Julian Tagal

Dr. Julian Tagal is an Ophthalmologist based at Sarawak General Hospital in Kuching. He is passionate about all things Sarawakian. Brickbats and feedback: drjuliantagal@gmail.com



As the dust settles on the 2016 Sarawak State Elections, Barisan has won by a landslide – 72 of 82 seats or 87% – in excess of the two thirds majority required for unilateral amendments to legislation.

In the run up to polling day, Sarawak Barisan has been riding high, surfing on the wave of popularity enjoyed by Tan Sri Adenan Satem, Sarawak’s fifth and current Chief Minister. Nary a street or city block can be navigated without glimpsing his formidable visage on billboards, posters and banners.

This popularity has translated seamlessly into a landslide for Barisan, as urban, Chinese majority Democratic Action Party (DAP) held seats in Batu Kawah, Merapong, Repok, Piasau and Dudong have been wrested away.

There has not been much joy for DAP or Party Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) in the rural areas either, with DAP losing all the rural seats it has contested in and PKR not making any additional inroads despite holding on to its two rural seats of Krian and Ba’ Kelalan.

To put this situation into context, this result came about despite the slew of financial scandals and unpopular Federal Government implemented policies over the past few years, with many Malaysians on both sides of the South China Sea hoping that a strong result for the Opposition would put additional pressure on the UMNO led Federal Government and its embattled Prime Minister.

The landslide victory has led to Barisan strengthening its hold on power in Sarawak, long deemed a fixed deposit for the ruling coalition.

Notable contrasts include the collapse of the Thai government in 1995 amidst a scandal involving land reform programs and the recent dissolution of the Moldovian government last year after a billion dollar bank scandal raised the ire of parliament.

Perusing social media in the aftermath of the election, the general sentiment of many West Malaysians was an incredulous ‘Why?’

‘Why would Sarawakians, despite being robbed and hoodwinked would continue to vote for BN?’

‘Let them be stupid.’

‘Let them continue living on trees. ’

‘Sarawakians are blind.’
The problem I have with their so called analysis is that West Malaysians have been, since 1999, operating from two sides of a political divide that is akin to the Grand Canyon. The lack of bipartisanship in the interests of the country and the failure to see past the Scales, Rocket, and Eye results in simplistic analysis that does us Sarawakians no justice.

The assertion that everyone associated with a certain camp or flag is inherently wicked or good should not be entertained, especially when considering a political landscape as diverse as Sarawak’s.

The awakening of Sarawakians to our true standing in the Federation of Malaysia as enshrined in the Malaysia Agreement, has been palpable, demonstrated in the rise of civil movements such as Sarawak 4 Sarawakians as well as SUPP’s (Sarawak United People’s Party) call for more Sarawakian autonomy within the Federation with respect to control of our oil reserves and education.

In stark contrast, DAP and PKR platformed their campaigns on issues that are rooted in Federal politics, namely the burdensome Goods and Services Tax and the 1MDB affair. Of Sarawakian affairs close to the hearts of voters including the rights to religious freedom, sanctity of our borders, and eventual autonomy over education, there was too little raised.

This brings us to the crux of the reason why the voting pattern shifted the way it did.

It is not because us Sarawakians are stupid. DAP and PKR would have us believe that Tan Sri Adenan is nothing but an UMNO puppet, citing perceived failures of his short time in office to curb illegal logging as well as to parley for more oil royalties with Putrajaya. It must be asked, at this juncture, exactly which part of these demands are reasonable.

It is unreasonable to expect overnight changes to issues that require tons of political will without first gifting him a mandate.

It is even more unreasonable to expect the electorate to instead vote into government parties who are unable to agree on seat allocations or who put up candidates who either go AWOL or are bankrupt.

It is unreasonable to vote into government parties who campaigned on abolishing GST without any coherent debate regarding an alternative source of national revenue, let alone the fact that only Parliament can abolish GST.

It is unreasonable to vote into government parties that campaign on the removal of the sitting prime minister, as if Federal issues were more important to Sarawakians than issues of autonomy.

It is not, either, solely due to money politics. DAP politicians, including Tony Pua (whom I have huge respect for, by the way) have implied that money politics was a big factor in deciding the outcome of the election.

I have two issues with this school of thought.

Firstly, while distribution of money may be a necessary condition to swaying one’s vote, it is insufficient proof, unless DAP and PKR can prove that the issues that they built their campaigns on were closer to the hearts of voters than those that Barisan campaigned on. For further proof, look no further than Ba’Kelalan, whose electorate voted in YB Baru Bian for a second term on the strength of his track record in defending NCR land, this, despite the allegations of large amounts of money used to sway voters.

Secondly, is it reasonable to blame money politics for the loss of urban seats to Barisan, when a comparable urban center in Penang was unswayed by the same ploy as alleged by DAP’s Zairil Khir Johari in 2013?

How then, should money politics be considered a major factor in influencing the outcome of the election?

Was it then, instead, caused by lower voter turnout? The voter turnout was 70% in 2016, virtually similar to that of 2011. In any case, is there any hard evidence that a higher voter turnout would have resulted in a different result?

Perusing Facebook over the past two days has been a little difficult. The majority of West Malaysian commenters seem to agree that the election results were caused by one or more (insert various nonsensical allegation here) of the reasons outlined above.

What they fail to see is that maybe, just maybe, Tan Sri Adenan and his team have hit upon what matters most to us Sarawakians. The chance to restore pride and autonomy in dictating the direction in which Sarawak should be heading in and the chance to strengthen our hand in negotiating with Putrajaya for a larger share of what is rightfully ours.

They fail to see, that it is possible to have men and women on both sides of the divide who truly have Sarawak’s interests at heart, as they have been led to believe that no one even remotely connected with the opposing camp could have their interests at heart.

They fail to see that the failure of DAP and PKR, despite what they believe, were not due to money politics, a low voter turnout, or even that Sarawakians are stupid – no, no, no. They failed because they failed to grasp the issues that are important to us.

Politics in Sarawak, despite what we’ve been led by social media to believe, should not be a zero sum game. Interfaith and inter-race coherence and multi-culturality is, and has always been our heritage, and I believe that this should extend into the political arena.

And unlike west Malaysia, where extreme polarization of political camps has led to widespread inability to see past the party flag – Sarawakians are now voting for people on both sides of the divide who will safeguard our land, with the hope of bipartisan collaboration on issues that matter to us.