By Jason Abbott
On April 16th the east Malaysian state of Sarawak went to the polls for the 10th time since Sarawak joined the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. In many ways Sarawak is very different from other states in Malaysia. Of a population of just over 2.5 million, Malays (the dominant ethnic group in Malaysia as a whole) constitute a little over 21 per cent, with Chinese comprising between 27-29 per cent. The rest of the state’s population consist of 27 different ethnic groups of which the Iban, constituting 31 per cent of the total population, are the largest.
In addition Sarawak is not only home to the largest number of Christians in Malaysia (in a country where Islam dominates social and political life), but where Christians constitute the largest segment of the population (around 43 per cent). Separated from peninsular Malaysia by 370 miles Sarawak had a very different colonial history to the peninsular and economically despite a wealth of natural resources the state remains one of Malaysia’s poorest states. However despite the array of Sarawak specific political parties the politics of Sarawak have largely conformed to the pattern in Malaysia as a whole. In other words component parties of the governing Barisan Nasional (principally the PBB) have held power in the state since 1963 with Abdul Taib bin Muhamad of the presiding as the state’s Chief Minister since 1981.
For all the opposition’s aim of denying the BN its two-thirds majority in the state legislature, the result of the election was never in doubt. Instead the election campaign itself became a) a proxy for the continuing struggle between Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition and the BN leadership b) a test of support for the premiership of Najib Tun Razak in order to determine whether the country’s 12th general election will be held this year or next and c) a test of whether the Pakatan Rakyat could take its brand of a multi-ethnic alternative to the BN beyond peninsular Malaysia. Sarawak matters because as a result of deliberate malportionment the state returns 31 seats of the country’s 222 seats in parliament, approximately 14 more than it would if constituencies were equally. In the 2008 general election while the Barisan Nasional suffered its worst election result since 1969, Sarawak delivered the coalition 30 seats of its total haul of 140. Indeed with the seats won in neighboring Sabah (24) many commentators concluded that the results from East Malaysia kept the Barisan Nasional in power. Thus the Sarawak state elections served were seen as a bell weather that could determine if the Barisan Nasional had recovered sufficiently to call an early snap general election.
The campaign was lively to say the least with the country’s anti-corruption commission (MACC) admonished for failing to take any action against Chief Minister Taib over the acquisition of over 1.5 million hectares of Native Customary Rights land for his relatives and supporters. These revelations came two months a Swiss NGO (The Bruno Manser Fund) had early revealed a massive timber corruption scheme that involved kickbacks to the Taib family. The report blacklisted 49 Taib-linked companies in 8 countries. In addition according to a separate report by the opposition Democratic Action Party Taib had also failed to account for $1.5 billion of Sarawak state funds between 2007-2010.
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