As Najib Shores Up Leadership, Tiny Gedong May Play a Big Role
The oil palm-growing district of Gedong in the eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak is too tiny to get its own zip code. Even so, its 6,712 voters will soon have their own government representative.
Electoral officials are adding 11 seats to the Sarawak legislative assembly by carving out new constituencies ahead of a state election due by next year — wards that Prime Minister Najib Razak will want to go to his ruling coalition. The Sarawak vote is a test for Najib as he seeks to shore up his leadership amid criticism of his economic and social policies and public demands by a former leader that he step down.
Najib’s efforts to retain support in the resource-rich state has seen his government build more municipal facilities from hospitals to water treatment plants. His Barisan Nasional coalition is banking on the states of Sarawak and Sabah on Borneo island — its traditional strongholds — to keep it in power as Chinese voters on Peninsular Malaysia defect.
“BN not doing so well in Sarawak will weaken Najib within the coalition and add to criticisms against him,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of the Kuala Lumpur-based Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. “A strong win will give him a reprieve from all the unhappiness on imposing a goods and services tax this year and concerns about growing debt of government entities.”
BN lost eight seats in the Sarawak state poll in 2011, and in the 2013 general election it lost the popular vote for the first time since independence in 1957, even as it retained power. Sarawak has 31 federal seats of which BN holds 24.
Najib, 61, has seen his approval rating slide to around 40 percent as he moves to plug a budget gap with steps including an unpopular 6 percent consumption levy that started this month. At the same time, the debt of 1Malaysia Development, a state investment company whose advisory board he heads, is weighing on the nation’s sovereign rating.
Fitch Ratings said last month Malaysia’s credit rating is “more than 50 percent likely” to be downgraded, with developments around 1MDB reflecting weakness in governance.
Ex-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, in power from 1981 to 2003, has lashed out at Najib, saying Malaysians no longer trust the premier and the coalition will lose the next general election due by 2018 if he stays. He has cited the mounting debt at 1MDB and the consumption tax.
As Mahathir stepped up his attacks, Najib spoke for an hour on national television last week, saying he has a mandate and will stay leader as long as he has the support of his party and citizens. His deputy later spoke out to back him. Najib’s predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi stepped down in 2009 after Mahathir led calls for his resignation.
Sarawak, with its oil fields, hydroelectric dams and rainforests, was Malaysia’s third biggest contributor by state or federal territory to gross domestic product in 2012, accounting for almost a 10th of output. Together with Sabah it has 60 percent of Malaysia’s oil and condensate reserves, according to government data.
The states are politically significant, dubbed “fixed deposits” because they are depended on to keep the coalition in power. Sarawak and Sabah were key to BN securing a parliamentary majority in 2013.
Even in those states the opposition has made headway in recent years, said Maria Chin Abdullah of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih.
“They don’t want to lose Sabah and Sarawak,” said the chairwoman of the non-governmental group that seeks electoral changes in Malaysia. “They want the boundaries redrawn in their favor for state assemblies to make sure they control East Malaysia.”
The Prime Minister’s Office didn’t reply to three e-mails and two calls seeking comment on whether the redraw will help the national government retain the states.
The result of the Sarawak state polls is key in part because the assembly’s composition determines if the chief minister is an ally to Najib. The opposition has gained voters with pledges to stamp out graft in government and to fight for a bigger share of oil revenues.
Sarawak is now entitled to 5 percent of total oil revenue derived from its territory. Chief Minister Adenan Satem, who has sought greater royalties for the state, is popular with voters and his BN coalition party would be well placed to win the new seats, said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania.
Najib has visited Sarawak several times in recent months, to lay the foundation stone for a new hospital and break ground on a community center, state news agency Bernama reported. He’s pledged to build a 1,663-kilometer toll-free Pan-Borneo Highway at a cost of 27 billion ringgit ($7.3 billion).
James Masing, a Sarawak assemblyman and president of BN’s coalition member Parti Rakyat Sarawak, said it’s necessary to raise state seats to 82 from 71.
“For a less-developed Sarawak, one must give a lot of weightage to rural areas,” said Masing, who is Sarawak’s land development minister. “Human life in town is also as valuable as human life in the jungle of Sarawak. They deserve our service as well.”
The election commission’s proposals to redraw Sarawak’s electoral map garnered 64 objections, of which 41 were deemed valid. Those included a lack of effort to clean up electoral rolls, Bersih’s Abdullah said.
“We welcome the objections and have looked through them but we have to do our job for Sarawak,” said Election Commission of Malaysia Chairman Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof. “It can be so remote. We need to make more seats for the people.”
The proposed increase in assemblymen in Sarawak will “dilute the presence of the opposition,” according to Democratic Action Party lawmaker and state opposition leader Chong Chieng Jen. The DAP doubled its seats in 2011 to 12.
“They are also raising the seat numbers to ease friction among the BN parties who are fighting for more allocations,” said Chong. “They want more share of Sarawak’s economic cake.”
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