Sunday, July 12

Battle for Chinese votes


WHEN taxi driver Chong Foo Seng speculated that 30 per cent of Chinese voters would swing back to the BarisanNasional in the coming State election, it came as a surprise to me.

After more than 10 years listening to damning comments about the government from cabbies,I detected a hint of departure from the usual anti-establishment vitriol in Chong’s postulation. It certainly sounds like a totally different kind of tune.

While affirming that Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Adenan’s administration is heading in the right direction, he, however,pointed out that due to previously built-up distrust towards the government, the majority of the Chinese community are still sceptical andit is only after the new policies of the State government have taken effect that the community will be convinced of the reforms introduced to give a fairer deal.

Since Chong is only Kuching Division Taxi Association chairman who is neither a political observer with a doctorate in political science nor a seasoned politician conversant with the power of rhetorical manipulation, his statement may be dismissed as without basis and should not be taken seriously.

However, in my years of covering politics, I have talked to many taxi drivers and they have proven uncannily accurate in reflecting the general mood ofvoters. Hence, I prefer not to underestimate Chong’s power of foresight.

Adenan’s 51 Initiatives are, no doubt, working. The question now is to what degree can they remove the distrust the Chinese community have built up over the years towards the ruling party?

After consolidating his power in 1990,former prime ministerTun Dr Mahathir Mohammad initiated a series of economic and education policies to uplift the socio-economic status of Bumiputeras. The Chinese community, especially from the middle and lower income groups, felt sidelined by such federal policies. Compounding their disillusionment was the ineffectiveness in addressing their grievances by the Chinese cabinet ministers.

The community’s pent-up feelings of disenchantment found expression in an about-turn to the opposition – and Sarawak was not spared the political tsunami.

A quota system found in many areas – business, university intake, civil service, government projects, financial aid and scholarships, and even recruitment for teachers training – was another divisive issue.

Many little napoleons working in government departments made things worse by imposing unfair policies. The situation was aggravated by Malaysia being declared a Muslim state ultra vires the Constitution.

For the past two decades, the Chinese community in Sarawak, in response to government policies they strongly felt were “unfair”to them,vented their frustrations and discontentment through protest votes in the 15 Chinese-majority seats, starting with the 1996 State election.

It was, thus, not surprising that during polling that year, DAP started gaining a foothold in State politics with the late Wong Ho Leng defeating Tan Sri Wong Soon Kai in Bukit Assek, Wong Sing Nang taking over Pelawan and Kidurong going to Wong Sing Ai. In that election, the opposition managed to secure nine per cent out of the total votes cast. However, at that time, this was widely seen by the ruling party as just an impulsive reaction and a spur-of-the-momentexpression of frustration.

In the next State election in 2001, BN managed to wrest back all the seats lost, except Kidurong. But it must be noted that during this round, the displeasure of the Chinese community did not diminish but continued to simmer below the surface.

Admittedly, some quarters in the community were uncertain, fearing political and, thus, economic repercussions, if they continued to remain defiant while others hoped returning to BN would mean more decent treatment of the community as promised by the Chinese politicians. Moreover, after years of supporting the government, most of the Chinese community were unaccustomed to the idea of being with the opposition.

However, their return to the BN in 2001 did not change things for the better for the community. In fact, things got worse in certain areas. For example, after the retirement of Chinese civil servants who joined the government service in the 70’s and 80’s, those from the community who remained were countable because intakes of new Chinese civil servants were not a consideration after the 1990’s.

Five years on in the 2006 State election, the Chinese community for the made up their minds to vote opposition. The ruling coalition was hard hit. Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) suffered its worst defeat since becoming a component party of the State BN, losing six of the 15 seats it contested: Meradong, Bukit Assek, Kidurong, Pending, BatuLintang and Kota Sentosa to DAP, and Padungan to PKR’s Dominique Ng. Total support given to DAP and PKR was 24 per cent due to the big voter population in Chinese-majority seats.

Amidst emerging signs of an opposition surge, SUPP conducted a series of talks on transformation. The party obviously needed a facelift and renewal from within to reinvent itself and stay relevant. Before that could happen, another crucial factor that swayed the voting of the Chinese community to the opposition was that government policies had remained unchanged despite the election promises.

Through the unlimited reach of the Internet, the Chinese community became increasingly aware of their political and social rights. In Peninsular Malaysia,the political situation was racially and religiously polarised, leading to the schism widening between the Chinese community and the government. As a result, the community became even more alienated from BN.

The Chinese community have learnt to expect the worst for not voting for the government and how to deal with it. They believe the government would never help and stand up for them but had instead hindered their development by laying down restrictions. Even the Chinese electorates who were BN loyalists before had a change of mindset.

By the 2011 State election, the Chinese community were beyond the reach of the ruling party. In fact, at that time, their unhappiness and distrust of the government were so deep-rooted that some political observers joked that even if the opposition were to field a monkey in a Chinese-majority area, the monkey would win. They used to say that about BN.

In the ballot that year, SUPP managed to retain only two seats – BawangAssan and Senadin– not because of Chinese support but rather, the high percentage of Bumiputeravoters in these two constituencies.The biggest blow was the defeat in Miri of SUPP’s giant Tan Sri Dr George Chan by a young David in DAP’s Ling Sie Kiong.

DAP state chairman Wong Ho Leng won Bukit Assek with a big majority, so did the other DAP candidates. The support for DAP and PKR was as high as 37 per cent of the total votes cast. The Chinese community had made a political statement.

Then Adenan came on the scene. In the initial stage, many in the Chinese community were dazed by his unprecedented moves. Never before have the community been given such positive treatment and attention by the government. What is most important is Adenan’s firm commitment to rectify the imbalances against the community in terms of fair treatment. Whether it is a perception or the truth, the chief minister’s strategies are working. But can they disarm the distrust built over the past two decades? They just well might. For instance,he has already succeeded in winning over cabbie Chong, a sceptic.

Despite federal policies favouring one ethnic group over the others, racism has never been an issue in Sarawak. The inter-racial harmony in the State has given birth to a Chinese community with a peaceful, moderate and trusting nature. Their loss of faithin the government had been due to policies which were perceivably discriminatory against them but with genuine concern for their welfare from Adenan, many Chinese are starting to regain their faith in the government and return to BN.

What Chong said about Adenan’s policies resulting in 30 per cent of Chinese voters returning to BN is an observation not without basis. Being practical and pragmatic, the Chinese community will give Adenan a chance. What the chief minister needs is,perhaps, another nudge – this time to identify credible candidates.

Presently, in most Chinese-majority areas, the fighting chance for BN and the opposition is 50-50. Credible candidates from BN will tilt the balance by a substantial percentage.