Several factors have been attributed to the failure of Keadilan to take advantage of the seemingly dissatisfied 8,129 voters who have been shabbily treated by the BN State government – the broken promises, the unpaid claims, lack of land for farming and lack of infrastructural facilities.
Dayaks not ready to abandon BN
Theories are many attributing to the failure. But obviously, one of the main factors is that Dayaks are not ready to abandon the State Barisan Nasional, even although many of its policies are against their interests. Truthfully, many have indeed benefited from the BN polices. For example in this by-election, there are a number of instant “noodle” projects, the promises to look into their problems, to tar-seal their roads and to provide various health and recreational amenities as well as the financial assistance. Being simple-minded and trusting the BN to fulfill its promises, they therefore voted for the BN candidate.
BN polices are perceived as “fair”
These voters have also been told that the BN and chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud’s polices are "fair" in that some Dayaks and Dayak leaders have benefited from such policies; Dayak leaders in PBB like Alfred Jabu and Numpang whose wealth is perhaps at par with Leonard Linggi Jugah, the richest Dayak in Sarawak will surely cling like leeches on to Taib Mahmud.
And even in Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) itself there are leaders who have timber concessions, large tracts of land for oil palm plantation, school and government contracts. Naturally, these Dayak leaders are at the forefront of the campaigns trying to convince their fellow Dayaks to support Taib’s policies even for small minor rural development projects.
As the Dayak Iban community in Batang Ai is one of the poorest in Malaysia, these projects and promises are therefore very tempting; and hence how could they refuse such offer and abandon Barisan Nasional and Abdul Taib Mahmud?
But the Barisan Nasional must also remember that this was a by-election during which they promised heaven on earth. However, both the voters and PKR are watching whether the promises made will be fulfilled by the time the next state election comes in two year’s time or even sooner than expected.
PKR is considered an “outsider” party
Another reason for PKR’s failure to gain foothold in Sarawak’s rural areas is that the Dayaks especially the Ibans have been told to be wary of peninsular-based political parties. PKR is an “outsider” party, the party that does not respect the Iban customs. This issue has been highlighted in the recent by-election and so repeatedly reminded that the Ibans are skeptical with parties like Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and even UMNO spreading its wings into Sarawak.
The State BN knows that the Ibans have always been suspicious of peninsular people and telling them what happens in Sabah makes them more frightened. Sabah is now under the control of UMNO and everything that needs to be done must receive approval from UMNO headquarters. PKR under Anwar Ibrahim will be no different. The “yes Anwar no Taib” slogan was not effective enough to sway voters in the Batang Ai by-election.
The point was clearly emphasized by president of PRS and director of operations for the Batang Ai by-election James Masing who said the defeat of peninsular-based party, PKR in the by-election “is proof that it has no place in Sarawak”.
“This goes to show that Sarawakians want Sarawakians to be in control in Sarawak, not those outsiders. It showed we do not want PKR to come in.”
Again being multi-racial and “outsider-based” party, PKR has no answer to argue over the current political set-up of the State Barisan Nasional where all communities are represented by their respective communal parties that is considered by the State political leadership as the best assurance towards political stability and economic progress.
Racial-based party is still preferred
Thus they see in multi-racial parties like PKR and Sarawak National Party (SNAP) as not suitable as of now as the people are still conscious of racial-based parties. SNAP was once a very powerful Dayak-based party, and when it became multi-racial, it slowly lost its power and influence among the Dayaks.
The Dayaks’ frustrations in SNAP gave birth to a racially-based party, Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) in July 1983. This belief still holds true till this day. Look at PBB which is representing the Malay/Melanau communities, SUPP the Chinese community and Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP) and Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) representing the rural communities. PRS was almost caught in trouble with some non-Dayak elements in the party. It is now slowly becoming a Dayak-based party.
PKR Sarawak: Bickering over the choice of candidate
The other contributing factor that needs mention is the continued internal bickering in PKR over the selection of the candidate for the by-election and carried over into the nine-day campaign period. Two groups with one supporting Jawah Gerang and the other Nicholas Bawin almost came to blows on the eve of nomination day. This heated argument in front of the unfriendly media became the main stories of the local papers and were being exploited by the BN to its advantage.
It was said that when Anwar came to Sarawak one week before nomination, he was supposed to announce that Bawin would be the candidate, because Bawin who had been a member of PKR had already prepared for the by-election since May 22, 2008 the day that the late Dublin Unting, the incumbent state assemblyman went into coma.
But the group supporting Jawah who recently joined PKR confronted Anwar and even threatened to resign from PKR if he did not accede to their demand. Anwar was more or less held to ransom had he not given in to their demand.
Meanwhile, Bawin’s supporters became angry and refused to campaign for Jawah. Even there were rumours to suggest that Bawin himself and his supporters campaigned for the Barisan candidate.
The unabated bickering had made the PKR preparations go haywire. Although Bawin was the director of operations, he was no where to be seen in the PKR operations. He was believed to have campaigned in Engkari and Lemanak. Thus, a coordinator of the election in the person of YB Dominique Ng was appointed.
Ng played down the open bickering amongst the party leaders and members and said: “The wrong choice of candidate was not an issue in the PKR camp because even if we fielded Bawin, the party would be defeated just as badly.”
PKR’s election workers were not paid
Grouses and grumblings among the PKR election workers were also heard that they had not been paid for their services and that no food was prepared for them. This is bad for PKR’s psychological warfare against the enemy.
Political observers see that voluntary services by the members for the party’s campaigns may be a good strategy in the peninsula, but in rural Sarawak it cannot be done this way due to many factors one of which is that the campaigners come from poor families.
There is also a need to buy petrol for their cars or outboard engines as they have to travel through difficult terrain, and poor road conditions or fast running water or rapids to reach vast and sparsely populated constituencies.
Few elected representatives and campaigners from Penang and Selangor who campaigned for the PKR candidate had visited the various longhouses and had some unpleasant experiences – the hazardous journey passing through difficult terrain, sleeping in the longhouses with little food and drinks. But such experiences will help them to understand Sarawak better.
"No money, no talk"
The other factor pointing to the failure of PKR was money. In Sarawak, money is still the most important tool of the election. Without it, you cannot win any election in Sarawak. You need it to charter boats and vans and pay workers for their food. You need to buy petrol, and even to buy votes. The Barisan Nasional is doing such a thing, sometimes very openly. And nobody can touch them. In Sarawak, Taib said: “I am the government.”
For any Sate election, PKR must realize that it is fighting not the politicians or political parties of the Barisan Nasional alone, but the entire government machinery – the State civil service, KEMAS (community development department), MIS (Malaysian Information Service), RTM, the council staff, teachers and community leaders.
The might of BN machinery
Logistically, the Barisan Nasional has superior assorts of political weapons such as the use of helicopters to fly ministers to campaign in any remote area unreachable by any other means. Several helicopters were used in this by-election.
For the Barisan, money was not a problem. In this by-election alone, it spent several millions of ringgit on travelling, lodging and accommodation expenses, not to mention the instant “noodle” projects that they promised the voters and money allegedly used to buy votes of between RM500 and RM1,000 per vote.
Compared with PKR, how could it match the machinery and the organizational skills of the Barisan Nasional? Just impossible, but then the local PKR, unlike the recent by-election, must organise itself with the limited funds available.
PKR must get organised NOW!
Thus, if PKR is seriously thinking of the next state election, it must begin its planning now, start to identify potential candidates and should look for funds. To unseat this state government, at least a sum of RM500,000 for each of 71 State constituencies is required, otherwise PKR should forget about contesting in Sarawak, let alone trying to change the State government. Rhetoric alone cannot help. Money is the name of the game.
Batang Ai – a litmus test for PKR
As mentioned previously, the Batang Ai is a major test for PKR in the Iban-dominated constituency. Winning here would mean the people and PKR are ready to change the government and losing would spell disaster. Although Ng said that the loss will not dampen the PKR fighting spirit, there are others who feel that the defeat here will have some impact on the next election.
Ng said: “We have in fact learnt one or two things from the campaign and this experience will be useful for future elections.” Certainly PKR has a lot to learn. – The Broken Shield