Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sarawak Showdown

Malaysian politics have been in flux since the dramatic 2008 national polls. The voluble and fractious People’s Alliance opposition coalition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, has been testing Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling National Front every step of the way since then.

There have been several by-elections over the past three years, reflecting the rising and falling fortunes of both the Front and the Alliance.

On Saturday, however, Najib will face the biggest political challenge of his premiership to date, as the country’s largest state — Sarawak, with 71 State Assembly seats — goes to the polls.

Dubbed the Front’s “fixed deposit,” the state has been ruled by the same man — Taib Mahmud — for almost 30 years. Moreover, Sarawak has been unfailingly loyal to Najib’s ruling alliance.

With the upcoming polls, Taib’s strongman government is facing attacks from all sides. Environmentalists have lambasted his state’s logging and plantation industries, while the state’s restive middle class accuses him and his family of corruption. Even the federal government, aware of his unpopularity, is taking discreet pot-shots. And all this before the resurgent opposition is factored into the equation.

Whatever the case, the polls are hugely significant for both Najib and his rival, Anwar. Najib wishes to cement his hold on the country and demonstrate his nationwide appeal — especially to Sarawak’s non-Muslim Chinese and Dayak communities.

Anwar, on the other hand, needs to stem a succession of failures and setbacks that have plagued his party.

If anything, Najib has more to lose. Any loss will dent his carefully burnished image, while Anwar’s coalition only needs to increase the number of opposition representatives in the State Assembly to claim success. By Saturday evening, we’ll know how these two men, and indeed Malaysia, stand.

The most interesting thing about the Sarawak polls for me, however, is the way they expose a fundamental paradox at the core of Malaysian politics: essentially, the way the country’s more prosperous, urban communities — those that have benefited the most from National Front largesse — are becoming increasingly anti-Front.

In the past, development politics delivered victories. Now the voters care about things like civil liberties and political freedoms, about ideology and good governance — things that the Front finds difficult, if not impossible, to manage.

As a consequence, the ruling coalition is increasingly dependent on rural voters, who are still waiting for the government to deliver water, electricity, roads and schools.

The challenge for the National Front is to run two different campaigns. On the one hand, they have to persuade urban voters of their commitment to transformation, while continuing their traditional modus operandi of promising “development” to the rural population in return for votes.

However, the ruling coalition’s members are often ill-prepared to articulate policies openly, preferring to throw money at voters as a panacea to all problems.

Unfortunately, this strategy no longer works, especially in Malaysia’s towns and cities. Urban Malaysians in Sarawak and elsewhere are no longer dependant on the National Front for basic amenities or jobs.

Educated and well-informed, they deplore the controversial use of public funds and want greater transparency. Non-Muslim Malaysians are also increasingly concerned about their cultural and religious freedoms.

However, such independence is lacking in the small long-house communities outside the cities. Difficulties in enforcing native customary rights have also robbed Sarawak’s indigenous peoples — particularly the Dayaks — of the land that is so crucial to their culture.

Sarawak’s rural poor hence realize that only the state government of the day can help them. Therefore they continue to vote for the National Front in the hope that their needs will eventually be met. Therein lies the contradiction for the ruling coalition: providing these services would mean an inevitable loss of rural support.

Look across the border and you’ll see striking similarities. Kalimantan’s provinces are like Sarawak — resource-rich, but facing significant hurdles in reducing poverty.

Local and national policy priorities often seem divergent, if not outright opposed to each other. Furthermore, these provinces contain fiercely independent local elites who resent any “interference” from the center. By Karim Raslan columnist who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia.

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