Singapore General Elections: A Point of View

April 28, 2011

Singapore 2011 General Elections: A Point of View

by Eugene KB Tan*

Will the 2011 Singapore General Election (GE) mark the start of a truly competitive, two- or even multi-party democracy in Singapore? Or let’s take the question further — is a “freak” election result possible, with the People’s Action Party losing power altogether?

After all, this GE will see the most number of seats being contested since independence, with 26 out of 27 electoral divisions involved. Not only have the Opposition parties found enough people to field, this slate is arguably their best to date. About 2.2 million eligible voters will make their choice on May 7, and the battle for their votes will be earnestly fought.

It goes without saying that Aljunied GRC will be most fiercely and closely contested. The Workers’ Party (WP) has fielded its “dream team”. The question is whether there will be a marked spillover effect on the other seven constituencies the WP is contesting.

In these contests, how will the WP’s manifesto of a “First World Parliament” be received by voters vis-a-vis the PAP’s long-standing belief that our political system must produce a government with a clear mandate — a strong parliamentary majority that will enable it to lead decisively in Singapore’s long-term interests?

Arguably, the political destination for the WP and the PAP is the same: It is about making Singapore politically secure and sustainable. The key difference between the two parties is how to get to the desired state of affairs. It is one of the gamut of issues, including bread-and-butter ones, that voters will have to decide on.

Ever the shrewd politician, WP leader Low Thia Khiang has upped the stakes greatly by leaving Hougang where he has been Member of Parliament for 20 years to challenge a PAP team with three office-holders and one potential office-holder.

Low has indicated that if he loses in Aljunied GRC, he won’t take up a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament seat. In short, the WP is gunning for a win-big-lose-big. A lot rides on how convincing its alternative parliamentary model is to voters.

This GE sees the GRCs, rather than the Single Member Constituencies — conventionally seen as easier battlegrounds for the Opposition — being the focal points of key electoral battles. This time the Opposition has concentrated its best candidates in GRCs.  In some respects, the potential dividends from winning a GRC are much higher. And the Opposition parties seek to break the forbidding psychological and political barrier of having not won a GRC since the scheme was introduced in 1988.

What are some of the GRCs to watch? While attention will be riveted on the obvious hot seat, there could be “sleeper” hot spots that flare overnight.

One that is already shaping up for a gloves-off contest is in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, where skirmishes have begun ahead of the hustings.

The re-branded Singapore Democratic Party has fielded its “A-Team” including a former top civil servant, that will seek to engage the PAP anchor Dr Vivian Balakrishnan over his ministry’s over-budget Youth Olympic Games.

The SDP’s other GRC contest is in Sembawang, a traditional PAP bastion. In both divisions we can expect the jousting to be hard and fierce. Will we see a different SDP this time, having a distinct identity from that of its leader Dr Chee Soon Juan? Will it hold firm to campaigning on the social and economic issues it has identified in its manifesto – or will it be diverted by high rhetoric, side antics and verbal tit-for-tat?

Compared to Aljunied, the stakes for the PAP in Sembawang and Holland-Bukit Timah are not as high, yet the loss of even one GRC is a blow.

Certainly, in Ang Mo Kio GRC, even a narrow win by the PAP would hurt. The team helmed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is up against a hastily-cobbled Reform Party team and many will see his team’s performance as a proxy barometer of national confidence in his leadership.

Also worth watching out for is the PAP’s performance in what is popularly regarded as its GRC strongholds of Bishan-Toa Payoh, Marine Parade and West Coast. Despite public interest in Opposition personalities like veteran Chiam See Tong and NSP newbie Nicole Seah, the contests are the PAP’s to lose. It remains to be seen how the Jeyaretnam brandname will sit with West Coast voters.

So, how real is the possibility of a freak election outcome?Reform Party leader Kenneth Jeyaretnam (right)  yesterday dismissed the idea; PM Lee did not go down the route of fomenting anxiety over such an outcome, but said it was “good” to have a strong contest to “make Singaporeans realise more what is at stake at this election … it has very serious consequences”.

Indeed, the Singaporean voter has not been callous. In the 1991, 1997 and 2001 GEs, although the PAP was returned to Government on Nomination Day, voters still gave the PAP a credible mandate on Polling Day. Besides, playing up the fear factor of an upset may leave a negative taste with educated voters. — Today/

* Eugene KB Tan is assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University School of Law.

Singapore General Elections 2011: Lee Kuan Yew returned unopposed

April 27, 2011

Singapore General Elections 2011: Lee Kuan Yew returned unopposed in Tanjung Pagar

(Reuters) – Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, was returned unopposed to parliament on Wednesday, but his long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) faces its toughest ever challenge at the polls from the city-state’s tiny opposition.

Eighty-two of the 87 seats in parliament will be contested in the general election on May 7, state media reported after nominations closed, the highest number ever. The only exception was the 5-seat constituency where Lee and four other PAP candidates were declared elected unopposed.

“I would have welcomed a contest,” said the frail-looking, 87-year-old Lee, dressed in trademark white shirt and trousers. “I assure you I will look after you for the next five years.”

Hundreds of PAP workers shouted and waved party flags as Lee, “minister mentor” in the cabinet, walked back slowly but unaided to his car after the nominations closed.

There is no suggestion the PAP could lose power. The party won 82 of the 84 seats in the last election, but faces criticism from voters over a surge in housing prices and the high cost of living, despite steering the economy out of recession in 2009 to last year’s record 14.5 percent growth.

Lee was prime minister from independence in 1965 until 1990, and his son, Lee Hsien Loong, is the current prime minister. The elder Lee is credited with the transformation of Singapore from a third-world, newly independent backwater into the shiny first-world financial centre it is today.

“Do not rock this foundation. Remember where Singapore came from and how difficult it was that we have got to where we are,” he said in a statement this week. “In the heat and dust of this election, do not risk your assets, property values, job opportunities. Make the right choice.”

Despite its stellar growth, opponents have criticised Singapore’s restrictions on political freedoms and on the press. The PAP’s near monopoly in previous elections has in part resulted from scores of walkovers in constituencies that the opposition did not contest.

This time the Workers’ Party, the largest of the clutch of opposition groups, has said it is aiming to win one multi-seat constituency, or five seats.It has put up its biggest stars — Chairwoman Sylvia Lim, sitting MP Low Thia Khiang and corporate lawyer Chen Show Mao — into the same constituency, which is likely to be the most keenly watched of all the contests.

There was some controversy over the walkover in Lee’s constituency. An opposition alliance filed nomination papers but election officials said they did not do so within the allotted time.

“It’s a feeble effort to show that they wanted to contest,” Lee said. “But everybody knows if you want to contest you go before 12 o’clock.”

(Additional reporting by Kevin Lim and Walter Sim; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Singapore General Elections: LKY seeks a New Mandate

April 24, 2011 (April 23, 2011)

Insight Down South by Seah  Chiang Nee:

LKY seeks a New Mandate to Serve his Tanjung Pagar Constituents

At 87, Singapore’s Minister Mentor is set to win the Tanjong Pagar constituency, a seat he first won 56 years ago, and retain his record as one of the world’s longest surviving leaders – although as an ‘adviser’ to the Cabinet.

With the coming election tipped to swing against his governing party, the founding leader, Lee Kuan Yew, who is 87, has signalled his intention to continue in office.

Speaking with a slight slur and looking his age, Lee posted his message in a low-key video that answered a burning question in almost every Singaporean’s mind – and a few foreigners, as well. “I’m happy to be still representing Tanjong Pagar,” Lee said, referring to the constituency that he first won 56 years ago.

It was posted inconspicuously among other candidates’ messages on the People’s Action Party (PAP) website without an accompanying story. The pro-government press gave it scant prominence, and many Singaporeans first read about it in a Yahoo news report.

This means that if re-elected – as he will likely be – Lee will retain his record as one of the world’s longest surviving leaders, although as an “adviser” to the Cabinet.

Lately, the elderly politician had stayed out of the public limelight, speaking less and less, raising speculation that he may be preparing to step down.

The low-key treatment was probably by design.“I think they want to project the retention of the 87-year-old Lee as a non-story at a time when other top leaders are retired,” said a long-time PAP watcher.

At any rate, it seems that the importance of whether Lee stays or goes has become less significant, overtaken by Singapore’s fast-changing politics. The electorate is changing; so is the PAP itself, so Lee – because of his health and age – is no longer very important to many people.

The election (Polling Day: May 7) is shaping up to be one of the hottest in decades that threatens to shake up the powerful PAP that Lee co-founded.

A gradual build-up of public unhappiness is contributing to this.Years of excessive intake of foreigners that threatened white-collar jobs and depressed salaries of middle-class Singaporeans – as well as high inflation – are creating strong resentment in the republic. Singaporeans are worried about the future of their children and their country.

The PAP is not facing defeat, not in this election anyway, far from it. It will undoubtedly retain its mandate to govern for another five years. The party probably has enough momentum of past – even brilliant – successes to let it win this election, especially with Lee around. The next one, well, that’s another story.

With nine days of campaigning from noon of nomination day (April 27), people are gearing for an erosion of popular support for the government.

In 2006, the PAP won 66.6% popular votes and 82 out of 84 seats. The total votes are almost certain to drop (some say it’s possible to dip below 60%). But under Singapore’s “first-past-the post” system, it will be much harder to win many more seats.

More worrying for 59-year-old Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is the prospect of losing the hearts and minds of youths, who are less accepting of his policies.

Some analysts believe that this is one of the reasons why his father, MM Lee, wants to stay on despite his health.“He wants to ensure the PAP, with a large crop of new, inexperienced candidates, does not falter during its crucial self-renewal,” a grassroots leader told me.

That he intends to serve an 11th term in Parliament is welcomed by a section of the population, especially the elderly, that feels indebted for his role in building today’s Singa­pore.

“The older voters may be happy and feel a strong sense of comfort that he’s still there,” said a political think tank researcher.

One admirer wrote: “MM Lee, I salute you for what you and your team had done for Singapore. Without doubt, the PAP team put nation before self.” Heart Sense said: “Dear Mr Lee, you are a great man of our nation and many Singaporeans have gained their success and prosperity from your earlier policies.”

Both admirers, however, said they felt that his successors were generally less capable and as a result life had declined.

The younger generation, which has no first-hand knowledge of Lee’s past achievements, blames him for much of today’s woes and wants him to retire.Immediately after Lee announced he would contest, a popular website polled readers for their views. Temasek Review said that 499 out of 574 respondents – or 78% – opposed his decision.

Two main reasons given for wanting him to quit are firstly, to let the younger leaders to take over, and secondly, they don’t like his mega-high salary.The other 16% say he should continue.

One was Angie, who penned: “I want Mr Lee to continue to be the MP and stay as long as he can. Without him, we will never be able to enjoy what we have today.”

Since his wife’s death, Lee seemed more conscious of his own fallibility. Asked by an American journalist, “So, when is the last leaf falling,” Lee replied: “I can feel the gradual decline of energy and vitality. And I mean generally, every year, when you know you are not on the same level as last year. But that’s life.”

For this election, knowing his past, he is likely to campaign hard for his son’s – and PAP’s – victory, his health permitting.

Given his stature, he will likely be able to pull in a number of votes from Singapore’s conservatives who fear sudden changes. But his aging body and mind will weaken his role in the next five years, if it lasts.

Dr. Welsh looks back at 2011 Sarawak Elections

April 23, 2011

Dr. Welsh* looks back at 2011 Sarawak Elections

COMMENT: The simple fact in the wake of Saturday’s polls is that Pakatan Rakyat has failed to dent the two-thirds majority in Sarawak and deliver the needed electoral gains to push Abdul Taib Mahmud from office.

Much has been made of the unfairness of the polls, the use of money and the electoral irregularities. While these issues were important, they should not be excuses that overshadow shortcomings. The Sarawak polls serves to remind the opposition of some its weaknesses and without addressing these problems, their own one-third in the Dewan Rakyat could be in jeopardy.

Unlike in Sarawak, there is no dominant Taib issue at the national level and Prime Minister Najib Razak has regained support, particularly among Malays and Indians.

Further, in many ways, the unbalanced nature of the results, with the DAP winning the lion’s share of seats, has also created a new set of hurdles and it points to a growing unevenness within the opposition itself.

In the aftermath of the polls, the opposition faces the stark reality that it needs to move from a campaign of promising “change” to actual delivery.

Managing Expectations

The first challenge is one of managing expectations. There is tension in the opposition between those who believe the target should be national power and those who see gains as an incremental process. This played out in Sarawak, where the goal posts were moved during the campaign from denying two-thirds majority to taking power in Sarawak.

Unlike in March 2008, where arguably the BN was unprepared for the opposition challenge, this is no longer the case. While the BN performance was not up to the par compared to the recent set of by-elections, the BN has strengthened is campaign arsenal and unlike the opposition, they achieved their target of securing the two-thirds majority.

This issue of delivery is important in that it damages the credibility of the opposition as a whole, especially its leaders. It reinforces the impression that the opposition is more concerned with winning power than the actual implementation of the promises they make.

Strategically, contesting in so many seats also overstretched the opposition. This was extremely clear for PKR in particular, where it fought in 49 seats and only won three. When there is an overstretch, the impact is that it is more difficult to read the ground and to effectively reach out to voters.

This was particularly apparent given that PKR lacked the same level of on-the-ground knowledge of the BN and the comparative level of familiarity with individual constituencies that its counterpart DAP has with the seats it contested.

It is not a coincidence that PKR won Ba’Kelalan in part due to local knowledge and experience. The opposition often mistook the warm welcome of Sarawakians give visitors with genuine political support. When the final votes came in – even accounting for problems – Pakatan, and PKR especially, had misread the ground and was blinded by hope.

This was because opposition workers were talking to themselves or only to their own “side”. This has been true for BN for a long time, but it has now happened to the opposition. The middle ground, the decisive undecided voters who are instrumental in any outcome, are not heard.

Gains in the next election by either side will be determined by which side can effectively capture this middle ground and their ability to avoid listening to hype.

Schism between PKR and SNAP

There is no question that a two-party system is evolving in Malaysia and the Sarawak 2011 election contributes to this dynamic. Yet, there remain serious undercurrents in the relationship between Peninsular Malaysia opposition and those in Sabah and Sarawak.

We saw this play out initially in Sabah when the partnership with local leaders in PKR broke apart during the party elections last year. There remains a sense – which runs across all parties – that Peninsular Malaysians are arrogant and insensitive to local leaders and concerns.

This contributed to the schism between SNAP and PKR and it has left a bad aftertaste. DAP perhaps has less of this dynamic, given it has a longer tenure in Sarawak – it was there from 1978 – and its Sarawakian leaders played a key role in the campaign.

Yet, here too there are concerns about local representation. The challenge for the opposition is how to empower Sarawakians to lead the opposition, given that in a general election there will be nowhere near the level of opposition machinery and manpower that was present in the state elections.

The fact is that the opposition has alienated some local actors whose cooperation they need in order to make further gains. SNAP’s devastating losses ironically do not help to address the underlying concerns for greater local empowerment. The last-minute negotiations, name calling and character assassinations all weakened the opposition campaign, especially PKR.

Part of the problem lies with the different vision mentioned above, but part of it involves the individuals who just do not understand East Malaysians or adequately respect them. It is important to appreciate differences in outlook and priorities and find shared concerns.

The bottom line is that Sabah and Sarawak are the fulcrum in winning national power, and East Malaysians know it. They will only support something in which they can be an integral part of.

Acid Test for Sarawakian Pakatan Leaders

Now more than ever, there are more demands being placed on the new Sarawakian leaders, especially PKR chief Baru Bian and DAP chief Wong Ho Leng. The challenge is not to just represent the seats and communities they were elected to represent, but to channel the broader sentiments of the opposition into something viable.

Pakatan ran quite an ethnically-focused campaigns and this was understandable given the comparative greater segmentation of the ethnic communities in Sarawak, yet the test now is how to move beyond narrow boundaries to reach out not only within Sarawak, but across to the Peninsular.

Opposition’s outreach to the other Dayak communities and to the Malay community remains lacking. Baru, who is from the minority Lun Bawang, will also face a difficult task drawing support among the other Dayak communities.

It is obvious that Sarawak is at a crossroads politically, with a political transition coming – eventually. It is also at a crossroads economically, and arguably has been for some time. The concerns with income inequality and poverty, sustainable development, management of land and resources, job and business opportunities and the aging population are pressing.

Sarawak’s infrastructure is also sorely behind those of other Malaysian states. Too many Sarawakians are being forced to leave their own state, and the brain drain and loss of human capital is having a tremendous impact, personally on families and on the state’s future prosperity as a whole.

The reality is that the Sarawak Pakatan leaders need to move beyond just identifying the problems, but proposing solutions. This is likely to come over native customary rights (NCR) issues, but this is just a first step toward moving Sarawak away from the worrying trends in its broader political economy.

Moving beyond ‘Change’

Many Sarawak opposition leaders won because they were credible. This was especially true for PKR in the rural and semi-rural areas. The challenge is how to maintain that credibility and not disappoint voters.

Across Malaysia, the opposition faces the issue of disappointment. The hard reality is that with the Sarawak polls, the campaign for ‘change’ will no longer be adequate for the coming general election.

It is not enough to just point to problems, to highlight issues of alleged corruption and potential abuse. The opposition has to illustrate what it has done in its watchdog role and in government.

Penang was well-showcased in the Sarawak elections, but the issues in other states were less highlighted, especially in the PAS-governed states. The opposition platform and messages have yet to fully provide a clear positive message for voters as it relies heavily on the negative portrayal of the BN. The ‘change’ message is getting stale.

The opposition platform has to embrace the middle ground. Key are the issues in the economy and race relations, which have become worryingly more polarised since March 2008, in part due to heightened racial perceptions of political power. The stark reality is that the BN has the advantage in this area.

One opposition challenge is its leadership. The fact is that credibility problems – including overpromising results on Sarawak – have affected perceptions of Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim. While these issues were merely tangential in Sarawak, they do matter nationally.

Camps are quite divided on issues of the sodomy trial, sex video and a litany of other attacks. The opposition is faced with a difficult task of building the credibility of its leadership as a whole, to illustrate the full team rather than just a handful of individuals.

Najib too faces this challenge as he had yet to showcase his team, but despite a poor start, he has gained some ground and support. The fact is that the attacks on Anwar have had an impact, largely negative (although there has been some backlash on the sex video debacle given the doubts about the actors involved) and this has yet to be addressed.

Coalition Imbalance

The Sarawak results reflect an imbalance within the opposition. PAS lost all is seats and this follows its losses in recent by-elections. There are concerns they are losing the Malay ground.

While PKR did gain seats and has a group of strong credible Sarawak leaders, they underperformed. And while the DAP won a larger share of support, there is now concern with its growing power within Pakatan.

While I believe all parties made gains in support as shown in my earlier piece and illustrated by Wong Teck Chi‘s work on Miri and Ong Kian Ming‘s rigorous analysis as well (although we have some differences due to methodology and sources of data), there is a sense that not all parties are gaining. This will be difficult to manage.

It was much easier after March 2008 when all sides gained. Unevenness creates unease. This dynamic will test the opposition coalition, within individual parties and collectively across parties.

The easy answer is that the DAP is gaining because of strong Chinese support. There is truth to this, but this is too simplistic, in that the DAP won more support across races and all but one of its gains involved changes in Dayak support.

Individual parties within the opposition, especially PAS and PKR, now are faced with the need to address and assess their campaigns.Two areas were crucial beyond the issue of overstretch above – greater engagement with younger voters and clearer articulation of an alternative vision. To get to this broader issue, these parties have to handle the internal party fissures and divisions, which were openly present during the party polls in PKR last year, which has continued to percolate, and potentially emerge within PAS at their party polls in June.

Tough Path Ahead

BN’s issues of survival and the hard decisions it needs to make are clear and not easy. For Pakatan, the decisions over campaign messages, strategy, leadership and collaboration are as challenging, perhaps even more so given that the opposition is facing a stronger BN.

To ignore the shortcomings and not transform will make the gains in Sarawak evaporate as they did after the 1987 state elections, when there was a split within the BN ranks. As Malaysia slowly moves toward a two-party system, the path ahead will likely continue to be filled with uncertainty.

Gains will only be made by the side that genuinely listens, reaches out, and offers viable leaders and solutions that improve the quality of life of all ordinary Malaysians across race, age, gender, states, and economic background.

Sarawak has shown that for both sides, the path ahead will be tough indeed.

DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University and she can be reached at She was in Sarawak to observe the state election and expresses special thanks to Sarawakians across the political spectrum for their kindness, openness and warm hospitality.

Post Sarawak Elections: Challenges for BN and PR

April 22, 2011

Challenges for Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat Post Sarawak Elections

by Dr. Ong Kian Ming*

In my analysis earlier on the Sarawak elections, I explained the opposition’s failure to deny the BN a two-thirds majority in terms of the insufficient and unevenly distributed non-Muslim bumiputera (NMB) vote swing against the BN.

The complexity of the changes in the level of BN support in the NMB-majority seats, and to a lesser degree, the Malay/Melanau-majority seats, were also illustrated and explained.

Here I put forth some of the implications and challenges for each of the major parties within the BN in Sarawak as well as the opposition in light of the election results.

What will Taib do now?

The biggest campaign issue during this state election was the length of time Abdul Taib Mahmud had been in power and when he would step down as chief minister. After the election, this issue remains unresolved.

The importance of Taib’s post-election plans as a political issue occupies an even greater prominence because he is at once the BN’s as well as the opposition’s greatest asset and liability in Sarawak.

Prime Minister Najib Razak and Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, both of whom were sending not-so-subtle signals to the Sarawak electorate that Taib would step down soon after the election because of the fear that he could cost BN the two-thirds majority, can no longer use this excuse to pressure Taib to retire.

After all, Taib did accomplish the goal of retaining the two-thirds majority relatively comfortably and his own party, PBB, winning all 35 of its seats with 68.3 percent of the popular vote in these seats.

To force Taib to step down before the next general election would be to risk a leadership struggle within PBB that may result in a Malay/Melanau faction breaking away to form its own party or to join an existing opposition party.

We have seen in Malaysia and in other similar non-democratic regimes that elite splits in the ruling party are one of the main causes of a long standing regime losing power through the ballot box.

At the same time, Najib cannot guarantee that Taib and his family will not adopt a more aggressive approach towards maximising their remaining period in office and hence, increase the rate of land grabs, dam building and oil palm estate expansion which may lead to the BN losing more votes from the Dayak community, where, according to my calculations shown earlier, such a swing had already taken place in this state election.

For Pakatan, and especially the DAP, Taib stepping down will deprive the opposition coalition of a central focal point for future campaigns, in the upcoming general election and in the next state election. If this happens, the best the opposition can hope for is for there to be a serious leadership tussle within PBB that would lead to a faction breaking off from this linchpin party of Sarawak BN.

My best guess is that the status quo will prevail until at least the next general election. The question which remains is what Taib will do to regain back some of the lost NMB vote since it will be hard for him to win back a significant number of Chinese votes.

Under this scenario, the BN will have to make up for the additional three to four parliamentary seats it will lose in the urban areas in Sarawak in the next general election by winning back more seats in Peninsular Malaysia in order to regain the two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Will SUPP become another Gerakan?

Prior to this election, there was already speculation that the SUPP was in danger of turning into a Gerakan – a Chinese-based party being wiped out in the only state which it has a significant political presence in. After April 16, SUPP’s worst fears were confirmed.

If not for the presence of postal votes in the Senadin seat in Miri, SUPP would have been left with only one Chinese state assembly person, Wong Soon Koh (right), who managed to achieve a relatively comfortable 1,800 vote majority in the 33 percent Iban seat of Bawang Assan in Sibu.

Fortunately for SUPP, BN still holds the reins of power in Sarawak and the state elections are held separately from the parliamentary elections which mean that its parliamentary representatives in the Chinese-majority seats of Stampin, Lanang, Sarikei and Miri did not lose their seats.

SUPP’s political representation in Sarawak has not been completely erased, unlike Gerakan’s presence in Penang after March 2008.

But still, the oldest political party in Sarawak will face an uphill task in trying to renew and rejuvenate itself, a promise which SUPP president Dr George Chan (left) failed to deliver following a smaller setback in the 2006 state election.

Gerakan’s ‘recovery’ efforts do not bode well for SUPP. Because of established hierarchical structures, it is hard to catapult fresh faces into positions of prominence. Without a strong leader, factional infighting becomes more pronounced and often spills into the public arena as demonstrated by the vote of no-confidence initiated against Penang Gerakan chief Teng Hock Nan’s leadership.

The more politically idealistic, especially the younger generation, would prefer to join the DAP rather than a component party in the BN. SUPP can expect to go through the same struggles which Gerakan has experienced and is currently experiencing in Peninsular Malaysia.

In addition, SUPP has to attempt to chart a new course for the party in light of the new reality of having more Iban than Chinese state assembly persons within its ranks. Is it realistic to expect these Iban state assemblypersons to move up the ranks of leadership within what is still very much a Chinese-based party?

SUPP’s best hope, in the near term, is that the Chinese swing against the BN will not be as large in the general election therefore allowing it to keep one or two of the six Chinese-majority parliamentary seats in Sarawak. The renewal and rejuvenation process will take much longer to occur, if it happens at all.

The rise of the Dayak Parties

Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries within the BN as a result of SUPP’s losses are the two Dayak-based parties – PRS and SPDP. PRS and SPDP now have eight and six seats respectively in the state assembly and there has already been some discussion on the appointment of an Iban deputy chief minister from one of these two parties, likely to be PRS president James Masing.

If Masing is indeed appointed as the DCM 2, it may pave the way for the much discussed merger between PRS and SPDP. Such a merger would be a double-edge sword for the BN in Sarawak.

A strengthened Dayak-based party arising from this merger may be a solution towards stemming any further slide in the level of BN support among the Ibans and the Bidayuhs. But this party could also prove to be a threat to PBB if there emerges pressure from within the state to have a Dayak chief minister after Taib steps down.

The strategy of divide and conquer, employed so effectively in the past to weaken Dayak representation and power in the state government, would work less well if there is only one Dayak party in the BN in Sarawak and in the context of a weakened SUPP, which can no longer collaborate as effectively with the PBB to weaken and divide the Dayaks.

It would not be too far-fetched to imagine that some of the SUPP Dayak state representatives would be tempted to join this merged entity if the interests of the Dayak community could be further advanced (and if they can aspire to a higher office than what the SUPP could offer them).

While Taib is publicly supportive of such a move, the greater likelihood is that he prefers the status quo of a divided Dayak representation within the BN in Sarawak.

What next for the DAP?

Having won 12 out of the 15 seats it contested in, what is next for the largest opposition party in Sarawak? The gains made by the DAP in each of the major cities in Sarawak – Kuching, Sibu, Sarikei, Bintulu and Miri, firmly cements its position as a national party with a strong opposition presence in most of the urban areas in Malaysia and as part of the state government in Penang and Selangor.

When the dust has settled (and it is settling very fast), the DAP will find that it faces a number of major challenges with its expanded representation in Sarawak. Firstly, it will have to beef up its local machinery in anticipation of the general election where it can win four more parliamentary seats, based on the state election results. But it will have to do this without the significant support system from Peninsular Malaysia that was present during the state election.

This can be achieved by leveraging on the ability of the new state assemblypersons to build and mobilise their own electoral machines. It has to strike while the iron is still hot and while the luster of the successful campaign still remains by recruiting volunteers and signing up new members.

The party should also seriously consider bringing in some fresh faces to contest in the urban parliamentary seats which the DAP stands a very good chance of winning, namely Stampin, Sarikei, Lanang and Miri.

By doing this, the party can broaden its base and build up a new generation of younger leaders to lead the party. This model was successfully adopted in Piasau where former president of the MCA Overseas Club Ling Sie Kiong (right) joined the DAP and achieved the role of a giant killer by defeating the SUPP president.

Secondly, it will have to minimise the pernicious effects of regional factionalism when it comes to competing for positions within the DAP state leadership. Some of the ill effects of these internal fights have been experienced by the DAP in Perak and Selangor, for example, but because of the dispersion of the DAP representatives in the different cities across the state, the likelihood of regional cliques and power bases forming is much greater. SUPP’s experience is a testament of this phenomenon.

Thirdly, the DAP needs to find creative ways to reach out to the Dayak voters in the out-of-town areas as part of a larger process of penetrating BN Dayak strongholds. The party can use its organisational and financial resources in the major cities to help PKR candidates who are working the ground outside these cities. And it can also consider reaching out to these areas more directly, especially if credible Dayak leaders can be attracted to join the party.

The recent proposal by DAP’s Lim Kit Siang for the party to merge with SNAP is particularly noteworthy since it can potentially break open new ground for both parties.

Aspiring Dayak politicians who have seen and perhaps experienced Snap’s disastrous electoral performance may find the DAP to be a more suitable avenue to make a political impact. They would be following in the footsteps of DAP’s Leon Donald, who contested in the Iban-majority seat of Simanggang and managed to decrease BN’s share of the popular by almost 17 percent.

Can PKR penetrate the interiors?

The last-minute selection of candidates and the burden of contesting in 49 state seats certainly diluted the effectiveness of PKR’s overall campaign in Sarawak.

Although PKR managed to win only three of these seats, the fact that they won more votes than Snap candidates in 25 overlapping seats dispels the myth that PKR is seen as a Peninsular-based party that cannot do better than a ‘local’ Sarawakian party like Snap. But this silver lining has to be backed up by continual on-the-ground efforts.

In a post-election environment, it is very likely that only a handful of PKR candidates will continue to work the ground in order to build up the support base for the opposition in the next general and state election. The challenge then for the PKR state leadership is to ascertain which among the candidates fielded are dedicated to the political struggle against the BN in Sarawak.

In areas where such dedicated candidates are found, help in the form of resources and manpower should be given. In areas with fly-by-night candidates, PKR should consider finding new possible candidates and asking them to work the ground in order to earn the right to compete in the next general or state election.

NONEBecause of resource constraints, it would make sense for PKR to cede some of these seats to DAP, especially if the DAP is successful in attracting a few credible Iban leaders to join its ranks.

Even if PKR competes in ‘only’ 44 seats and the DAP competes in 20, PKR can still claim the chief minister’s position if Pakatan as a whole manages to win a majority of state seats especially if such an arrangement was agreed upon by Pakatan beforehand.

The leadership of PKR in Sarawak also has to deal with the challenge of managing the conflict between the various factions within the party in the state. The question of why a Lun Bawang, in the person of Baru Bian, should lead the state leadership rather than a Dayak leader will continue to be whispered within the PKR ranks in Sarawak.

This is a challenge which Baru Bain must overcome with minimal interference from PKR in Peninsular Malaysia. At the same time, Baru must also realise that without a strong and charismatic Dayak leader within the ranks of PKR in Sarawak, it would be hard for the party to convince more Dayak voters to support it.

Dynamics between DAP and PKR

While DAP and PKR managed to avoid three-cornered fights (which wasn’t the case in the 2008 general election), the seat negotiation process revealed many frayed tensions between the two parties and may have affected electoral preparations in some of the disputed seats.

The next big test for both parties would be in the negotiations over the distribution of parliamentary seats in Sarawak in the next general election. It would not be easy for PKR to lay claim to any of the winnable Chinese-majority urban seats because of DAP’s stronger position and brand name in these areas.

In response, PKR may be tempted to reject demands by DAP to contest in some Iban-majority seats where it has Iban leaders. A possible compromise would be for the DAP to exchange a Chinese-majority seat in an area with a strong PKR local leader (Miri’s Michael Teo comes to mind) with a few of the tougher Iban-majority areas which the DAP can ‘invest’ in not just for the general election but also for the next state election.

The point here is that the sooner the seat negotiations are concluded, the more time the potential candidates and their parties have to get ready their elections machinery for these areas.

Possible scenarios for both sides

Before I conclude, I shall outline what I think will be the best case political scenarios for the BN and for Pakatan leading up to the next state election. The end result would probably be somewhere in between the best and worst possible outcomes for both these coalitions, but it is nonetheless instructive to evaluate the unlikely in order to contextualise the likely.

The coalition which is closer to the ideal scenario is likely to have the political advantage in the next state election.

Best-case scenario for the BN: Taib identifies a Malay successor who is acceptable to the PBB as well as to UMNO. The case for UMNO to enter Sarawak is weakened and the likelihood of serious strife within PBB is decreased significantly.

James Masing is named as the second DCM without too much protest from the PPB and SUPP. He manages to convince SPDP to merge with PRS but is careful not to threaten PBB’s dominant position within the BN in Sarawak.

SUPP elects Miri MP and Minister of Energy, Green Technology and Water Peter Chin as its president. In the meantime, a fresh pool of candidates from different backgrounds, age groups and gender are identified and given the mandate and resources to work the ground in the urban areas. SUPP’s old guard does not protest but fades quietly into the background. Only two out of the four SUPP Chinese-majority parliamentary seats are lost in the next general election.

Best-case scenario for Pakatan: The DAP quickly moves to expand its membership in the major cities. New volunteers step up to the plate including aspiring candidates who may be fielded in the next general election. Snap successfully merges with DAP and this encourages more Iban members and aspiring candidates to join the merged entity.

Approximately half of the PKR candidates continue to work the ground with some support given by the state leadership and by the DAP. Ali Biju, the newly-elected state assemblyperson for Krian, emerges as a Dayak PKR leader who can work well with Baru Bian.

Parliamentary seat negotiations with the DAP are concluded way in advance of the next general election. Credible candidates are identified and given sufficient time to prepare. PKR wins two or three parliamentary seats and DAP wins four or five. Pakatan wins 10 parliamentary seats in Sarawak.

As a concluding note, the gains made by the opposition in Sarawak would likely force Najib to postpone the general election to the end of this year, at the earliest, but more likely to early 2012.

The tough Sarawak battle means that the BN cannot assume that either Sabah or Sarawak can be considered fixed deposit seats in the next general election.

ONG KIAN MING holds a PhD in political science from Duke University. He is pioneering a Master in Public Policy (MPP) program at UCSI University. He was based in Sibu for two weeks during the Sarawak election. He can be reached at

Looking Back on Sarawak Elections 2011

April 21, 2011 (Kuala Lumpur)

Looking Back on Sarawak Elections 2011

by Dr. Bridget Welsh

“Keeping Taib in power too long will be a guarantee that the fixed deposit, already no longer secure, could be lost altogether, and Najib’s own tenure might be at risk. This is not an easy decision for the PM.”Bridget Welsh

The Sarawak polls are over and the attention is now on assessing its implications at both the state and national levels. Much attention has focused on predictions for the next general elections, with the range of possible dates moving from a few months to further postponement until 2013.

My own view remains that there needs to be some time before the national election machinery is in place again, given the challenges that have emerged from the Sarawak campaign and that anything held this year would be too risky for the BN.

The political terrain is now more uncertain. In this vein, this article examines the immediate political implications, the “sweet” and “sour” challenges that the BN has to face in the wake of the state polls.

The Sarawak results indicate that the BN has suffered a serious bruising and will have to make hard decisions to improve its performance in the next general election.

Taib the Victor (and Loser)

Arguably, Chief Minister Taib Mahmud emerged as the single strongest beneficiary from the results. The retention of the two-thirds majority without a single loss in his party, the PBB, have bought him time to choose his own successor. The two-thirds majority also allows him to control debate in the state assembly and eventually depart on his own terms.

At the same time, it has been made clear that Taib will face increasing pressure to step down, and will unlikely to able to lead BN into another election. As the main issue in the campaign, he has been severely discredited personally, and will face an extremely challenging task of rebuilding his reputation and salvaging his legacy.

The allegations in the Sarawak Report website have transformed attitudes of Malaysia’s longest serving chief minister in a manner in which there is no going back. Taib has survived, but he faces a more contentious political environment than ever before.

He also faces a difficult decision – on who to appoint as his successor as there are a number of contenders in the ring, with Abang Johari Abang Openg leading the way. Taib will have to manage the growing internal party competition to take over the reins and to limit infighting in his own party, some of whom are concerned with the transition of power.

Issues such as the role of Taib’s family interests, the dynamic between Malays and Melanaus and perceived need for strong leadership within the BN camp are now being openly discussed.

Taib, perhaps arguably one of Malaysia’s most experienced politicians, will be navigating these issues without the benefit of time and will come under even greater scrutiny.

An uncomfortable Federal-State tension

The Sarawak election results also place Prime Minister Najib Razak in a difficult position. It is clear that during the polls campaign, there was tension within the BN over how long Taib should stay on.

With the results matching the number of seats lost in 1987 and showing swings across ethnicities both back and away from BN, Najib faces a difficult choice on how much pressure to put on Taib to turn over power.

Keeping Taib in power too long will be a guarantee that the fixed deposit, already no longer secure, could be lost altogether, and Najib’s own tenure might be at risk. This is not an easy decision for the PM.

Federal-state relations with Sabah and Sarawak are never easy, and arguably the open rift and conflicting interests make for difficult times ahead. The interesting dimension of this is that the rift was public rather than private, and is likely to be even more public given the growing national prominence of Sarawak.

Managing Sarawak’s ‘hot’ issues nationally

If navigating the transition of power in Sarawak was not enough, Najib faces two serious policy headaches. The first is to address the increasing prominence of corruption. After Taib’s tenure, this was perhaps the anchor of the opposition campaign, and it has now reemerged centre stage in the opposition campaign, forging a common agenda among opposition parties.

Najib has a choice to make on whether he will actively address corruption substantively or allow this issue to build further political momentum. Many calls are already been made for him to act on the issues raised by Sarawak Report.

Moreover, the recent tragic death of Customs officer Ahmad Sarbani Mohamed while in Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission‘s custody, which occurred during the Sarawak campaign has only served to bring additional spotlights on the need for more effective tools to improve anti-corruption governance.

If addressing corruption was not difficult enough, Najib is facing an even more challenging politics of religion in Malaysia as he continues to find a balance between the freedom and equality of all religions and the calls for the primacy of Islam over the rights of other communities.

With the issues of the Bible and the use of Malay terms such as ‘Allah’ in religious texts still unresolved and numerous legal cases outstanding, finding the right balance between communities is hard as groups on all sides are not satisfied with how the matters have been handled.

More pressure to assure Electoral Integrity

Even more important for the election process is the Election Commission, which reports to the prime minister. By any standard, its performance was below par and did not match the professionalism that the EC is capable of.

The Sarawak electoral process was tainted – from the black-out in Senadin (right) during vote-counting to the last-minute influx of postal voters and the failure to share legal documentation (Borang 14) with all sides. These reports do not reflect well on the integrity of the electoral process.

The EC is now on the defensive, and will need to work to assure voters that it can operate with greater professionalism. Now with the examples of electoral problems fresh in the media, this issue will serve to mobilise civil society as it did in 2007.

What has permeated even further is the sense that the BN is relying more on vote-buying than on its record for political support. This perception has deepened post-Sarawak 2011 polls given the reports of vote-buying coming even from the BN in the case of Pelagus. This practice does not reflect well on Najib himself.

A mandate that is bought, not earned, is less worthy. Arguably the use of money has increased to nationally unsustainable levels. What is missing here is the appreciation that patronage networks – grassroots connections of parties – are not working as they used to and this makes campaigning for the BN even more challenging. This issue is more serious in Peninsular Malaysia than in Sabah and Sarawak.

There is also the dynamic that given the competitiveness of the election, money is not going down to the ground as some fear that a loss of power is coming and they should protect themselves. Greed within the system is costing the system further. There is increasingly no guarantee when one relies on vote-buying for support.

Erosion of Chinese Support

The loss of all its ‘safe’ seats was driven home to Sarawak’s grand old party, the SUPP. It was the hardest hit party within the BN in this election.

It is now riddled with further internal infighting over leadership and these squabbles over the spoils are preventing the serious issues of regeneration and reevaluation it needs for its own survival politically. Interests are blinding the actors to the broader political picture.

The party has to find a new direction and its leadership continues to remain resistant to change. What was sad to watch was SUPP’s dependence on Peninsular Malaysian leaders for strategy and guidance, as this party has lost its connection to the issues in Sarawak.

From the concern over children having to leave the state to find work to the fact that the business climate is increasingly unfavourable, SUPP has yet to channel the real concerns of its traditional base.

The further erosion of Chinese support from the BN has raised serious questions for the ruling coalition as a whole. Is this the fate which MCA is staring at? Will the 2006 losses that translated into further losses in 2011 be repeated in Peninsular Malaysia?

Signs are not promising for the BN Chinese component parties, as they are faced a two-prong attack – from their traditional supporters who are leaving them and from UMNO comments that further alienate Chinese support.

The fact is that the old style of fear tactics – scaring the Chinese with threats of withdrawing financial contracts – is not working to the same degree. In part, this is because the Chinese are increasingly economically independent.

It is also that the BN has yet to provide concrete reasons for the Chinese to move back, as the Economic Transformation Programme and NEP (New Economic Policy) issues have not been adequately addressed for many non-Malays, Chinese and non-Malay bumiputeras alike.

While there are concerns among some for Chinese representation in the system, the incentives to return to the BN fold are lacking. Many Chinese Malaysians continue to find the opposition message of inclusion and fairer governance more attractive.

BN needs to regain momentum

In the wake of Sarawak polls, the BN momentum at the end of the 16 by-elections has slowed, and arguably has grinded to a halt. Unlike the by-election contests, especially from Hulu Selangor onwards, BN did not set the tone and direction of the Sarawak electoral campaign.

The BN has now moved from the offensive to the defensive. There is now more political uncertainty, and the reality is that when this happened, there is economic uncertainty as well. The task for regaining the momentum for BN is challenging indeed, especially given the increased tensions within the ruling coalition itself and the salience of national policy issues involving Sarawak.

In short, the bruises have left their mark on the BN and it will need time to heal before it steps back into the electoral ring.

DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University and she can be reached at She was in Sarawak to observe the state election.