Following Sarawak’s state elections in May 2016 I wrote a short article about what I think are some of the main reasons for the outcome. In spite of political dissatisfaction, the governing party coalition won the elections and managed to win back seats it had lost previously. The views expressed here are my own, and perhaps those of my friends and acquaintances with whom I discussed the matter, and has not been published elsewhere.
The success of Malaysia’s governing party coalition in Sarawak this month does not mean that voters support embattled Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak.
The results of the Sarawak state elections on May 7th was a decisive victory for the governing coalition Barisan Nasional (BN), which has been in power in Malaysia since independence in 1963. BN won in 72 out of a total of 82 available seats, up from 55 in the last elections. Of two opposition parties, the DAP (Democratic Action Party) with a mainly urban Chinese voter base held seven seats but lost five they had previously held. The PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat or People’s Justice Party), a three-party coalition, held three seats but did not win any new seats.
This BN victory came in spite of recent scandals that made headlines in international news, and a decline in popularity of the coalition nationwide. In the 2013 General Elections the governing Barisan Nasional lost by numbers of voters and only maintained power because they won more seats overall. In that election, the seats BN won in Sarawak secured its majority, by contributing 25 out of 31 overall parliamentary seats available in Sarawak. Without Sarawak, the BN would not have won the elections.
Since then, a huge scandal has erupted around Prime Minister Najib Razak, which saw him accused of appropriating billions of Ringgit from a development fund of which he was a board member. The issue has severely impacted the PM’s popularity, and that of his party. The outcome of the May 7 elections suggests that voters in Sarawak don’t seem put off by the political upheaval in West Malaysia. Why do the political events and trends that are manifesting themselves elsewhere in Malaysia have so little influence in Sarawak?
A look at the diverse social and cultural context of Malaysian politics suggests that there is no simple answer. Instead, there is a long list of reasons including a fractured opposition, gerrymandering, vote buying, ethnic and religious affiliations, a rural-urban divide, and a lack of faith in the media. Three issues stand out, because they indicate some of the reasons for the election outcomes. The first of these is that Sarawakians see themselves as distinct from West Malaysia, and vote according to local rather than national interests. The second is the popularity of the new Chief Minister Adenan Satem, or Tok Nan, as he is known. The third factor contributing to the BN’s success is the way that it has entrenched itself within communities so that it is, in the eyes of many, synonymous with “the government”.
- Party affiliations
Above all, Sarawak’s complicated ethnic, religious and political affiliations worked in favour for BN. For historical reasons the party to which PM Najib belongs does not operate in Sarawak. UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) is a founding party in the governing BN coalition, but it is not among the BN’s constituent parties in Sarawak. Neither are the three other BN component parties in West Malaysia, MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress), MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) and Gerakan (Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia or Malaysian People’s Movement Party).
Four main constituent parties represent BN in Sarawak. These are PBB (Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu, or United Bumiputera Heritage Party), PRS (Parti Rakyat Sarawak or Sarawak People’s Party), SUPP (Sarawak United People’s Party) and SPDP (Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party). Sarawakians can not vote for the Prime Minister’s party in the state elections, but still endorse him by voting for BN coalition.
The two major opposition parties on the other hand, DAP and PKR, itself a coalition of three component parties) are from West Malaysia, but field local candidates. Because of their link with West Malaysia, both the major opposition parties have been accused of not looking after Sarawak’s interests enough. The implications of this were an underlying theme when West Malaysian opposition politicians where banned from entering Sarawak in the run-up to the elections.
The second contributing fact in Sarawak’s elections was the personal appeal of Chief Minister Adenan Satem. In 2014 Sarawak’s Chief Minister of 33 years, Taib Mahmud, resigned from office to take on the role of Governor. His resignation came at a time of increased pressure. Reports about Taib’s family’s corrupt dealings and the wealth the clan had accumulated over the decades had impacted on his reputation among young Sarawakians. In the 2011 elections, the decline in BN votes was attributed to growing criticism of the CM. As his successor, Taib nominated his former brother-in-law Adenan Satem, who had served in Taib’s cabinet for 20 years.
Many Sarawakians assumed that Adenan would not be able to implement change, but his policy decisions were very popular. Among other things, he increased oversight of the logging sector, suspended licenses and cracked down on illegal logging. He called for Sarawak to benefit more from federal revenue, to which it contributes around 10%. Adenan was able to leverage rising calls among Sarawakians for more independence from West Malaysia, manifested in the popular “Sarawak for Sarawakians” movement, and to position himself as a champion for autonomy. This paid off in the election results.
- Entrenched government
Apart from its popular new Chief Minister, the BN’s campaign benefited from the distribution of electoral districts. Sarawak’s electorate is divided into 82 seats. 11 new seats were freshly added in 2015. According to observers, these new seats contributed to BN dominance by shifting emphasis to rural voters, who are more likely to be loyal to the BN component parties. BN duly took all the 11 new seats in the elections this month.
The influence of rural votes on the overall result is significant because some of these areas are remote, and campaigning is difficult and costly. BN’s key to success in rural areas is the provision of government-funded infrastructure projects for underdeveloped rural communities.
In the run-up to the elections, the announcement of development schemes or the inauguration of recently completed projects is a popular mechanism to remind voters of what is at stake. Politicians sometimes tell people to be grateful for projects the party has provided. Outright vote-buying has been reported. This election has seen the funding for campaigning rise to previously unknown heights, which provides a disadvantage to the opposition.
In rural areas, development and infrastructure are much sought-after, but not evenly distributed. On the village level, the government is represented by the Ketua Kampong. These leaders are not elected, but selected according to their role in the community, and subject to approval by the government. If the ketua kampong is openly critical of government policies, he can be replaced by one who is compliant.
Local politics are highly personalized. Community leaders can request infrastructure projects from their local member of parliament. The MP can then approach the minister in charge to request assistance. If approved, the ministry will go ahead and provide the project.
These leadership structures reinforce the importance of personal relationships rather than technocratic governance. People who live in rural villages worry that if they elect a member of the opposition party into the local parliament, he or she may be blocked by the other MPs, in which case the funding for infrastructure development in their area may be withheld. What is more, the outcomes of local elections in each community are known to party officials, down to the number of individual votes, which means that villages where opposition support is strong are known to local party officials.
Sarawak is closely watched by political observers because it plays a pivotal role in Malaysia’s political future. Sarawak is Malaysia’s largest state, and brings in much revenue from natural resources. It is also sparsely populated, with many underdeveloped areas. These rural constituencies are the BN’s strongholds.
With the rise of an educated middle class in urban Malaysia, many young voters have started to access information on the Internet. News media, in particular newspapers, have a strong pro-government slant, and many are owned directly or indirectly by BN constituent parties. In response to this, online news outlets have filled the void, providing alternative reporting and information. Many of these outlets are not accessible to rural voters, however, because they lack the infrastructure, technology and know-how to access them.
In Sarawak, an NGO called Sarawak Report has tried to fill the void by establishing a radio service called Radio Free Sarawak. RFS and its mother organization were responsible for the investigative reporting that uncovered the MDB scandal involving PM Najib Razak. RFS successfully leveraged indigenous language media to provide alternative reporting to rural communities, and many people listened to the service. However, many do not perceive the Internet as a trustworthy media outlet.
Politics in Sarawak are highly dependent on patronage and personal relationships. Sarawakians believe in continuity and change by degrees. Many are not ready to take the political risk of voting for an opposition party. However, the BN’s victory in Sarawak does not mean that Sarawakians endorse Najib Razak. While Sarawak’s leaders insist that they support the Prime Minister and his agenda, they also hold firm on their demands for more autonomy and a greater return on Sarawak’s contribution to the national GDP.
The outcome of the Sarawak state elections can’t necessarily be seen as an indicator of the national mood. The next general election in Malaysia is coming up in 2 years’ time. It is still possible that Sarawakians have a different take on national leadership.
 Woon, W. (2012). “Single party dominance in Sarawak and the prospects for change.” Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 34(2): 274-295.
 Azizuddin, M. S. (2009). “The Public Sphere and Media Politics in Malaysia.” Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Abbott, J. P. (2011). “Electoral authoritarianism and the print media in Malaysia: measuring political bias and analyzing its cause.” Asian Affairs: An American Review 38(1): 1-38.