Adenan’s Chinese courtship


The battle for the Sarawak vote will involve campaigning across a vast and rugged terrain but the fiercest fight will be for the Chinese vote in the urban centres.

Joceline Tan, The Star

THE Prime Minister has been to Sarawak so often that Tan Sri Adenan Satem has grown quite familiar with him and that was how the “Iban wife” joke happened.

The Sarawak Chief Minister said Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak had visited so many parts of Sarawak that the only thing left was for him to speak Iban and if he was seeking a new wife, he should look for an Iban.

Everyone, including Najib, burst out laughing. It was a typical guys’ joke but a rather politically incorrect thing to say especially at a public function and the Chief Minister apologised the next day.

Adenan Satem

But Iban ladies aside, Najib has indeed been all over Sarawak. The recent visit was his 47th and, as Adenan noted, Najib has visited Sarawak more often than all the previous Prime Ministers combined.

Sarawak is almost as big as peninsular Malaysia. Several of the 82 state seats are as vast as some of the bigger states in the peninsula and much more inaccessible.

The Sarawak election next month will be the ultimate test for everyone. It is going to be like some sort of Amazing Race Sarawak because the campaign in the interior will involve trekking, boats and helicopters.

But more than anything else, the chief focus of this election will be the Chinese voters.

Fadillah: ‘This election is about Adenan, not Najib’.

The Chinese rejection of the man whom they called Peh Mor (the white haired one) in the 2011 state election caused Barisan Nasional to lose in all the urban seats where the Chinese dominate.

Former Chief Minister Tun Taib Mahmud was the lightning rod for everything the Chinese were dissatisfied about and DAP swept home in 12 of the 15 seats it contested.

Adenan needs to win back some of these seats otherwise his victory, however massive, will not taste as sweet as it should. He needs to do better than his predecessor to continue with the policies he has put in place the last two years.

He is said to be optimistic about three of these DAP-held seats but he will be happy if he wrests back only one or two.

Adenan’s approval rating has shot sky high. According to a Universiti Malaysia Sarawak poll, his overall approval rating is 85.5%. However, his standing among the Chinese is only 64% compared with 74% for state DAP chairman Chong Chieng Jen.

The Chinese identify with DAP whose leaders are largely Chinese, they conduct their ceramah in Mandarin or the local Foochow dialect and every single one of the DAP assemblymen are Chinese.

The slide in Chinese support for Barisan began in the 2006 state polls. Barisan secured only about 40% of the Chinese vote in 2006.

The support went down to 24.6% in 2011 and political analyst Khaw Veon Szu estimates that it went as low as 20% during the 2013 general election. DAP went from one MP in the 2008 general election to five MPs in 2013.

Most of them were not prepared for public office – they were mainly Chinese-educated, spoke poor Bahasa Malaysia and English but their saving grace was that they were fresh faces with no baggage unlike many on the Barisan side who had overstayed and enriched themselves.

But DAP’s appeal in Sarawak has not extended beyond the urban seats. The party has conceded it has no chance of capturing Sarawak and only wants to deny Barisan from getting another two-thirds majority.

“Barisan hit rock bottom with the Chinese vote in the last election but people are now talking about the Adenan phenomenon. There is a feel-good factor about him, there will be a swing of Chinese votes back to Barisan. The question is to what extent and whether the swing will translate into seats,” said Khaw.

Khaw: Talk about the Adenan phenomenon.

The state government took out advertisements in the local Chinese papers last week inviting those with United Examination Certificates (UEC) to apply to join the civil service as well as jobs in statutory bodies and GLCs. The advertisements became the talk of the town because nothing like that had ever happened for the Chinese.

The state government recently accorded recognition to the UEC which has long been a bone of contention between the Chinese educationists and the federal government. The UTM campus in Sarawak will also accept UEC holders.

It is a big deal for the Chinese-educated and the state also started allocating funds to Chinese schools last year.

“Accepting the UEC, declaring English as an official language, asserting state rights – all this would not have been possible during Mahathir’s time. It means that Adenan has managed to persuade the federal government to let him run things his way in Sarawak. It says a lot about his leadership,” said Khaw.

Adenan has also told the Chinese that they are not pendatang and acknowledged their contributions to the state.

Shortly after coming in as Chief Minister, he learnt that Wong Ho Leng, the DAP chief who was dying of brain cancer, had medical bills of several million ringgit. He instructed the state to pick up the tab.

Despite all this, the Chinese vote is still somewhat problematic.

Dr Arnold: He will observe campaign in Ba’kelalan.

The Chinese have positive things to say about Adenan but those who do not intend to support Barisan say it is because they do not approve of Najib.

The argument would make sense if this was a general election but this is a state election and the perception is that some Chinese are desperately seeking excuses against Adenan.

“Adenan has defused many issues. Some Chinese do not have much left to discredit him, so they fall back on the 1MDB issue,” said Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UMS) academic Dr Arnold Puyok.

Dr Arnold has identified 12 marginal seats that the UMS team will be watching when the campaign starts. He will be camped at Ba’Kelalan which is widely seen as a seat that could go either way.

The seat was won by state PKR chairman and native land rights lawyer Baru Bian, and he will be fighting for his political survival.

Adenan has used the infrastructure trump card in this remote mountainous seat near the Indonesian border. He has approved a bridge, created a new division or district office to serve the people and granted land titles to the locals.

DAP had initially tried to go on the line that a vote for Adenan is a vote for Najib. But they found out that Najib is very popular in the rural areas.

“This election is not about Najib, it’s about Adenan. Moreover, Najib has done so much for Sarawak, more than any other Prime Minister before him,” said Works Minister Datuk Seri Fadillah Yusoff who is from Sarawak.

This election will likely stand out for the number of multi-corner fights.

PKR and DAP have yet to settle their claims over some 20 seats. DAP’s Chong and PKR’s Baru are still in cold war mode and there is “zero communication” between them.

Chong has indicated to people in his party that if DAP has to contest against PKR, then so be it.

Barisan has also been inflicted with the multi-corner fight virus. Adenan has been unable to find a solution to the fallout between the Barisan component parties, SUPP and SPDP, and breakaway parties, UPP and Teras.

The four parties look set to take on each other in a number of seats.

These impending multi-cornered fights are the only thing lending some element of unpredictability to what a Sarawak journalist has described as an “election of least surprises”.

But, said Khaw, the Chinese vote is crucial if Adenan is to continue his policies to make Sarawak shine as a beacon of tolerance and moderation.

His gestures towards the Chinese can only continue and grow stronger if they support him. If the Chinese voters spurn him the way they spurned Najib in the general election, his wings will be clipped. His bargaining power with the federal government will be diluted and he will be under pressure to backtrack.

“The outcome of the election is critical for him and will have implications for the rest of the country. I mean, which Muslim leader in Malaysia has openly said no to hudud law in Sarawak? He also said there is no need for too many narrow-mindedulama,” said Khaw.

Baru: Can the state PKR chief hold on to Ba’kelalan?

The election is Sarawakians’ opportunity to maintain their state as a model for other states to emulate.

Adenan is fortunate that Taib who is now the Governor of Sarawak is not making trouble for him or trying to topple him. He has not interfered with what Adenan is doing or at least not outwardly so, and all in all, he has shown that he is better at choosing a successor than Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Adenan has been seriously underestimated by both friends and foes. They thought he was this slow-moving, poker-faced man of frail health. He is all that but when he opens his mouth, you know that this man has an exceptional brain, he is strategic and knows how to get things done.

He also has a sharp wit and loves to sing. Once when invited on stage to sing at a public function, he quipped, “I must warn you, Elvis sounds like me.”

Of course, Elvis never sounded like him and neither does he sound anything like Elvis. But everyone loved the Elvis song he sang even though it was a bit off-key.

Some joke that Adenan should learn some Chinese love songs to complete his wooing of the Chinese voters.

Will all those sweet words and courtship result in a bigger mandate for him? The answer will be known very soon.