“Shock in Sarawak: The Dayak Tsunami” by Lee Poh Onn

2018/59, 12 May 2018

Travelling a few days in Kuching before the GE14 would not have prepared anyone for the “shocker” that was to happen in Sarawak. Barisan Nasional (BN) colours (and its coalition parties, notably Sarawak United Peoples’ Party or SUPP) were flying high in Bandar Kuching and Stampin areas, interspersed by a smaller showing of Democratic Action Party (DAP) flags. In Petra Jaya and, especially in Mas Gading, the blue hues of the BN were even stronger making up 75 percent of all banners. It was expected that the Pakatan Harapan (PH) components of DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) would only win in their stronghold areas and that the role of Sarawak as a safe deposit state would be stronger than before.

During the Sejiwa Senada Programme (an occasional but very important event held by the state government to get closer to the rakyat) from 5 to 6 May in Kuching, Chief Minister Abang Johari tactfully reminded the 5,000 attendees of the development and progress achieved in Sarawak since 2015 under Sarawak BN. And for the future, the Sarawak government planned to transition the state into the new digital age, to continue to strengthen its infrastructure (Pan Borneo Highway), improve the delivery of health services, and to complete the LRT in Kuching. All looked rosy until 9 May 2018.

What took place far exceeded anyone’s imagination. Sarawak BN lost a total of 12 seats: 10 to the PH coalition and 2 to independents.  In the last general elections (GE13), the Sarawak BN only lost 5 seats. This time round, Sarawak BN only won 19 out of 31 parliamentary seats against the 25 out of 31 seats in GE13.

In GE14, DAP secured Kuching, Stampin, Sarikei, Lanang and Sibu seats and captured Mas Gading (Bidayuh majority). PKR defended Miri and won the Puncak Borneo (Iban majority), Saratok (Iban majority) and Selangau (Iban majority) seats.

The Sarawak DAP Chairman, Chong Chieng Jen, referred to this as the “Sarawakian Tsunami”. However, judging from number of the seats won, it would be more apt to use the term “Dayak Tsunami”. The independent candidate in Julau, who was non-Iban, won support from the Iban and Chinese people there. Even for Miri, Dayak support for its Chinese candidate helped to give its candidate Dr Michael Teo 13,663 more votes than its opposition Datuk Sebastian Ting of SUPP. In addition, Baru Bian who was not Iban wrested Selangau, an Iban seat, from its BN candidate, Rita Sarimah Insol, an Iban.

The opposition had also won in spite of the intense campaigning undertaken by BN in terms of “painting” the campaign areas with banners and flyers. Perhaps the oppositions’ ceramahs or rallies helped; DAP events were always very well-attended. SUPP’s ceramahs were also well attended but the crowds were observed to be generally older with the numbers slightly less that the oppositions’ events, especially the DAP’s.

Abang Johari has stated that the Sarawak BN will remain in the national coalition. Out of the 14 seats that the Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) contested, only the Puncak Borneo seat was lost. Most of Sarawak BN’s losses were suffered by their coalition partners, SUPP and Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS). Rumours circulating that BN Sarawak may join PH were also quashed by Assistant Minister in the Chief Minister’s Department, Abdullah Saidol.

It is now apparent that what worried Sarawkians were cost of living issues. The abolishment of the GST was another important drawcard used by the opposition. The message of “Sarawak for Sarawakians” was important but ultimately “bread and butter” mattered more. Some semi-urban and rural areas have been lacking access to water and electricity even after five decades of development. This may also have pushed votes to the opposition. The fall of many Dayak seats points to the need to address the concerns of this community more carefully and with greater sensitivity. Baru Bian, a champion for native customary rights, wrested the seat from the BN candidate. Another observation was that the Dayak also supported Chinese candidates, blurring the argument that ethnicity matters. The fallen Dayak dominated seats shows that the indigenous people are dissatisfied with how their concerns and communal rights have been addressed. Such issues may have to be given more attention now.

Dr Lee Poh Onn is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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.