Tan Sri Adenan Satem has shown great political will and acumen since becoming Chief Minister of Sarawak, but can he stop the Chinese tsunami still rolling across the state?
THE year is drawing to a close, the monsoons have arrived and the window to call for the Sarawak state election is getting smaller for Tan Sri Adenan Satem.
Some think the Sarawak Chief Minister has waited too long. They say he could be making the same mistake as Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who stretched it out for so long that his approval rating had dipped by the time he called for the general election.
Although the Sarawak Legislative Assembly is still good till June next year, there is quite a narrow window left for Adenan to hold his first state election as Chief Minister.
The weather will be too unfriendly from now till January for any kind of campaigning and it is no surprise that everyone is talking about a March election simply because that’s the only aperture left.
Adenan had held out this long because he wanted to go into the election with an additional 11 new state seats that will be legislated by Parliament next month.
Following that, it will be all systems go after Chinese New Year, which falls on Feb 8 next year.Sarawak politicians, especially those from Barisan Nasional, hope the Chinese New Year festivities will soften the Chinese sentiment.
Adenan has been hugely popular across the board, particularly in the rural areas. The more remote the community, the more thrilled they are to see him and some behave like he is some mythical bird that has flown into their longhouse.
His party, Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), is expected to make another clean sweep of all the seats it contests. It makes PBB the most cohesive party in the country.
A recent survey showed that he enjoyed an approval rating of 74%.
Tough challenge: Adenan (right) is facing a very strong opposition led by DAP's Chong (left) and PKR's Baru in his maiden state election as Chief Minister.
The Chinese, who were dead set against Taib in the 2011 state election, have only good things to say about Adenan, yet very few expect a big Chinese swing towards Barisan.
There are a few reasons for this. SUPP (Sarawak United People’s Party), the Chinese arm of Sarawak Barisan, has been weakened after a power struggle saw the breakaway group forming a rival but Barisan-friendly party known as UPP (United People’s Party).
Candidate quality is also important to the urban voters and SUPP has yet to impress on this count.
“The 1MDB issue is a talking point among the urban voters. They see Barisan as not accountable because of this issue,” said Philip Wong, president of the Canada Graduates Association of Kuching.
The Chinese also feel very comfortable with the “Chineseness of DAP”. Mandarin is still the lingua franca of the party, the leadership is dominated by Chinese and issues affecting the community dominate the party agenda.
The Chinese had voted against Barisan due to Tun Taib Mahmud or “Peh Mor” (white hair), their nickname for the ex-Chief Minister who is now Governor of Sarawak.
“He is not in the picture anymore and there is a shift in Chinese thinking. Adenan’s efforts to reach out to the Chinese will have some impact in the seats won with marginal majorities. He will do better than in 2011 with the Chinese but not by much,” said Associate Professor Dr Faisal Syam Hazis of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
A good deal of DAP’s appeal in Sarawak has to do with its state chief Chong Chieng Jen. He was a reluctant politician with boyish good looks when he was first thrust into electoral politics by his parents.
His audacious political style rubs some people up the wrong way, but the Chinese like it and he has grown into a powerful warlord in DAP. His highly political family in Kuching is often likened to the Lim family in the peninsula.
DAP, under his leadership, is likely to hold on to the 14 state seats it won in 2011.
The party has not made much inroads into the rural seats despite a great deal of publicity over the recent recruitment of 12 Iban professionals. Several of them used to be division leaders in PKR and, needless to say, the crossover did not go down well with PKR leaders.
According to Dr Faizal, the failure of the opposition in Sarawak is that there is no single leader who can be the bridge between the parties.
The rivalry between DAP and PKR over seats in the last state polls has developed into an open war of words. Both parties are eyeing the same rural seats to do better in the state polls and may take on each other in a number of seats.
DAP leaders see PKR as a party that “dreams of big harvests” but does not work on the ground.
DAP has openly run down PKR state chief Baru Bian as lacking leadership. Some even accused DAP of spreading the rumour that Baru may lose in his Ba’kelalan seat.
The tall and macho-looking Baru is a leading legal authority on native customary rights and his law firm handles hundreds of such land cases. He has the backing of the influential Borneo Evangelical Church (SIB) and was touted as a potential Chief Minister, but he has not shone politically.
PKR has genuine people like Batu Lintang assemblyman See Chee How, who is so well-liked that Borneo Post, the pro-government local paper, gave him a weekly column.
“He brings up good issues and I often wonder what a nice guy like him is doing in politics,” said a Kuching-based journalist.
Adenan’s health was a talking point when he first came in as Chief Minister. Today, people talk of his witty speeches, his baritone singing voice and how he sometimes greets visitors to his home clad in a simple shirt and sarung.
Of course, they also talk about the way he has stood up to the federal government, his determination to maintain Sarawak’s culturally integrated outlook and the bold policies he has introduced.
Many people thought he was a grumpy old man but Adenan has surprised everyone. His speeches tickle people, he has shown intellectual depth and political acumen in tackling the issues inherited from his predecessor.
The giveaway on his health is that he walks slowly and sounds breathless if his sentences are too long. But for a man with heart problems, he has a strong booming voice and incredible political will.
“There is a good feeling for him. He is acting on what the people want such as autonomy in education, more oil royalty and state recognition of the UEC,” said SUPP secretary-general Sebastian Ting.
The Sarawak government intends to recognise the UEC (United Examination Certificate) issued by independent Chinese schools and which is a no-go in the peninsula.
Borneo Post ran the news on its front page with the headline “CM: Putrajaya’s UEC stand ‘stupid’”.
Some have warned Adenan that the Chinese will just take and not give him their votes but his thinking is that he has got to give it a try. He will probably end up disappointed like Najib.
Cost of living issues rank top of all election issues and Adenan’s move to abolish bridge tolls has gone down well with ordinary folk.
The politics of infrastructure is a big deal in Sarawak. The biggest and longest carrot of them all is the Pan Borneo Highway that will stretch from one end of Sarawak to the other. The 1,089km highway will be toll free and generate hundreds of jobs down the line.
Adenan, said Dr Faisal, has gone along with Sarawak for Sarawakians sentiments. The Chief Minister has said Sarawak will remain an integral part of Malaysia but wants more autonomy and devolution of power in certain sectors.
The Barisan side is asking people to “vote Adenan for a stronger Sarawak” so that he can face the federal government from a position of strength.
DAP has retaliated with the slogan that “a vote for Adenan is a vote for Najib” as a reminder of the 1MDB issue.
Meanwhile, an NGO known as S4S (Sarawak for Sarawakians) has gone around with the slogan “West Malaysian parties out!”, which is aimed primarily at Umno but the opposition is upset as DAP and PKR are also from the peninsula.
Adenan, on his part, has said it plain and simple: “I will be 72 next year. Just give me five years to do more. That’s all I am asking.”
He is fortunate in that Taib has assiduously refrained from commenting on politics. Adenan was once married to Taib’s sister but both men have a professional relationship and Taib has been meticulous in observing his boundaries as the Governor.
Barisan’s safe deposit state rests on Adenan’s shoulders and a total of 82 seats will be up for grabs.
It is a big load but the big man still likes to do things he enjoyed as an ordinary YB. Adenan often drops by the wet market after work to buy fish for his wife to cook for dinner.
Some things do not change for the man who wants to bring change to Sarawak.