Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Single Party Dominance in Sarawak and the Prospects for Change

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Single Party Dominance in Sarawak and the Prospects for Change

Article excerpt

Malaysia, an exemplar of single party dominance, experienced a major change in political hegemony at the 2008 General Elections. The incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) government was returned to power but without a two-thirds majority in parliament. It also lost administrative control of five states. Since then much has been said about the 2008 elections. William Case, for instance, after considering the BN's lack of ruling legitimacy and conformation to procedures, concludes that the electorate voted in concerted protest, (1) which resulted in an electoral setback dubbed by some commentators as a "political tsunami". Using quantitative analytical tools to analyse the factors underlying the elections results, Thomas Pepinsky views the results as a "landmark" event. (2) Andreas Ufen echoes this view, declaring the elections to be a "watershed" event in Malaysia's history. (3) Meredith Weiss attributes the outcome of the "political tsunami" to the roles played by civil society activists. (4) These analyses have, to a large extent, given the impression that democratic change has affected the whole of Malaysia. Within the state of Sarawak, however, single party dominance remains intact.

The most recent electoral contest in Malaysia in 2011, which was confined to the state of Sarawak, was held with high anticipation of change. The man at the centre of attention, Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, had been accused of corruption, nepotism, cronyism and mismanaging the state's resources. Against a strong and united opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR), which comprises Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Se-Islam Malaysia (PAS), the election posed a challenge to the incumbent government. Even though a majority of the electorate voted in favour of the BN, there are signs that a political transition is at hand.

This paper focuses its discussion on single party dominance in Sarawak. It provides a detailed analysis of how the BN regime maintains firm control over the state apparatus and examines the factors that may contribute to its downfall. Specifically, it identifies the revolt of urban voters, the emergence of a strong opposition coalition and the absence of a suitable successor to Chief Minister Taib Mahmud as possible factors that may result in a transition from single party dominance.

Sarawak in Turbulent Times

Located on the island of Borneo in East Malaysia, Sarawak is the largest state in the country. Slightly more than half of its 2.5 million people live in major cities such as Kuching, Miri, Sibu and Bintulu. Kuching, the administrative capital, has the largest population of approximately 600,000, followed by Miri (281,300), Sibu (257,800) and Bintulu (199,900). (5) These cities are mainly populated by Chinese-Malaysians. Unlike Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak is rather unique because none of its twenty-seven ethnic groups form a majority. The main ethnic groups include Iban (28.9 per cent), Chinese (23.4 per cent), Malay (23 per cent), Bidayuh (8 per cent) and Melanau (5 per cent). The non-Muslim indigenous groups are collectively known as Dayaks. The two biggest ethnic groups within the Dayak community are the Ibans and Bidayuhs. While the majority of the population are Christians, the state is also home to large numbers of Muslims and Buddhists.

Prior to its entry into Malaysia in 1963, Sarawak was an independent state under British control. As the British considered the future of the state, the Prime Minister of Malaya, Tunku Abdul Rahman, suggested the creation of the Federation of Malaysia comprising Peninsular Malaya, Sarawak, Sabah, Brunei and Singapore. In order to gain the support of the people of Sarawak for the federation, Tunku Abdul Rahman promised the people of Sarawak that they would enjoy rapid socio-political development as well as "special rights". (6) These rights included, among others, the use of English as the official language for all purposes, no official religion in the state constitution and Bumiputra status would be accorded to all indigenous races. …

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