ANALYSIS, April 14 — The Sarawak election campaign has brought to the surface racial undercurrents in the state that have been festering due to a growing urban-rural divide.
Alleged favouritism towards Malay-Melanaus and the rise of companies related to the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) have fed dissatisfaction among other ethnic groups.
These economic concerns have brought into sharp focus the communal politics here that has been kept under wraps during decades of uninterrupted BN rule.
Saturday's state election is expected to see the DAP making extensive gains in Chinese-majority seats with BN continuing to dominate Malay-Melanau areas.
PKR is also confident of making inroads with Dayak voters, who have consistently thrown their support behind BN in the past.
This would mirror the situation in the peninsula, where Pakatan Rakyat (PR) has raked in over two-thirds of Chinese votes since the 2008 general election but found its support among Malays and Indians slipping.
While peninsula politics has been more racialised compared to Sarawak which lacks the heated rhetoric of special positions, quotas and “jangan cabar hak kita (don't challenge our rights),” it does not mean race is not a factor in the state at all.
Conversations with ordinary Sarawakians on what kind of Sarawak they want show that their identity as part of a bigger ethnic group features strongly.
The future of that community is also a strong undercurrent that will influence how they will vote on April 16.
No clear majority
A prominent Sarawak blogger once said the reason why relations between the different ethnic groups are more harmonious than the peninsula is that no one group can form a clear majority.
Roughly speaking, Sarawak society is 40-30-30, Dayaks being the “40” and the Chinese and Malay/Melanaus, comprising each of the “30s”. But even among the Dayaks there are dozens of ethnic sub-groups such as the Bidayuh, Iban and Orang Ulu, each with their own unique language.
A peculiar classification is the Malay-slash-Melanau. This is where the Constitution forces itself onto a local condition and tries to make it conform to its demands.
Melanaus have their own culture and language which is a whole world away from official Bahasa Malaysia. Almost all Melanaus are either Christian or Muslim.
But when a Melanau is Muslim, they can also be classified as “Malay” and get with it a whole set of privileges.
Andie Bakom, an Iban pensioner, complained that when Dayaks try for more senior positions in either the local or federal level civil service, few get through.
“Kalau you ‘bin’ senang sikit. Kalau you ‘ak’, susah (if you are a 'bin' it is easier, if you are an 'ak' it is more difficult),” he said, adding it explains why there are very few at the upper echelons of the bureaucracy. (Bin is a term used for Muslims while ak is “anak kepada”, which Dayaks use.)
One of Bakrom’s neighbours in the Sungai Aup longhouse, James, complained of how the Ibans in the Sibu area have been pushed out of business ownership.
His comments further reflect a frustration about the unofficial hierarchy of privilege among the indigenous natives of Sarawak.
“Where are the Bumiputera businesses in Sibu? They only trade in the market. Even all the food stalls, they are all Melanau. They are not Malays, they all speak Melanau. The others are Chinese.”
My race against yours, Sarawak style
In the town centre of Sibu, the only pictures of Chief Minister Taib are the ones where he is pilloried as a robber-baron.
A particularly huge one next to the Sibu district police headquarters has Taib and Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng side by side.
On the left is a smiling Lim in a Western suit. On the right is sinister Taib with a sneer, dark glasses and the Melanau cloth cap called a sengkulon.
A five-minute drive away is Kampung Nangka, Sibu’s Malay and Melanau enclave. Here, posters of an affable Taib are strung up along with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Nangka BN candidate Dr Anwar Rapee.
The contrast between the Chinese-majority areas and Nangka is not lost among residents. BN and Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) have been quick to point this out.
“The more the DAP attacks Taib, the more entrenched BN’s support is among the people of Nangka,” said a BN activist who flew in from the peninsula to help the campaign.
Half of the houses in Nangka have strung up the trademark dark blue “dacing” (scales) on their verandas, porches and fences.
One resident, who wanted to be called Ahmad Rozad, said "as bad as people make out Taib to be at least he is a Muslim. If there was a non-Muslim on top, “habis lah orang Islam (Muslims will be finished).”
The DAP has tried to eliminate any racial overtones from its campaign, said secretary-general Lim Guan Eng.
“I admit it’s a problem and we are working on it,” Lim said when pointed out that its ceramahs, flyers and campaign message were Chinese-centric.
Yet for the ordinary grassroots activist, it is easy to frame the campaign through an ethnic lens.
When asked what are the PR’s chances in taking over Sarawak, a DAP supporter said “the only thing holding us back are the Ibans and the Malay-Melanaus.”
In the tsunami’s wake
Universiti Malaysia Sarawak political scientist Dr Andrew Aeria traces this strong racial undercurrent as coming from 30 years of Umno-led, federal BN rule.
It's seen in how Sarawak BN’s multiracial parties have been refashioned to be dominated by one race — PBB by Muslim Bumiputeras, Sarawak United People's Party by elite Chinese and Parti Rakyat Sarawak by Dayaks.
“With increasing racialisation of politics by BN, the opposition has also responded accordingly.
“DAP is largely emerging as a champion for Chinese business interests and PKR is being pushed into mainly representing rural Dayak and Muslim Bumiputera interests,” said Aeria.
Nangka’s BN candidate Dr Annuar Rapa’ee does not feel that the coming political fragmentation of Sarawak — the Chinese overwhelmingly supporting the opposition and BN representing everyone else — as a problem.
“It’s just a voting trend. It’s not a race thing. Where else in Malaysia can you go and find Chinese coffeeshops with Muslim food sellers? I believe in my area the Chinese will support me based on my personality,” said the 47-year-old cardiologist.
Aeria, however, feels that if the DAP wins big, as many predict, it’s just a matter of time before Sarawak will see the emotionally-charged racial rhetoric of the peninsula.
“Muslim Bumiputera interests and native Dayak interests being pitted against Chinese interests will suit both BN and DAP as it will allow both to continue playing up their respective chauvinistic constituencies for their own narrow interests,” he said.
So if the 2008 tsunami does come to Sarawak on April 16 as the PR hopes, it will ironically bring both change and strife in its wake.