Pray that Umno will not come to Sarawak

By Sim Kwang Yang

Sarawak is the only state in Malaysia where Umno has not established any presence. Within Sarawak itself, the talk is not so much if, but when Umno will make a grand entry, as it did in Sabah.

Now, the conditions seem riper than ever before for Umno’s foray into that vast eastern state on the northern shores of the Borneo Island, as Sarawak is on the verge of plunging into a leadership vacuum.

The Chief Minister of Sarawak, Abdul Taib Mahmud, has been in power for slightly more than a quarter of a century in that resource rich territory. (Pardon me for mentioning him by name. His string of titles is too long to be cited in full for a column of limited length like mine.)

But Taib is in his 70s, and rumours of his ailing health have been rife like wildfire in Kuching. I have heard various versions of his struggle with his cancer problem within some part of his internal anatomy, but like a good Sarawakian, I will not spread the rumour further.

He had three front-runners for successors within his party, the PBB earlier on: Abang Johari, Adenan Satem and Effendi Norwawi. All three seem to have fallen out of his favour since then. He has yet to name an alternative candidate for party president and Sarawak CM. There is also nobody in sight who is more powerful, more charismatic, or more senior than the above mentioned three veteran politicians.

Here, the unique ethnic composition of Sarawak enters into the power equation. Since 1970, when Abdul Rahman Yakub (left) returned from his federal Cabinet position to Kuching, to assume the exalted office of the CM, it has always been silently understood that the highest political office in the state must be a Melanau, the ethnic community to which both Rahman and his nephew-successor Taib belong.
The Melanau people make up about 5% only of the state’s population. Roughly half of them are Christians, and the other half are Muslims. They are mostly confined to the lower reaches of the Rejang Basin and along the neighbouring coast.

This racial sub-plot may be a moot point with political commentators from KL, but in Sarawak, it has sent off a ripple of undercurrent within the PBB. During past party elections, Malay leaders in PBB had quietly jostled for votes and party positions on the platform of restoring a Malay CM eventually in Sarawak. So far, they have not really succeeded.

Mahathir-Taib agreement?

One such past party senior leader, Abang Abu Bakar, left the PBB and tried to campaign for the entry of Umno into Sarawak, without avail. I count Abang Abu as my good friend and a good man, and am sad that he has since disappeared into the political wilderness.

All kinds of speculations run through the Sarawak grapevine of course. One version has it that the former PM and former Umno president Dr Mahathir Mohamad had reached an agreement with Taib in the 90s that as long as Taib is the Sarawak CM, Umno will leave Sarawak entirely in his charge.

(I have also heard that this agreement has expired recently, and we do have a new PM and a new Umno president. One has to wonder about the authenticity of any report of such secret deals. It is meant to be secret, so how did it reach the grapevine? But then, the logic of such a deal does make a great deal of sense. Taib does have a lot of chips to play with, because he can deliver a big block of parliamentary seats to the Umno PM to shore up his position in national politics.)

Suppose we accept this scenario at its face value. Taib is bound to orchestrate his gracious and secure exit from Sarawak politics sooner rather than later. Powerful or meek, rich or poor, all men are subject to the immutable natural law of ageing and dying. This is really the time for him to settle the succession problem. That he has not done so does not bode well for the future of Sarawak.

His problem is typical of all political strongman of course. Having consolidating his position of absolute leadership within the BN and his own PBB by a long process of divide and rule, he has ensured nobody is strong enough to challenge him. In the end, nobody is strong enough to replace him once he is compelled by nature to retire, in one way or another.