Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The 2004 Ba' Kelalan By-Election in Sarawak, East Malaysia: The Lun Bawang Factor and Whither Representative Democracy in Malaysia

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The 2004 Ba' Kelalan By-Election in Sarawak, East Malaysia: The Lun Bawang Factor and Whither Representative Democracy in Malaysia

Article excerpt

Introduction

In Malaysia, a by-election is held when a constituency falls vacant because of the death of the incumbent; disqualification (of a sitting incumbent) upon transgressing a law; or resignation (Jawan 2003). In 2004, after the general election, the nation witnessed another two crucial elections in Terengganu and Sarawak. The Kuala Berang by-election in Terengganu was conducted after its incumbent, the late Kamaruddin Abdul Rahman, died of a heart attack on 30 July while the by-election in Ba' Kelalan was held after the death of Dr Judson Sakai Tagal, the two-term assemblyman of the geographically remote constituency. These by-elections reflect Malaysia's parliamentary democratic process, which grants people the right to choose their leaders to represent them at the state and federal levels. Unlike the Kuala Berang by-election, that in Ba' Kelalan was unique because the constituency is home to no less than five ethnic groups (with the Lun Bawang and Kelabit making up the majority) and the fact that this was the first time the Ba' Kelalan constituents had the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights.

The Ba' Kelalan constituency was formerly part of the Lawas state constituency. During the delineation exercise in 1995, Ba' Kelalan was removed from Lawas and made into a new seat. The Ba' Kelalan constituency has a total of 7,696 registered voters with 70 per cent of them Orang Ulus (Lun Bawang/Kelabit), 1.2 per cent Chinese, 0.8 per cent Bidayuh, 0.9 per cent Malay/Melanau, and 0.1 per cent others. (1) It is situated deep in the interior of Sarawak and relatively inaccessible. Presently, the only convenient mode of transport to the area is by air. The constituents in Ba' Kelalan have never voted for their leader before because the late Judson Sakai won uncontested for two consecutive terms in 1996 and 2001. Thus, the by-election provided the opportunity for the constituents to exercise their right to vote. After the Malaysian Election Commission (EC) announced that a by-election would be conducted in Ba' Kelalan, there was an anxious wait for the possible candidates to replace Dr Sakai, regarded by many as a respected and committed leader. The selection of candidates in the by-election became an issue in the media. First, on the Barisan Nasional (BN) side, party lobbyists came up with several names, which included highly educated Orang Ulu professionals; second, at the party level, senior leaders proposed no less than five names; and third, at the grassroots, there was a strong indication that the constituents wanted someone who was of the calibre and had the "midas touch" of Dr Sakai.

As expected, in the Ba' Kelalan by-election, the politics of development resurfaced amidst the gradual decline of Dr Mahathir Mohamad's influence in Malaysia's mainstream politics. At the beginning of the campaign period, leaders from BN and the opposition moved in and out of Ba' Kelalan, trying to obtain as many votes as possible. BN's platform of developing Ba' Kelalan and improving its socio-economy helped the party to obtain more votes from the largely Christian constituents. Unexpectedly, as rumours spread that the BN candidate would win the by-election, a prominent Lun Bawang lawyer turned up and offered himself as an independent candidate. Unlike the BN candidate, the independent candidate seemed to rely on native customary land rights as an alternative platform to the politics of development propagated by the former. The Ba' Kelalan by-election was not a "clash" between two Lun Bawang personalities per se, rather, it was a question of whether the politics of development would be able to break the social cohesion of the Lun Bawang and Kelabit communities. To reiterate, the Ba' Kelalan by-election was unique because of two reasons: (i) it tested Malaysia's representative democracy, (2) which allows the people to choose a leader that they want to represent them; and (ii) it would determine whether the Ba' Kelalan constituents would vote for a candidate who relied on the politics of development and a vast network with other BN parties across Malaysia or a candidate whose ideals rested on strong religious beliefs and a concern for social justice. …

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