Lessons from Sarawak: Malaysians don’t care about corruption?

Photo: Cerevisae/CC BY 4.0

By Holly Reeves

The recent state elections in Sarawak on 7 May, Malaysia’s only major election this year, has underlined the money and personalities that are keeping Malaysia’s scandal-ridden Prime Minister Najib Razak in power, particularly the ruling Barisan Nasional’s (BN) ability to use patronage as its not-so secret weapon to consolidate support.

After winning more than 63% of the popular vote in state elections, Malaysia’s governing BN alliance increased its majority to 72 of the 82 available seats.

The clear message sent across the world is that Sarawakians support the BN coalition and, by corollary, its leader Najib Razak. And that they care little for tackling corruption, abuse of power, an electoral system that relies on massive vote buying, gross distortions of electoral constituencies and abuse of political position against opposition alternatives.

Abuses of power

According to Bridget Welsh, Professor of Political Science at Ipek University, “the Sarawak 2016 election showed that insecurity was a key driver for the BN, in the money spent/promised, the abuse of power by banning people [from entering Sarawak to campaign], the delineation and overall overkill nature of the campaign.

“In a period of economic decline and uncertainty, voters opted for the familiar rather than the unknown, the functioning rather than the dysfunctional, the winner rather than the loser. Chinese voters in particular, especially businessmen, opted for access to the state government rather than distance.”

Access that does not seem to have appeared. The announcement of the cabinet defied expectation that the return of this support would translate into an ethnic Chinese politician taking one of the Deputy Chief Minister posts.

This was also an election more about the popular politics of superstar Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Adenan Satem. He has served so far on an anti-graft ticket, taking an oath never to award government contracts and allocate state land to his immediate family members.

And he has been highly successful. Oh Ei Sun, Najib’s former political secretary explained, “BN’s overwhelming Sarawak win is due mainly to the Adenan factor.”

“Adenan has ushered in fresh reforms in the last two years after more than three decades of stale rule so Sarawakian voters are willing to give him another five years to prove his mantle.“

However it is impossible to ignore the national politics that swung into town for this election campaign. Or rather they did not. On one hand, the ruling party was there making promises of huge investment in a railway link, and of high minimum wages. On the other, opposition politicians found themselves under pressure from immigration officials, telling them they could stay in East Malaysia for just 24 hours before they had to leave.

Charles Santiago of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a Member of Parliament for Klang, called Adenan out on this, saying, “Although we all know that elections in Malaysia are far from being free and fair, the blatant disregard for law displayed by Adenan, in cahoots with Najib and the BN administration, is shocking. He has denied the people of Sarawak access to alternative political views, is playing dirty politics and abusing his powers as the top guy in the state.“

What lies ahead?

So, a big win for the ruling party? Let’s not ignore the elephant in the corner – Najib.

Prof. Welsh continues, “The challenges against Najib’s leadership are only likely to deepen with the persistence of the 1MDB scandal as well as the slowing economy. Najib remains deeply unpopular, even in Sarawak. The United Malays National Organisation (UNMO), and the BN, have a much stronger chance of winning without Najib than with him in the next election.“

Leading up to this election the prime minister’s fervent opponents, such as former leader Mahathir Mohamed, warned that Najib’s current problems with the 1MDB scandal would lead to a poor performance for BN at the ballot box. In the wake of a landslide success Najib’s supporters are already using the easy win to call for a unified party front moving forward.

But it is not that simple. As laid out above, Adenan’s success was a major driver in the coalition’s success. Add to that Najib has retained the support of senior officials in his party so far, but the key to future success is how rank-and-file voters – his support base of ethnic Malays in rural areas – view his performance, particularly as economic growth slows.

Traditionally he has relied on handouts to the poor to bolster his standing. But with increasing financial demands nationally, and a bill to bail out 1MDB probably looming, that’s not a sustainable strategy.

By emphasising the Sarawak win, BN risks raising public expectations in the upcoming by-elections at Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar. Even if the ruling coalition retain these seats, but with lower margins, this could create a negative spiral going into the general elections due by 2018.

The problem of the opposition

Sarawak is a special case in Malaysian society. It is one of the least-developed areas in the country, and its strong ethnic minority presence makes its politics a poor bellwether for national sentiment. However, the poor performance of the opposition, and the landslide nature of the coalition’s victory in such turbulent times, has to be a concern.

PKR president Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said, “The presidential council will meet again soonest to identify the mistakes and overcome our shortcomings, and take the necessary steps to correct and fix our organisational problems and strategy specifically to face the bigger stage of the 14th general election.”

As the analysis in the local press shows both the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), and its local partner, the DAP, fared poorly in the polls, with the latter winning only seven of the 31 seats it contested. That’s five fewer than the 12 it won during the last state election. PKR has the same three seats it has always had, while Pakatan Harapan ally Parti Amanah Negara has nothing at all.

Money, patronage, dirty politics, tragedy and hope. The Sarawak state election had all the elements of a summer blockbuster. The big reveal in this political thriller? Money can buy votes, people can break promises and power corrupts. Democracy? When you have a superstar front man like Adenan, nobody cares