Sarawak and Sabah – the two semi-autonomous states in Malaysian Borneo – could provide Prime Minister Najib Razak and his ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition the votes they need to stay in power through next month’s general election, political analysts say.
The ruling coalition and an opposition alliance led by former longtime Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad are battling ahead of the May 9 vote for electoral support over several issues. But Sabah and Sarawak offer solid blocs of votes for Barisan, analysts told BenarNews.
“Yes, Sabah and Sarawak will still be the ‘fixed-deposit’ states for the BN,” said Jeniri Amir, an associate professor at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas), referring to a common term for votes from states that have sided with the ruling coalition in previous elections.
Jeniri’s forecast was grudgingly accepted by some leaders of the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH), both in Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia.
“I hope not,” Xavier Jayakumar, an opposition assemblyman in Sri Andalas, a township in the peninsular state of Selangor, told BenarNews.
BN, made up of its linchpin party, the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), and 12 other smaller parties that have been in power continuously since the 1950s, won only 86 seats in Peninsular Malaysia during the March 2008 general election – a devastating upset described by local newspapers as a “political tsunami.”
By contrast, the then-opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition won 89 seats in the 222-member parliament.
But the 54 seats that BN secured in Sabah and Sarawak gave the ruling coalition a slight majority to form a government again.
The electoral setback for Najib and his BN in the peninsula continued in the 2013 general election, during which they lost more seats to the opposition.
“Again it was the BN coalition partners in Sabah and Sarawak – where the people are agitating for more autonomy, the return of their rights – that came to shore up Najib's flagging political fortune,” Jeniri told BenarNews.
In its manifesto for the upcoming election, called the “Book of Hope,” Pakatan Harapan has vowed to review the 1963 Malaysia Agreement (MA63), which paved the way to the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. The opposition’s election pledge was aimed at granting Sabah and Sarawak more autonomy from the federal government.
MA63 was an agreement signed by the Federated Malay states in the peninsula, Singapore and the former British Borneo territories of Sarawak and North Borneo – now renamed Sabah. Singapore withdrew from Malaysia in 1965.
Since the 1970s, as part of Malaysia’s policy of bridging a wealth gap with the wealthier Chinese community, ethnic Malays and indigenous people in Borneo – who are known locally as “bumiputra” or “sons of the soil” – enjoy special privileges in education and business.
After the 2013 election, the 64-year-old Najib appointed six ministers from Sabah and seven from Sarawak to his federal cabinet to “reward” the territories for helping him maintain his power.
Jeffrey Kitingan, a leader of Star, the local opposition party in Sabah, said the ministerial appointments were rewards to the two states for continuing to be Najib’s fixed-deposit states, even as the two Sarawak deputy chief ministers, Douglas Uggah and James Masing, indicated that the cabinet appointments in 2013 fell short of their expectations.
But Najib, in power since 2009, showered Sabah and Sarawak with more rewards by approving major projects, such as the 25 billion ringgit (U.S. $6.47 billion) Pan Borneo Highway. He also promised to return all rights lost “advertently or inadvertently” as he paved more roads with asphalt.
Kelvin Yii, the opposition’s pick for the Stampin federal seat in Sarawak, said the two states offered “fragile fixed-deposits” because Najib, in his view, was taking the states for granted.
“Even though they (Najib and the BN) are throwing out goodies, at end of the day, they are not addressing the real desire and need of the state, which is the return of the special rights,” he said.
Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari, however, defended the federal government and said the discussion was on the way.
Abang, a Barisan politician, had said in the past that the issues being discussed were “constitutionally complex” and needed time and a detailed study.
Voting for ‘bread-and-butter issues’
Meanwhile, despite a corruption scandal surrounding Najib over state investment fund 1MDB that has led to widespread calls in Peninsular Malaysia for the prime minister to resign, rural voters in the two Borneo states will continue to cast their votes for BN because they have a “low level of political literacy,” said Jeniri, the political analyst.
The 47 seats that BN won in Sarawak and Sabah during the 2013 election are largely rural seats whose voters come from more than 100 tribes. The Dayaks are the largest ethnic tribespeople in Sarawak, and the Kadazadusun, Dusun, Suluk and Bajau are the major ones in Sabah, which has more than 1.1 million registered voters.
In Sarawak, 25 of the 31 federal seats are rural.
The tribes in the rural areas will vote for BN because of fears from the populace that voting for the opposition may result in the loss of vital financial development allocations to fund development projects in their areas, Jeniri said.
To back up Jeniri's assertion, a Unimas analysis in January forecast that 60 percent of Sarawak voters would support BN in the coming election because “they are more concerned with bread-and-butter issues.”
“That’s a fact,” said 43-year-old Vatz Lamit, a resident of a Saratok longhouse, the traditional dwelling of natives. Many residents living in isolated longhouses deep in the state’s interior also share that sentiment, she said.
“They want their piped, treated water, a road from their longhouse to the main road and 24-hour electricity from the power grid,” she said, adding that despite some unfulfilled promises by the ruling coalition in the past, rural voters still trusted BN to bring the basic amenities.
But, Jeniri said, Najib and the ruling coalition must tread warily. He warned that if they failed to keep rewarding Sabah and Sarawak and pacify residents’ complaints on the federal government’s failure to respect the MA63, the coming election may see a shift in political power.
“If Najib does not continue to bring large-scale development projects to Sabah and Sarawak and fail on the MA63, people might not vote for the BN,” he said.