ANALYSIS, April 16 — Up to a million Sarawakians go to the polls today in what has become a referendum on Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud’s 30 years as chief minister of Malaysia’s largest state.
As the country’s longest-serving head of government, the 74-year-old has been accused of being a corrupt nepotist and lauded for developing a state once covered with the world’s oldest rainforest.
Results from what Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has called the stiffest contest in Sarawak’s history will tell us which narrative the Sarawak public really believes.
Seemingly, every issue — whether land grabs or corruption — that has been played up by the opposition over the 10-day campaign finds its final source in the Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) president.
Even the seizure of Malay-language bibles is seen through the frame of an increasing racial divide between the Malay-Melanau Muslims that Taib’s administration is accused of favouring and the mostly Christian Dayak and Chinese population.
It has forced the man Sarawakians call “Pek Moh (white hair)” to label the federal government’s move to mark Malay-language bibles as “stupid”.
This is not the only clash between the federal and Sarawak BN.
BN chairman Najib, sensing the growing disaffection towards Taib, pleaded with Sarawakians to “believe him” that the chief minister would step down after the polls.
But Taib said almost immediately he would only step down in a few years and refused to set a timeline for his long-awaited retirement.
This was not lost on veteran politician Lim Kit Siang, whose DAP is the oldest Pakatan Rakyat (PR) party in Sarawak.
“It is not that the Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak is not aware of Sarawak Barisan Nasional’s Achilles heel but even he is impotent as far as getting Taib to step down as chief minister,” the DAP parliamentary leader said.
Najib clearly sees Taib as a liability in this election. Ironically, while he is expected to use today’s vote as a barometer for when to call federal polls, he has been forced to shelve his duties as prime minister to beef up BN’s campaign in Sarawak.
Camping out in the state, he has twice postponed new announcements for his much-hyped Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) that aims to double Malaysia’s per capita income by 2020, a key pillar of his strategy to hold onto Putrajaya.
In effect, the Umno president has put his own credibility and his 1 Malaysia concept on the line.
He has himself gone to meet church leaders to smooth out the Alkitab row, promising in his capacity as prime minister that no bibles would ever be seized by his administration.
As P. Ramakrishnan, president of civil rights group Aliran said yesterday, the federal government itself is campaigning in Sarawak.
Najib’s approval rating at the end of last year was still riding high at 69 per cent. The question is whether this can gloss over the anti-Taib sentiment on the ground.
If Taib falls — or even fails to retain two-thirds majority — then so too does Najib’s 1 Malaysia.
Any PR gains will likely see the Chinese backing the opposition while the Malay-Melanaus stick with BN.
Such a result would bring to the surface the kind of racial politics that already consumes the peninsula, a clear backward step for 1 Malaysia that Najib has promoted since taking office in 2009.