GPS in Sarawak: Finding the Way In … or Out?

Political turbulence in Kuala Lumpur and the emergence of two competing coalitions have returned the Gabungan Parti Sarawak to its traditional role as kingmaker

The Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building in Kuching, Malaysia. (Photo: Lee Poh Onn)

Lee Poh Onn

28 February 2020

A political storm of historic proportions has been brewing in Kuala Lumpur, as competing coalitions seek to take over the federal parliament. Hundreds of kilometres to the the east, the situation in Sarawak is quite different. Compared to the boisterous ructions in the federal capital, the ruling Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) in the sleepy state capital of Kuching has maintained an ominous silence about its political allegiances.

On Sunday, Abang Johari, Sarawak’s Chief Minister, was present during the meeting with the Malaysian King. Shafie Apdal, Sabah’s Chief Minister, was also present. That said, neither Chief Minister has openly declared their allegiance to any of the presently forming factions yet. The political upheaval over the weekend – which saw the departure of Parti Pribumi Bersatu (PPBM) and a splinter faction from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) from the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition government – led to the resignation of Tun Mahathir Mohamad as Prime Minister on Monday. The King appointed him as interim prime minister on the same day.

It is not difficult to divine the reasons behind GPS’ reticence.

Looming in the minds of Sarawakians are the impending state elections, which will have to take place before September 2021. Sarawak is presently the only state in Malaysia which holds its state elections separately from its parliamentary elections. The prerogative lies with each state to decide when to hold its own state elections but usually all other states have held their state elections at the same time as their parliamentary elections. In the 2016 state elections led by Adenan Satem, the then-Sarawak Barisan Nasional (SBN) secured 72 out of the 82 seats contested. The GPS alliance was formed in the aftermath of the 2018 elections, after four of its constituent parties broke away from BN following its electoral defeat.

If GPS secures a significantly smaller majority in the forthcoming state elections, Abang Johari’s leadership may be challenged. In the 14th General Elections in 2018, the Sarawak government secured a smaller number of parliamentary seats (19 out of 31); against 25 out of the 31 seats in the 2013 general elections.

The precipitous slide in support may continue if the Sarawak government is seen to be not acting in the interest of Sarawakians. Sarawakians already feel that their rights as enshrined in the Malaysia Agreement 1963 have been eroded. Sarawakians want their government to push harder on a slew of important issues. They want an increase in the state’s share of oil revenues from the present 5 per cent to 20 per cent; the reinstatement of English alongside Bahasa Malaysia as the official state language; greater religious freedom, more state control over finances and taxes, and the right for Sarawak to determine its own educational paths.

What matters most for GPS now is to demonstrate that it has inherited Adenan’s fighting spirit

Compared to other states, Sarawak is unique. The Malay and Melanau races make up about 30 per cent of the total population, the Dayak about 45 per cent and ethnic Chinese about 24 per cent. Forty-four per cent of Sarawak’s population is Christian and only 30 per cent is Muslim. Sarawak is also ruled by a coalition of local parties; the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has no presence in the state. The state punches above its weight – with a relatively small population of about 2.6 million, it is entitled to 31 seats in the federal parliament.

No longer being able to heavily rely on Adenan’s legacy, the present government must be judged on its present achievements in the state. The late Adenan, who succeeded the long-standing if controversial Taib Mahmud in 2014, established himself as a no-nonsense and strong leader who advocated the stance of “Sarawak for Sarawakians”. What matters most for GPS now is to demonstrate that it has inherited Adenan’s fighting spirit.

If GPS evinces unequivocal support for Dr Mahathir at the expense of pushing for more state rights, voters may perceive the alliance as a pushover. Mahathir is also seen to be detrimental to the party’s electoral fortunes. During his first tenure as premier, he was perceived to have slowly eroded Sarawak of its rights and share of oil revenues. Supporting a PH faction federally would be irrational, given that DAP is part of the PH coalition. At the state level, the Sarawak DAP – which has seven seats – has been a strong and vocal opposition against GPS.

It is likely that Mahathir will be the Prime Minister, be it whether a government led by PH, Perikatan Nasional (PN) or any other alliance emerges. GPS may choose to retain the present loose or informal form of alliance with the federal government that it has had since GE 14. When the PH coalition was in power, GPS stated that it would collaborate with the federal government for national interest and state rights, particularly in areas where Sarawak’s interests were safeguarded. When federal decisions by PH diverged from Sarawak’s interests, the GPS opposed them. This occurred during the Federal Government’s proposed Bill in April 2019 to amend the Malaysia Agreement 1963, such that Sabah and Sarawak are treated as equal partners in the Federation of Malaysia (presently, they are treated as just one of the 13 states in Malaysia). The bill languished in Putrajaya because GPS felt that further scrutiny of the terms was necessary.

The PH is now left with 92 parliamentary seats – 20 seats short of the 112 needed for a simple majority. The PN coalition – including the 26 Bersatu MPs and the 11 PH defectors – have 97 seats. It is still not certain which coalition will form the next government; but it is becoming increasingly clear that Sabah and Sarawak have now returned to their traditional status as kingmakers. How the GPS will find its way through the Machiavellian machinations in Kuala Lumpur will determine its political fortunes – both nationally, and in Sarawak.

Lee Poh Onn is a Senior Fellow and a member of the Malaysia Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute

ISEAS Commentary – 2020/21

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.