula, it has to urgently act on correcting the Chinese disenchantment.

The Chinese, as SUPP’s Sibu warlord Datuk Seri Wong Soon Koh noted, have moved beyond development issues to bigger ideas like justice and equality.

It is significant to note that even big ticket announcements like multi-million ringgit allocations for Chinese schools, funds for development and reduction of land premium had such limited effect on the Chinese electorate.

Some said these measures, especially the land policy, came too late in the day.

But it is also likely that DAP and PKR have begun to make some inroads into the Iban longhouses.

Their Chinese support is clear-cut or as one Umno politician put it, the Chinese vote is the DAP’s “fixed deposit.”

The DAP, as many journalists had noted, ran a very efficient campaign. The campaign was headed its new age leaders — PJ Utara MP Tony Pua, Kuching MP Chong Chien Jen and Bukit Bendera MP Liew Chin Tong.

Information was forthcoming and daily schedules of every Tom, Dick and Harry from Pakatan were SMSed to reporters, with updates several times a day.

Sibu has given a sense of where the DAP’s strengths and weaknesses lie as the party prepares for the state polls.

The blame game is about to begin but Sibu, like Hulu Selangor, ought to be food for thought for politicians on both sides of the divide.

Sarawak’s wake-up call has finally come.

The Star

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