Pakatan Rakyat must rethink strategies

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Like millions of other Malaysians, I have been living away from my home country for most of my adulthood. This is because some foreign land has afforded me better economic opportunities, and political opportunities if I choose to have, than my home country has. Barisan Nasional (BN)’s win in the 13th General Election, though not entirely unexpected, has come as a disappointment for many Malaysians. Many have yearned for a change from the institutionalized discrimination along racial lines, corruption and cronyism, money politics and lack of media freedom that have defined the landscape of Malaysia’s politics. Things must change—for the better. These are the major reasons why I think the opposition alliance, Pakatan Rakyat (PK), has failed to capture power.

The opposition must make inroads into East Malaysia.

The Eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak constitute 25 percent of all federal seats, though accounting for only 16 percent of popular votes. (More on this point later.) PK has performed poorly in East Malaysia particularly in Sarawak where the voters have little resonance with the election issues preoccupying those in Peninsular Malaysia. The chief minister, Taib Mahmud, has ruled Sarawak for more than three decades since 1981. Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) has won only one of the 15 seats contested in the state. Most of the gains by the opposition alliance could be credited to the Democratic Action Party (DAP)’s defeats of Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) candidates in Chinese-dominated urban constituencies.

Sarawak joined the Malaysia Federation shortly after the country’s independence, together with Sabah and Singapore. Sarawakians had never really taken part in any independence struggle like west Malaysians did. Political histories of the eastern and western states of Malaysia therefore diverge to some extent, which has given rise to dissimilar political identities.

Sarawak is one of the poorest states in the country, despite having abundant resources, such as oil, timber, and minerals. By retaining control over the rights of exploration of these resources, Taib Mahmud and his ruling party have been able to cultivate political patronage by distributing the rights selectively to their cronies, which in turn help him stay in power. Ordinary Sarawakians have not been a beneficiary of the state’s richness in natural resources.

Some scholars have argued that Sarawak suffers from “resource curse”, where abundant resources provides the government with windfalls or unearned income, but corrupts state capacity, and breeds patron-client networks. This has a pernicious effect on economic development and governance. Of late, the enormous wealth amassed by Taib Mahmud and his cronies have been increasingly exposed. This has enraged many Sarawakians, which can explain partially the swing towards DAP in the election, particularly among the Chinese voters. Yet, it is insufficient to bring about a change in government.

Sarawakians have long felt that economic benefits of the state’s abundant resources have largely accrued to Peninsular Malaysia. Owing to the country’s federal arrangement, Sarawak has to remit a large proportion of its natural resource wealth to the federal government. This has not helped to create a unified Malaysian identity.

Sarawak is the only state that UMNO’s tentacles have not reached, in part because there is no need for it to do so since Taib Mahmud and his party have been able to deliver many victories, one election after another. Nevertheless, this also means that the federal government is held hostage by Taib, and turns a blind eye to his egregious behavior.  

Sarawak’s distinctive ethnic composition also calls for a different approach to election strategy. While Chinese and Malay each makes up about 23 percent of the population, the indigenous peoples of Iban, Melanau and Bidayuh and others constitute the other half. Even though the indigenous peoples are considered Bumiputras (sons of the soil), which entitle them to the benefits enjoyed by the Malays, their predicaments are different from the Malays. Because the majority of them are Christians, the religious conservatism of PAS and other religious-motivated issues that appeal to voters in Peninsular Malaysia do not resonate with them. Despite increasing trends of urbanization, a majority of the indigenous people still resides in rural areas, live on communal land, and are mostly agricultural producers. Their traditional livelihoods are increasingly threatened by logging, land expropriation and other pressures imposed by the government for the purpose of increasing its revenue base.  These rural areas are also the bastions of BN’s power in Sarawak. This calls for a fundamental rethinking of PK’s electoral messages and strategies.

Gerrymandering and malapportionment of seats are formidable barriers to the opposition.

Despite widespread allegations of voting fraud in the recent election, the Bersih movement that calls for clean elections has done great justice in raising awareness of the importance of clean and fair elections. The issues of fraud and underhanded tactics of the incumbents aside, the opposition are confronted with formidable institutional barriers that significantly reduce their chances of winning. These are problems of gerrymandering (election boundaries drawn in favor of the BN) and malapportionment of seats where voter size does not correspond to number of parliamentary seats.

Consider the constituencies of Kanowit and Lawas in Sarawak that have gone to BN, where each has 13,467 and 13,895 votes, respectively. Stack them against Serdang (116,270 votes) and Gombak (105,394) in Selangor that have gone to DAP and PKR, respectively. The two BN candidates are each given a seat in the federal Parliament, even though they have received mandate from about one-tenth the size of the electorates in Selangor.

I should emphasize this is not an electoral characteristic distinctive to Sarawak, but a widespread “rural bias” in the electoral design. Because of the ways electoral boundaries are drawn, densely populated urban electorates are given less representation than the sparsely populated rural constituencies. In other words, if you live in a crowded city, your vote is worth less than your cousin who resides in kampong.

What is the implication? BN has managed to pocket 60 percent or 133 out of the total 222 seats by winning only 48 percent of the popular votes. This means that the BN has once again returned to power even though the majority of Malaysians had actually voted against them, the issue of electoral fraud aside. Until this is fixed, it is hard to imagine how BN could ever be defeated. Bersih should consider taking up the cause of electoral reform for a more evenly distributed vote and seat arrangement.

Lynette H. Ong is an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. She received her doctoral degree from the Australian National University. Her academic writings (though most of which are not on Malaysia) can be found here.