Votes for sale in Sarawak

Sim Kwang Yang

Elections in Western democracies is based on the cardinal principle that the vote must be free and fair. The system of party politics has evolved through many centuries of trial and error in Europe and North America.

In a young democracy like Malaysia’s, the political institutions are a long way from developing the kind of political maturity practiced by Western nations. It will take us many decades, perhaps centuries, to ensure that voting is free and fair, and that all corrupt practices are punished mercilessly by the political system. 

The Achilles’ heel of our Malaysian system, especially in the context of Sarawak, is that the sanctity of the vote as an act of free and independent choice is never widely respected even by the electorate – the voters themselves.

NONEIn the eyes of the many illiterate rural voters, the vote is just another commodity that has a price and can be bought and sold just like anything else.

In every election in Sarawak, vote-buying, whether individually or in blocks, is a standard practice in many rural areas.

Voters offer political support to the highest bidders, and therefore, the person with the biggest amount of campaign funds will very often win the election. Massive corruption through payment for votes is a common phenomenon.

Any general election, especially in the rural constituencies, is an opportunity for the long-neglected voters to gain the exclusive attention of the politicians and their agents. The contesting parties will be treated like royalty wherever they go, and requests for cash and kind will be treated favourably.

Agents of the ruling party

The campaign machinery of the ruling Barisan Nasional is often manned by thousands of hired workers and representatives of the candidates.

NONEThe function of these underlings is to distribute cash and material rewards to the masses of voters, especially on the eve of the voting itself.

Occasionally, concerts and entertainment are also provided free of charge for the voters.

Cash can also be directly paid to the voters through the existing system of tua kampung (village chiefs). The standard payment is made in the name of minor development funds, which can amount to RM60 per voter.

The tua kampung in Sarawak is often regarded as agents of the ruling party and their duty includes the payment of cash for votes. They are paid approximately RM450 a month by the government, and so for all practical purposes, they are but the servants of the politicians who control the state.

Many of the instruments of control against vote buying are ineffectual because of the sheer size of the state of Sarawak. That is why corruption of the vote has gone on for so long, without effective counter measures to protect the sanctity of the vote.