Is there a silent story to the merger?

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Tiong (second left) exchanging MoU documents with Wong after the signing ceremony held in Kuala Lumpur in July 2023. — Photo by Khoo Kay Hean/Oriental Daily

THE dominant narrative on party mergers among political critics is that these mergers are motivated by election outcomes, trends and expectations.

Political relevance and survival have so become important crucial differentiators. Students of political science would typically concentrate on issues related to change and adaptation, almost based on a prescribed theoretical framework.

In a dynamic socio-political setting, a party that is risk-cautious and wants to keep its popularity from declining is likely to work with a relatively established party that shares its political goals and vision, is accommodating and can be trusted. Overcoming a political low is not a dishonourable deed in an electoral democracy.

On the contrary, it serves as a gauge of political reality and the maturity of political actors.

Parties that are not afraid to take chances will also merge because they think that the merger will attract greater attention, even if this is not always the case in theory or practice.

Factors for merger

The majority of the literature on political power and electoral politics acknowledges that party mergers are fuelled by three primary types of factors working together.

These comprise inter-party elements and intra-party variables that affect dynamics inside parties, and contextual variables that affect interactions between potential merger partners. Politicians and students of politics alike will find the behavioural pattern of these dynamics and their interlocking relationship fascinating.

As mentioned earlier, political concerns may unite individuals who might not otherwise get along. There is no set course.

Expediency and convenience are what matter at the time. Shakespeare’s celebrated line, ‘politics makes strange bedfellows’, from ‘The Tempest,’ emphasises the fleeting nature of politics.

There can be times when politics breaks norms and regulated thought processes. It is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.

Given its transiency, we need to have an open and observant mind on the proposed Progressive Democratic Party (PDP)-Parti Sarawak Bersatu (PSB) merger, which is still in the works, even if it means acknowledging that PSB members would soon join the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) in a different capacity through a new vehicle, which is the PDP-PSB merger.

Initially, it may incur the displeasure of a particular GPS component for which bitter memories of old may still haunt and hurt.

Greater inclusivity

However, the power of political unanimity and a general awareness for increased inclusivity and continued stability should have outweighed any remaining residual impacts, if any, after two decades, and steered them away from the ‘old story’.

Sarawakians are generally forgiving, and they expect politicians to act likewise and resolve any disagreement in the interest of unity and stability.

Never undervalue the public’s sentiment. They see the bigger picture of harmony, stability and an ecosystem conducive to economic development and progress.

How inclusive and open are we, therefore, if we are to live up to our claims, unless some feel like they are losing their footing and are susceptible to the political ghosts of the past that are vanishing?

All things considered, we ought to continue to be watchful and receptive, given that the merger may provide PSB the chance to be back in the mainstream fold.

Premier Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg, the president of Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) and chairman of GPS, will ultimately decide after weighing the pros and cons and after conferring with the leaders of the GPS components.

Since the time of Barisan Nasional (BN), GPS has possessed an inherent quality that gives the leader a tremendous lot of acceptable clout and genuine influence.

Whether there was a casual conversation between Datuk Seri Tiong King Sing of PDP and Dato Sri Wong Soon Koh of PSB and the GPS chairman prior to the announcement of the planned merger, has left the public wondering.

Abang Johari is undoubtedly holding his cards close to his chest, and we are not privy to it.

At best, political critics can only make deductions and draw inferences.

Stepping up to the plate

But when Dato Sri Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah, the vice-president of PBB, stood out among his peers to speak favourably of the planned merger, did he unwittingly reveal something?

Has he stepped up to the plate on his own accord, or has he cleverly read between the lines and deciphered the subtle clues?

As if giving thumbs up to the proposed merger, Abdul Karim – the state Minister for Tourism, Creative Industry and Performing Arts – even stated that he had not witnessed PSB, a partner in the merger, running down GPS recently, and that the party had been supportive of the state government’s policy.

It was pretty much said in a measured manner that made political pundits readily figure out the response. Abdul Karim even capped it with a pointed statement that anything that could unite Sarawakians ‘is good’.

Since then, Abdul Karim’s claim has not been refuted. It has, however, been used as a basis for several inferences that hint to the possibility of the merger.

Abang Johari’s pro-growth policy

PDP and PSB have agreed to support one another because they both want to see prosperity and political stability in the nation, and Sarawak. According to PSB president Dato Sri Wong Soon Koh, the intention behind his decision to endorse PDP was to make it possible for the state administration led by the Premier, and the federal government led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, to move forward with the economic development plan without any problems.

In the event that the merger should go through, GPS would benefit – it would become numerically stronger, which would strengthen Abang Johari’s position as both the Premier of Sarawak and chairman of the GPS.

This is encouraging for developing and implementing policies under the transformation strategy before Sarawak’s target year of 2030 to become a developed state.

The tradition and practices inherent in Sarawak’s GPS political system are nuanced by the acceptance of the status quo and the predominance of majority authority. In many ways, this represents the GPS political ecology and the power relations between PBB, the major party, and the other constituent parties of Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), and PDP, whose total is less than PBB’s.

Common ground within GPS framework

The proposed merger of PDP and PSB is situated within this political context set against the backdrop of a socially and ethnically diverse population.

The GPS ecosystem is a microcosm of this. It is here that the proponents identify their common ground and seek to enlarge the opportunity for representation in a purposeful manner within the broader framework of GPS.

The discussion on the proposed merger with admission to GPS to follow raises some pertinent and defining questions.

First, does GPS have more to gain or lose if merger is accepted into the ruling coalition?

Second, will SUPP, hitherto PSB’s adversary, veto the admission of the merger into GPS, even if the chairman Abang Johari were to decide favourably?

Abang Johari is in a strong commanding position, and it would be imprudent for any component leaders to disagree over his choice for reasons more than just political gain.

GPS – Clear choice for political stability

Why GPS? In the event that the merger materialises, GPS is the clear choice to establish and grow its roots, as it is a fortress for political stability and equitable representation of ethnic and religious groups in Sarawak.

GPS holds a strong and steady leadership position in politics, as seen by its consistent performance in elections over the past few decades with renewed mandates to rule Sarawak – the latest being its thumping victory in the Jepak by-election on Nov 4, 2023.

Given the current situation, it is obvious that a merger that operates independently of GPS would be a wasteful and politically stupid move. It is important to remember that PDP is already a part of GPS, and that PSB may tangentially join GPS as a result of the merger.

Being the biggest stakeholder in GPS and the backbone of the Sarawak government, PBB holds substantial sway over whether the ‘merger’ would lead to its GPS membership. Given PBB’s clout in politics and range of influential positions in government, the merger would be seen favourably as it would enable GPS to expand political support and promote stability throughout Sarawak.

By approving the merger into the GPS family, the political landscape will be cleared of the ‘unwanted ghosts’ of resistance and unjustified criticism. The pledge of support for Prime Minister Anwar by four opposition Bersatu MPs offers credence to this harsh political reality.

It has become fashionable to embrace the bigger cause of unification as a means of facilitating greater economic progress.

Mood of acceptance

Up until the GPS boss decides to give the all-clear to talk, the majority of GPS leaders stayed mute on the proposed merger.

But Abdul Karim decided to deviate from the safe imaginary line and speak favourably of PDP and PSB’s political cooperation following the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the two parties in Kuala Lumpur.

“Why not?” was Karim’s reaction to the question on the proposed PDP-PSP merger.

It was direct and unapologetic. The statement that followed has not been contested by those in the inner and outer circles of power. Reports state that the public reacted favourably to it, voting in favour of continued stability, more power sharing, and increased inclusivity.

The widespread mood of acceptance amongst the public is positive, which is good for the merger’s beginning. Abdul Karim’s claim has not been refuted since then, and it has been the basis for other inferences that suggest the possibility of the merger and GPS’s approval of the latter.

In the context of GPS, a top-down perspective alone may result in conflicting interpretations and make power play appear to be a silent narrative.

The ensuing discussions about the merger may bring up more questions and concerns than they can possibly address.

What positive outcome next?

The signing of the merger accord is imminent and a date in December has been set aside. It is assumed that the major considerations affecting the two parties, PDP and PSB, have been legally resolved ahead of the historic signing.

Equally telling is PDP president Datuk Seri Tiong King Sing’s statement on the coming signing of the merger: “We came together as we believe in our Premier, and we will put Sarawak first.” And he thanked the Premier for ‘the opportunity for the two parties to work together to serve the people and state government of Sarawak under the Premier who gave us the full support’.

These are loaded statements, albeit short and tacit, by Tiong that offer clear pointers on the merger’s future road ahead.

They could be a little part of the silent story to the merger. Still, we are not privy to the full story, even if there is one.

* Toman Mamora is ‘Tokoh Media Sarawak 2022’, recipient of Shell Journalism Gold Award (1996) and AZAM Best Writer Gold Award (1998). He remains true to his decades-long passion for critical writing as he seeks to gain insight into some untold stories of societal value.