Sarawak the key to mood for change

By Angus Grigg (Australian Financial Review)

SYDNEY, Jan 30 — Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud drives a cream Rolls-Royce, wears a gem the size of a walnut on his ring finger and is said to have once paid US$2 million (RM7 million) for a piano owned by Liberace.

The Chief Minister of Sarawak, like the late American entertainer, is certainly flamboyant and he's been well rewarded for his 28-year rule of the resource-rich province. But his time at the top is coming to an end.

Having celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary last week, the man known as the "White Haired Raja" has begun talking about succession. The likely departure of the 72-year-old is sure to shake up local politics in Sarawak, but it could also have a profound impact at the national level.

The theory is that if Taib were to step down, fresh elections could be required in the state, as any successor would lack the influence to hold the local legislature together. This is an opportunity for national Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his three-party coalition, which has been working hard for some time to woo voters outside Peninsular Malaysia.

If Anwar's PKR and its allies were to control the Sarawak state assembly, analysts believe it would be only a matter of time before MPs from Sarawak tapped the public mood and crossed the floor in Kuala Lumpur. This would hand the government to Anwar and bring about the biggest political change in Malaysia since independence in 1957.

Such a scenario is some way off, but it's the one confronting prime minister-in-waiting Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

That's why his government pulled out all stops to win a by-election in the state of Terengganu on Jan 17. It failed, handing another seat to the opposition, but the contest in the country's north-east is a case study of what to expect when the battle for Sarawak begins.

Even by Malaysia's lofty standards of political patronage, the Kuala Terengganu by-election was expensive. Najib and his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, desperate to arrest its electoral fortunes, tried to spend its way to victory. The numbers are both appalling and beguiling.

All told, Najib, who is expected to take over from Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in March, handed out A$4.4 billion (RM10.5 billion) to voters. That works out at nearly A$55,000 for each voter in the seaside electorate. The big-ticket items were the establishment of a A$4.2 billion trust to manage the state's oil revenue and the well-timed handover of A$169 million in petroleum royalties.

But this was not the headline act. In a ceremony the local press described as "controversial", Najib Razak handed out A$25 million in government contracts to 600 local firms at a party rally. Even more cynically, the government gave A$21 million to Chinese schools in the district, just as it looked like the parents of these students would determine the election.

In the end, they didn't and the government lost because Malay voters deserted it, while the ever-cautious Chinese either sat out the election or voted for the opposition. And while a 2.5 per cent swing against the government is hardly a landslide, the by-election loss would be very worrying for Najib given the amount of money thrown at the problem.

"The government's traditional strategy of just buying votes failed," said political analyst Wong Chin Huat, who lecturers at Monash University's campus in Kuala Lumpur. "The win by the opposition showed the mood for change still exists in Malaysia."

This mood for change is also breaking down traditional rivalries in a country long divided by race and religion. The opposition coalition won in Terengganu despite fielding a candidate from the deeply conservative Pas. Not only did Pas gain more secular Malay voters, thanks to a moderating of its language, but it also did not scare off the Chinese.

This was despite Najib and the government doing their best to stoke racial and religious tension.

The victory is also a direct result of Anwar being able to hold together a coalition containing Pas, the Chinese moderates of the DAP and his own multiracial PKR. It is, to say the least, a diverse coalition, united in many ways only by its hatred of a government that has ruled Malaysia since independence.

Finding common ground will be the challenge if the opposition ever comes to power, but for now it's still focused on how to get there. Sarawak holds the key, and while patronage failed the government in Terengganu, it has long held sway in Borneo. — Australian Financial Review