Friday, October 29, 2021

As GPS rides high in Sarawak, no sign of opposition joining forces

Bad blood between PSB and Pakatan Harapan in the state is likely to derail any cooperation, even in the interest of ensuring straight fights with the ruling GPS.

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Sarawak’s Parti Sarawak Bersatu (PSB) is bent on contesting all state seats when polls are called, rejecting any cooperation with Pakatan Harapan (PH) parties in the state despite the risk of three-cornered fights that would benefit the ruling Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS).

Wong Soon Koh, PSB’s president, is also adamant that his party should stick with the policy of seeking independence from federal politics.

Wong has been critical of GPS, the coalition that he was briefly a part of, saying it should remain a kingmaker, dangling its support for whomever in the federal government on the basis of what it can offer to Sarawak.

PSB is said to be eyeing support in Dayak-majority seats in addition to Chinese-majority urban seats, most of which are held by DAP.

“We are now going into the Iban and Bidayuh seats while moving strongly to penetrate the Malay and Melanau seats,” Wong told MalaysiaNow recently.

With GPS on strong footing, mainly due to what is seen as its success in securing billions of ringgit worth of income from petroleum extracted in Sarawak, any failure by the state’s opposition to force a one-on-one fight will likely boost its chances of remaining in power.

PSB is said to be eyeing support in Dayak-majority seats in addition to Chinese-majority urban seats, most of which are held by DAP.

Adding to this is the continued bad blood between PSB, seen as a local party with formidable support in Sarawak, and PH.

Like many Sarawak-based politicians, Wong does not see cooperation with PH as a viable option, even if it means ensuring straight fights with the mighty GPS.

He questioned a much talked-of plan by Sarawak PH chief Chong Chieng Jen for the opposition to follow a seat distribution formula of 70% for PH and 30% for PSB in the next election in order to ensure straight fights against GPS.

“This means we can only contest in fewer than 30 seats, which is very unfair to us,” Wong said, adding that such a formula had not been formally laid down by Chong.

He also questioned Chong, the state DAP chairman, saying he had not been forthright on formula discussions with PSB.

“We only talked about how to avoid three-cornered fights, particularly in the urban areas,” he said.

He said he had initially agreed to discuss with PH the coordination of seat distribution within the opposition.

But he said he had been “turned off” by PH, and that for now, he is bent on contesting all 82 seats.

“No more talk,” the former senior state minister added.

PSB is seen as more likely than PH to pose a threat to GPS, owing to the failure of the former federal coalition to fulfil its promise to return Sarawak’s rights under the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63), the document which saw Sarawak as an equal partner under the Malaysian federation.

“The struggle for a fair and equitable society to safeguard Sarawak’s interests resonates well with Sarawakians.”

But with billions of ringgit in oil money owed to Sarawak by national petroleum company Petronas now finally in the hands of the state government, analysts are predicting a landslide victory for GPS in the next polls.

There is also the image problem for PH, which is seen as a squabbling coalition with a bad track record in Sarawak over its 22 months in federal power.

This provides an opportunity for parties like PSB which is banking on the popular call to prioritise Sarawak in all of its dealings with Putrajaya.

“The struggle for a fair and equitable society irrespective of race or religion, to safeguard Sarawak’s interests, resonates well with Sarawakians,” analyst Lee Poh Onn of Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute told MalaysiaNow.

He also spoke of a trust deficit among Sarawakians for PH, which is headquartered in the peninsula.

“The manifesto pledge of the then-ruling PH to pay Sabah and Sarawak 20% of oil and gas royalties instead of the current 5% has not borne fruit, and the pledge to return 50% of tax revenue collected from Sarawak was unfulfilled.”

Lee agreed with the general sentiment on GPS’ strong position.

He said GPS had carried out policies that have been beneficial to Sarawakians.

But even so, he is not altogether ruling out any chance for PSB.

In the 2018 general election, he said, there had been a trend of an increase in support for Dayak leaders.

“With many capable Dayak leaders now in PSB, this may swing Dayak support towards PSB when the forthcoming state election takes place. They would not need to join forces with PH.”

Still, this might not be enough to dislodge GPS.

Beyond Dayakism

Seasoned Sarawak politics observer Jayum Jawan said there had been no clear strategy from opposition parties other than to accuse GPS of not doing enough.

“This might or might not work. Opposition parties, including PSB, must put up a viable policy and programmes that are clear and effective to bring about better distribution and benefits of development to plural Sarawak, not just Dayaks,” the Universiti Putra Malaysia professor told MalaysiaNow.

He added that more than half of the population are non-Dayaks.

“Any party that wants to win must also appeal to non-Dayaks such as the Chinese, Malays and Melanau.”

Wong meanwhile insisted that his party would not be dictated to by politicians from the peninsula.

“PSB is a local-based party, seemingly fighting for local causes and issues. But it is also the new kid on the block.”

“We are unlike GPS as they are working within Perikatan Nasional together with Umno and PAS. They are no longer independent.

“PSB is a local, Sarawak-based, multiracial party that has no affiliation with any political parties,” he said.

For now, Wong is confident of “change” in the state.

But Jayum is not convinced.

“PSB is a local-based party, seemingly fighting for local causes and issues. But it is also the new kid on the block,” he said.

He said PSB, too, has an image problem due to its past affiliation with Barisan Nasional.

He said some of its leaders had been in the previous government at the federal and state levels.

While parties may promote Dayakism, he added, there would be questions raised about what they have done for the community which makes up about 45% of Sarawak’s population.

“What do they have to show to back this claim?”

For now, Jayum believes that any thought by the opposition of making gains in the coming polls is a dream.

“The reality that opposition parties do not want to admit is that they are not strong.

“They think that what they have on their plate is sellable.”

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