I was in Sarawak during the 2011 election. I campaigned for the opposition in Kuching and its surrounding. I helped run a group of volunteers; run is probably an exaggeration but I will use run nonetheless. We were active in several seats but spent most of our time in Batu Kawa, about 10 miles to the south of Kuching. It was and still is a marginal seat. The young Christina Chiew won there. We as a team won.
About five years later, I am utterly disengaged from the campaign. I have no role in it. But that does not mean I feel nothing. When I read up the latest Sarawak election results from across the sea in Kuala Lumpur, I felt sad upon learning the Batu Kawa seat had changed hands, along with a handful of others.
Though expected, the results are still horrible for many who think Malaysia needs change badly. Tony Pua wrote “…on hindsight, our Sarawak battle was one of limiting the damage rather than one of consolidating our hold on these seats won in the last elections, or making gains in the rural districts.”
But if I am experiencing melancholy, imagine the sense of devastation of those involved on the ground. Postings on social media say as much. They feel frustrated by the results, especially by the role of money and electoral corruption.
Even in 2011, pressure for corruption was evident. I witnessed it personally. There were several instances outside of town where potential voters explicitly wanted money in exchange for their votes. We – as far as I know – did not pay for it. I certainly would not pay straight from my wallet. There was no RM2.6 billion in my bank account, much less my pocket. Instead, we smiled, shrugged and moved on knowing we lost the battle in those instances. I was really too shocked to reply anyway.
What mattered we won the bigger battle because people were angry at Taib Mahmud so much that money would not matter enough.
But 2016 was different. There was more money it seems, and there was no Taib Mahmud. Furthermore, several friends from Kuching said residents were ambivalent about Chiew, citing her inexperience and track record. But whatever the complaints against her, the opposition, either DAP or PKR – I would put Pakatan Harapan, but there is no such thing in Sarawak – faced the Adenan Satem effect and the renewed vigor of money politics.
I can accept the popularity of Adenan. It was the same for Abdullah Badawi when the people was tired of Mahathir Mohamad. What worries me more and more is the role of money in Malaysian politics. The case of Sarawak is one where money for votes is the norm.
The obvious danger is that a wrong would never be wrong again. It is the snowball effect transforming the nature of elections. Democracy loses its meaning. Both elections and democracy as concepts risk becoming one-in-a-while cash transfer program, much like an ersatz BR1M.
It would be no mere pork-barreling anymore. It will be just bribery.
I am not condemning Sarawakian voters for participating however. In many ways, I understand why people take the money. It is a combination of desperation and power. Voters there have not much of a choice.
While in the peninsula, the people are not scared of the sticks and carrots of development politics, the case is different for rural Sarawak. They are at the mercy of the state – at Barisan Nasional’s generosity. If your place in the rural area gets an opposition representative, you would be marginalized. If you had no power and clean water supplies, there is a guarantee you will never get it from the state. The government will use the state to punish you, much more than they use it in the peninsula.
Would you condemn Jean Valjean in prison for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread in order to avoid starvation? I would not and I would cut him some slack.
But for how long and how far a slack?
And if the whole of population engages in such corruption, would you prosecute all of them?
It becomes an outrageously impossible notion. I feel in the end, either you too participate in the corruption because it is the way of life now, or all of us stop and grant amnesty to everybody.
But the real life is rarely the latter option. Life is a snowball. At the national level, the snowball is rolling unmelted under the hot sun into 1MDB and Najib Razak. Nobody has been able to stop Najib or Barisan Nasional.
The snowball continues rolling on unabated, becoming our way of life just as money for votes is part of Sarawak’s politics.
It is in this sense that I am not condemning Sarawakian voters. Just as many of us in Kuala Lumpur feel powerless in the 1MDB case, so too Sarawakians feel, I think, in their local context. Who are we in the peninsula, then, to condemn Sarawakians?
We feel powerless about national politics. Why should we in the peninsula blame many Sarawakians for being powerless in their own state? There is no blame game to play here if we are honest and consistent to ourselves.
 — In addition to the pressing issues surrounding GST and Najib’s scandal, we emphasized repeatedly on the need for check and balance via a strong opposition to ensure that Adenan didn’t become the next “pek moh”.
Despite the seeming strength of the message, it obviously did not have sufficient traction even among the urban voters. People were sufficiently happy with the few apparent concessions Adenan gave. They were more than happy to overlook the continued corruption in the BN regime and the implications on the people via higher taxes. The rampant and blatant abuse of power by Adenan, such as banning Members of Parliament from entering the state also didn’t matter too much to them.
However, perhaps, had we not campaigned that hard, we might have lost even more seats. Therefore we must thank those tens of thousands of supporters who continued to stick to us under such trying circumstances. Hence on hindsight, our Sarawak battle was one of limiting the damage rather than one of consolidating our hold on these seats won in the last elections, or making gains in the rural districts. [Tony Pua. Paying the price for not ‘paying up’. May 8 2016]