Treacherous minefield of Sarawak’s ethnic politics

JOHN TEO | NST Online
2010/04/09

A SEEMINGLY casual remark by state Minister of Social Development and president of the Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP) Datuk Seri William Mawan Ikom that the Sarawak Barisan Nasional had better watch against internal political foes has opened up some daylight among the four parties in the otherwise mostly cohesive state ruling coalition.

Mawan’s ministerial counterpart and president of another Dayak-based party, the Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), Datuk Seri Dr James Jemut Masing, was quick with a rejoinder, saying his party lost the Ngemah state seat to Parti Cinta Malaysia state founder-member Gabriel Adit Demong last time around precisely because of such intra-BN bickering.

The Mawan-Masing sparring apparently has boiled to the surface since a group of five elected representatives from SPDP, led by state assistant minister Datuk Peter Nansian Nguse, went public over a month ago about its differences with Mawan and expressed its desire to speed up the long-touted merger between SPDP and PRS.

Both SPDP and PRS were parties of equals, more or less, in the intermittent merger talks between them until the near-defection of the SPDP five heavily tipped the scales in favour of PRS.

Except for the occasional verbal volleys through the media between both parties, the open rebellion of the SPDP five against their party president and their joint appearances with the PRS president have ground to a stalemated limbo that looks increasingly odd each day it remains unresolved.

Mawan has shown admirable patience by so far only using public persuasion in a bid to coax his five elected party rebels back to the party fold. He must know that taking a hard line in disciplining the rebels will severely test his young party and may well lead to a very damaging split in the party, itself already a splinter from the Sarawak National Party (SNAP).

The five are also smart enough not to resign from SPDP and join PRS en bloc because while they may immediately boost PRS’s representation in both Parliament (there are two members of parliament in the group) and the state assembly in so doing, BN convention means the five seats are still SPDP’s to contest come the next election. The five current incumbents will have to stand as independents if they want to defend their seats after leaving SPDP.

The odd-looking stalemate will likely be broken only with outside intervention, most probably by Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud. With the next state election to be called any time within a year, this will be a major headache the state BN chief does not need.

It will not be the only political headache for Taib.

The recent elevation of a Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) assemblyman — the party’s sole Chinese elected state representative in the whole greater Kuching area — to an assistant minister’s post in turn leaves vacant the chairmanship of the Padawan Municipal Council, formerly the Kuching Rural District Council.

Lobbying for that vacant post has turned decidedly ugly, threatening to further divide an already weakened SUPP. Sections within SUPP are adamant that political tradition be followed and a Chinese be appointed to fill the vacancy.

That, in turn, has elicited some rather emotional appeals from a minority within the SUPP membership who are Bidayuhs. These Bidayuhs think their long-standing loyalty to the party deserves to be politically rewarded now with appointment of one of their own to the post. Their appeals are helpfully buttressed by the fact that the other SUPP assemblyman from within the municipality happens to be a Bidayuh.

Unhelpfully, though, Bidayuh politicians from outside SUPP have turned this into a community cause and made some rather ill-considered arguments in support of the SUPP Bidayuhs.

Bidayuh politicians in all BN parties apparently have had their appetites whetted when they succeeded in promoting one of their members of parliament, Datuk Dr James Dawos Mamit, to be deputy tourism minister.

That appointment put a Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) Pesaka wing member to fill a vacancy opened up by a resigning PBB Bumiputera wing member. That and the fact that almost all BN Bidayuh elected representatives now hold cushy government positions at both state and federal levels are points not lost on PBB Bumiputera members and members from the dominant Iban community in the PBB Pesaka wing.

Such is the treacherous political minefield of ethnic politics in Sarawak that some dread the day when the calm and steadying hand of Taib is no longer at the political helm in the state.

State politicians never fail to tout how Sarawak is a model of 1Malaysia in practice. The past few weeks show how crudely communal politics in the state can be played as well.

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