Sim Kwang Yang | Dec 27, 08 12:25pm
Although the demographic composition of the various ethnic communities is vastly different from that in West Malaysia, there have been tremendous pressure from Kuala Lumpur for Sarawak politics to conform to the racial equation that exists in the Umno-led alliance on the Malayan Peninsula even before Merdeka.
The idea that then prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and Sarawak chief ministers Rahman Yakub and his nephew, Taib Mahmud (both from the partisan Rakyat Jati Sarawak, or Berjasa) shared was the creation of a Sarawak alliance dominated by Muslim/Malay/Melanau leaders with subservient Dayak and Chinese partners.
From the very beginning prior to and after Merdeka, there was this heavy tendency for federal intervention into Sarawak politics to ensure the creation of a Malay nationalist polity through Malaysia. Even then, Umno was determined to create Sarawak in its own image. This tendency at the Malayanisation of Sarawak politics was resisted by the first Iban chief minister, Stephen Kalong Ningkan of the Sarawak National Party (Snap).
For this and many other reasons, Stephen Kalong Ningkan was forcibly removed from office by a federally initiated declaration of emergency and a constitutional amendment in Parliament. A stop-gap Iban chief minister Tawi Sli was elected, and after the general election of 1970, Rahman Yakub – a Muslim Melanau – stepped in to take over the helm of Sarawak government. Muslim Melanau dominance has continued to this day.
Both Rahman and Taib were consummate Machiavellian politicians. Through their masterly manoeuvre, Berjasa and Parti Negara Sarawak (Panas) merged into a single party, finally uniting all the Sarawak Malay and Melanau Muslims under one umbrella. A further merger with the Dayak-based Parti Pesaka Anak Sarawak (Pesaka) to form the Parti Pesaka Bumiputra Bersatu Sarawak (PBB) in 1973.
Until today, PBB is the dominant partner of the Sarawak Barisan Nasional. PBB itself is a political vehicle for Melanau/Malay/Muslim dominance with a subservient Dayak arm in Pesaka, and a subservient Chinese BN component, the Sarawak United People’s Party (Supp), within the BN coalition. Umno indeed has succeeded in creating Sarawak politics in its own image.
As a result of federal intervention, the leaders from the minority Malay and Melanau communities have been able to enjoy political dominance in Sarawak, defying the logic of the politics of race in Malaysia.
Endless series of internal strife
This project for Melanau and Malay dominance in Sarawak politics has been much aided by the fractious divisiveness among Dayak politicians. In the years before and after Merdeka, the two Dayak-based parties, Snap and Pesaka, had been at loggerhead with each other over regional and historical rivalries between the Ibans of the Second and Third Divisions of Sarawak.
Snap left the Sarawak Alliance to fight for state control from the political wilderness. They almost succeeded in 1974 when they won 18 out of 48 seats in the Sarawak state general election that year. But unable to sustain themselves, they decided to rejoin the state BN soon after.
The subsequent history of Dayak politics until this day has been an endless series of acrimonious internal strife, leading to waves of formation of splinter Dayak parties. Unable to remember those dizzying series of Dayak political upheavals, I sought the help of Joseph Tawi, author of the book ‘The Broken Shield – A Chronicle of Modern Dayak Politics’, and the host of a blog by the same name.
This is what he has to report:
“PBDS was formed on July 17, 1983 when Daniel Tajem (left) was sacked from Snap for allegedly supporting an independent candidate. PBDS then joined BN-plus government. PBDS left the BN coalition on March 9, 1987, when they joined forces with Permas to form the Maju group to oust Abdul Taib Mahmud. They won 15 seats in the state election that year, but eight YBs (elected representatives) defected to Snap and PBB.
“In the 1991 state election, PBDS put up 34 Dayak and Chinese candidates. They were trounced and managed to retain only seven seats. They applied to rejoin state BN after the results were announced on Sept 29, 1991. Finally they rejoined BN on May 31, 1994.
“Power struggle in Snap in 2002 resulted in the expulsion of Tiong King Sing and the formation of Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP), followed by the deregistration of Snap on Nov 5, 2002. SPDP was registered on Nov 8 after three days of application.
“PBDS was deregistered on Oct 21, 2004 following a power struggle. Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) was registered on the same day. One year later, power struggle occurred in PRS. Since April this year, the crisis has been solved.
“Those remaining partyless members numbering about 100,000 after the deregistration of PBDS wanted to form Malaysian Dayak Congress. But the ROS (Registrar of Societies) rejected the application submitted on May 6, 2005 on grounds of security under Article 7 of Societies Act. Now appeal is still on to the Home Ministry. Now more of the ex-PBDS members are joining PKR.”
The above account shows you how messy Dayak politics can be in Sarawak. The obvious conclusion is that Dayak political leaders are too prone to fight to the death whenever there is a power struggle within their party. Their inability to resolve their differences is the despair of their supporters and commentators. The logical rhetorical question is this: if they cannot find unity among themselves, how can they hope to unite the diverse Dayak people?
The all-powerful ROS
But there is more than meets the eyes.
The shrewd observer would immediately note how awesome the power of the Registrar of Societies (ROS) can be, in dissolving political parties, in deciding which faction should retain control of the party, and in approving within days application for the formation of a new political party by a certain faction, while similar applications by other factions can be rejected on flimsy grounds.
In reality, the ROS takes order from the home minister, who answers to the prime minister in turn, and both these powerful federal offices are held by Umno bigwigs. It is then obvious that Umno and federal interference in the internal politics of Sarawak has continued to divide and weakened Dayak political base, as has been the case since the formation of Malaysia.
Another salient point is this. Upon the split of a Dayak party into two factions, the new party formed by the faction favoured by the Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud would almost immediately be accepted into the Sarawak BN, leaving the other faction in the cold. Whenever this happens, Taib consolidates his near absolute control over Sarawak politics once again, at the expense of Dayak bargaining power within the state BN.
The root cause of this particular aspect of the Dayak dilemma lies again beneath the demographic reality of Malaysia. Although the Dayaks collectively constitute the largest ethnic community within Sarawak, they form a mere 5% or 6% of the total population of Malaysia. Generally, Dayak political leaders feel that they must belong to the Barisan family in order to be effective to serve the Dayak people. Being in the opposition at federal or state level is not a long-term option.
Once exiled to the political wilderness, Dayak politicians will be excluded from the vast network of largesse made available to BN YBs by the state government administration, such as minor rural development projects and agricultural subsidy schemes.
Worst still, opposition Dayak candidates will have to face the monumental task of winning at the poll in the next general election. Electoral contests in the rural and semi-rural constituencies in Sarawak are notoriously expensive, and vote buying in one form or another is the norm rather than the exception. In sharp contrast, BN Dayak candidates have at their disposal seemingly inexhaustible campaign funds.
They need statemen, not politicians
In this context, the arrival of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) in a big way in recent days offer many fresh and interesting opportunities for political redemption for Dayak politics in Sarawak.
The Pakatan Rakyat, of which Anwar Ibrahim is the leader, already controls five state governments in West Malaysia. They have shown how federal opposition parties can form government at the state level and bring in reform for the benefit of the people.
They have also announced their intention to march to Putrajaya, and so offer hope for Dayak politicians to free themselves from this fatal slavish dependence on the federal BN.
It is now a famous lesson that if aspiring reformers want to bring meaningful change to their own society, then they must first reform themselves. As Obama used to say on his campaign trail, “We are the change that we seek.”
It is now obvious that appealing to mere ethnic unity has come to a dead end for Dayak politics. If Dayak leaders want to liberate their people from the bondage of ignorance and poverty, they must seek alliance with similarly depressed and disenfranchised ethnic communities to form a pan-Sarawak people’s movement for radical change. They must rethink their agenda, and begin a new conversation based on the common good of all. They need statesmen, not mere politicians.
In this critical process, PKR offers a suitable vehicle, because their ideology speaks of Ketuanan Rakyat, or people’s dominance. To resolve the Dayak dilemma, the Dayaks will have to seek redress in more universal inclusive and non-ethnic terms.