When the declaration of emergency in Sarawak was lifted in early November last year, paving the way for the long-anticipated state polls, Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) was still mourning the sudden death of its leader, political veteran James Jemut Masing.
While other parties were preoccupied with mobilising their election machinery, PRS leaders were acutely aware of the power vacuum in their own.
More than just its president, Masing had held the Baleh state seat since 1983 and party leaders would have to move quickly to field a new candidate in his place.
But arguably their biggest task was to find a new leader.
Determined to defend the seats they held in the state legislative assembly, PRS deputy president Joseph Salang took over the presidential responsibilities, looking to restore a measure of political calm following the scuffles for power among party leaders.
Come Dec 18, PRS succeeded in defending the 11 seats it held, including Baleh which was represented by Masing’s nephew, Nicholas Kudi Jantai Masing. Five of its assemblymen were later appointed to the new state Cabinet.
Sarawak political analyst Lucy Sebli said the appointments were a much needed boost for PRS following the loss of its leader Masing.
“The results showed that the party was united, and had contributed 11 seats for Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS),” she said.
“Despite the intense internal struggle where certain groups or individuals were busy jostling for top leadership positions, PRS was doing very well.”
The new Cabinet line-up saw Kakus assemblyman John Sikie Tayai appointed as state minister in the Chief Minister’s Department while the other four PRS members were appointed as assistant ministers.
Samalaju assemblyman Majang Anak Renggi, the only new face, was appointed as assistant minister for infrastructure and port development; Batang Ai assemblyman Malcolm Mussen anak Lamoh was made assistant minister for international trade and investment; Ngemah assemblyman Liwan Lagang, assistant minister for utility and telecommunication; and Balai Ringin assemblyman Snowdan anak Lawan, assistant minister for creative industry and performing arts.
But Salang, the party’s number two and de facto leader, maintains that the state leadership is still in need of stronger Iban representation.
“I am mourning more for the under-representation of PRS in the new state Cabinet,” Salang, who had tried without success to reach Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg for negotiations on ministerial positions, told MalaysiaNow.
New president needed
But to lead any formal negotiations on the party, political observer James Chin says it must first sort out its leadership issues.
With the position of president still vacant, he said, it was crucial for PRS to elect a new leader.
“It will be hard for PRS to lead negotiations because it has no clear leader,” Chin told MalaysiaNow.
Another problem revolves around Salang, who will need to be in the state Cabinet as well if he wishes to lead the party.
“At the moment, only John Sikie Tayai is eligible,” Chin said, adding that PRS might face difficulties deciding on Masing’s successor.
For years, Masing was known for his outspoken nature. In the state, he was also known as the general of the Dayaks, who constantly urged his community, especially the youth, to stand up for the rights of natives.
This is a stand that PRS will need to take into consideration in choosing a new leader, Lucy Sebli of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak said.
Any move to elect a new president must be done at a full session of the party’s Supreme Council meeting, although no plans have yet been made for such a gathering.
Yet this is the only way that PRS will be able to demand more political positions, Chin warned.
PRS vs PDP
Another problem for PRS is that Masing was also a deputy state minister, appointed in 2017 by the late Adenan Satem.
The appointment of Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) president Dr Sim Kui Hian as a deputy minister in the latest Cabinet line-up means that PRS has effectively lost its voice.
Chin said Sim’s appointment to the position followed SUPP’s victory in 13 seats at the Dec 18 polls – nearly double the number won at the previous state election five years earlier.
“One important point from the recent state election is that SUPP now has more assemblymen than PRS,” he said.
“That, of course, will shift the dynamics in GPS as a whole.”
He also warned that a power struggle within the party would open up opportunities for other GPS components to take over PRS seats.
“If it doesn’t elect a strong leader who can hold the party together, the danger is that other people will come and disturb (the allocation of seats),” he said.
Chin said the most obvious contender would be the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), given its similarity in political philosophy and structure.
“The only difference is, PRS is led by the Iban and PDP is led by the Chinese,” he added.