Malaysia: Victory at Home, Allegations from Abroad for Sarawak Government

Dennis Wong
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1605010-my-adenan620.jpg Newly elected Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem (center) and members of his staff take part in a thanksgiving ceremony at his office in Kuching, May 9, 2016.
Courtesy of Chief Minister’s Office

Updated at 10:49 a.m. ET on 2016-05-11

The Barisan Nasional coalition just extended its decades-long rule over the eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak with a decisive legislative electoral win, but new allegations of corruption from abroad are buffeting its governor and long-time former chief minister.

The ruling coalition took 72 of 82 seats in the state’s legislative assembly polls on Saturday, in a vote touted as a litmus test at the national level for Barisan, whose current government in Kuala Lumpur has been mired in a corruption scandal.

At the state level, residents across resource-rich and heavily forested Sarawak voted Chief Minister Adenan Satem into office in his first electoral bid as the incumbent.

Two years ago Adenan succeeded Abdul Taib Mahmud, who then became governor of Sarawak despite allegations of corruption accumulated over his 33 years as chief minister. Both men belong to the same party, the United Bumiputera Heritage Party (PBB).

Now, an Australian senate committee has opened an investigation into money-laundering allegations against Taib’s family over multi-million dollar real estate deals and assets owned by it in Australia, Malaysian media reported on Tuesday. The reports said that the committee was looking closely at AU $55 million given to the Adelaide Hilton hotel, which is owned by the Taib family.

Taib, who is better known as Pak Uban (white-haired uncle), separately faces allegations of massive corruption and profiteering from illegal logging. He has denied such allegations that came from abroad.

It appears, however, that voters were satisfied enough with Adenan’s job performance to date as chief minister, and that the old cloud of alleged corruption hanging over his predecessor did not harm Adenan at the polls.

Voter Heyward Maxwell Pengabang, 32, said he was delighted with Adenan’s performance so far, adding that the chief minister has helped keep living costs for the people of Sarawak lower than in other states in Malaysia.

Thanks to Adenan, Sarawakians do not have to pay tolls on roads and utility and tax bills are relatively low, he said.

“With all these issues of increasing cost of living, these changes really help most of the normal people like myself,” Heyward told BenarNews.

Progressive leader?

Since taking office in 2014, Adenan has implemented policies that have set his administration apart from his predecessor, including policies to combat illegal logging and corruption, as well as instituting some people-friendly policies.

For example, Adenan’s administration has recognized the private Chinese Unified Education Certificate in the state. This is a controversial issue in the rest of the country because the educational qualification geared for ethnic Chinese Malaysians is not accepted by public universities and public service agencies.

Adenan also implemented a policy that led to tribal communities in Sarawak – which form 50 percent of the state’s population – being officially recognized on government forms.

Lim Kit Siang, the national leader of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and a stalwart of the opposition – whose party won only three seats in Saturday’s election in Sarawak – conceded at a news conference afterward that Adenan had instituted changes leading to improvements in under-developed Sarawak.

‘Unsavory elements’

Yet it also appears that Adenan’s popularity did not win him the election alone.

Adenan, a former cabinet minister in the federal government, helped Barisan retain its grip on state politics by banning opposition leaders and activists from other parts of Malaysia from entering his state during the campaigning season.

Those barred from setting foot in the state included Selangor state Chief Minister Mentri Besar Mohamed Azmin Ali.

Prior to election day, Adenan said such a ban was needed “to protect the interests of Sarawak from unsavory elements.”

Compared with Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak enjoys a degree of autonomy in administration, immigration and judicial matters, including controlling the entry and residence of non-Sarawakians.

Fractured opposition

For its part, the opposition bloc that contested the election was fractured and trailing behind Barisan even before the polls were held, according to one political science expert.

“The failure [of opposition parties] to negotiate the allocation of seats led to split votes even in areas where they could have won,” Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia associate professor Mohd Faisal Syam Abdol Hazis told BenarNews.

In addition, instead of uniting against a common enemy, bickering among the opposition parties undermined their cause, he said.

“I believe this is also one of the reasons for low voter turnout. The opposition parties failed to convince voters that they were a better choice. Instead, they showed that they simply can’t work together to achieve a common goal,” Mohd Faisal added.

An earlier version incorrectly reported that Barisan Nasional had ruled over Sarawak for 53 years.


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