Malaysiakini News

Losing a legacy, finding a nation in Sarawak

James Chin  |  Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | Something is simmering in Kuching, and it’s not just the fragrant laksa soup of Sarawak’s capital.

Long seen as the barometer of Chinese politics in Sarawak, the Stampin constituency at the 14th general elections (GE14) will see a contest between the leaders of two political parties that claim to speak for the Sarawak Chinese community. The two parties are the Sarawak Democratic Party (DAP) and the Sarawak United Peoples Party (SUPP), fondly known by the locals as ‘soup’.

Representing the governing SUPP party is Dr Sim Kui Hian (above, right), the party president who’s had a meteoric rise. Sim only became active in SUPP a decade ago, stood as a candidate for the first time in 2011, and became party president in 2014. On the opposition side is Chong Chieng Jen (above, left), the chairman of Pakatan Harapan Sarawak (PHS) and chairman the Sarawak DAP since 2013.

While the Sarawak and national media try to portray the contest as the “battle of the titans” or “clash of the kings” – and focus on the fact they are the most senior Sarawak Chinese leaders on opposing sides – in reality, the real meaning of the contest goes deeper than just this symbolic clash.

To understand what the Stampin contest means, you need to understand the personal history behind these two leaders and the historical context. First, the historical context, and then the personal history.

Under Sim, SUPP has made Sarawak nationalism and parochialism the cornerstone of the GE14 campaign. Using the tagline “I’m In for a Stronger Sarawak”, SUPP is telling ethnic Chinese voters that the Sarawak Chinese must vote SUPP in order to help SUPP and the Sarawak Barisan Nasional (BN) “take back” political autonomy as promised under the Malaysia Agreement 1963(MA63).

The irony, of course, lies in the fact that SUPP, together with its partners in the Sarawak BN, willingly surrendered Sarawak’s autonomy to the federal government in 1970. Most Sarawakians (or for that matter Malaysians) do not realise that Sarawak lost its MA63 autonomy in 1970 when SUPP deliberately chose Parti Bumiputera to form the coalition state government in Sarawak.

SUPP then was in a unique position – it could go with either the Sarawak National Party (Snap), an Iban-led party, or Parti Bumiputera, led by Melanau-Muslims. The SUPP-Bumiputera coalition government became the founding members of BN in 1974 with Umno and other parties of the peninsula.

Parti Bumiputera in 1970 was a proxy for Umno and Umno sent a Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) minister to come to Kuching to pressure the then-opposition SUPP into a coalition government with Parti Bumiputera. From the first day of the Bumiputera-SUPP government, it was clear the while Sarawak had some powers, ultimate power was held by Umno and the federal government.

In 1973, when the MA63 explicitly gave all the three remaining partners (Sabah, Malaya, Sarawak) a period to formally review the MA63 agreement, the meeting was abandoned and was never held. In 1974, Sarawak (and Sabah) gave up their oil and gas to Petronas.

I can detail other events where Sarawak (and Sabah) lost their autonomy but suffice to say that in Sarawak, it all happened under Sarawak BN rule and all Sarawak BN MPs (including SUPP) voted in favour of many constitutional amendments which centralised powers in the federal government.

Despite this history, voters in Sarawak have short memories and get highly emotional when it comes to Sarawak nationalism. Thus SUPP and the Sarawak BN can suddenly appear as Sarawak nationalists today despite this contrary history.

Who can forget the infamous Mahathir mantra ‘Melayu mudah lupa’ (Malays forget easily)? Well, to that I can add ‘Sarawakians mudah lupa’.

Royalty and strongmen

This context of this electoral battle is therefore rooted in this idea that it is ‘us’ (Sarawakians) versus ‘them’ (Malayans). Sarawak DAP and Pakatan Harapan (PH) are painted as ‘them’ as their roots are in Malaya. Ditto for the other opposition parties PKR and Amanah.

In the 2016 Sarawak state election, former Sarawak chief minister Pehin Sri Adenan Satem was very successful in rebranding the Sarawak BN as the true defenders of the MA63 autonomy. What was remarkable was his campaign speeches in which he promised to “keep Umno out” of Sarawak. Sarawak voters swallowed the message despite it being crystal clear that Sarawak BN was keeping Umno in federal power. Without the Sarawak MPs from Sarawak, Umno would have fallen from power!

The same is likely to happen this time. The SUPP’s Sarawak nationalism mantra, backed by a sophisticated social media campaign, has dented the opposition claim to be the true defenders of MA63. Prior to 2016, SUPP’s social media has been dismal, allowing the DAP to dominate cyberspace.

Unlike earlier SUPP presidents, Sim has taken to social media like ducks to water. He brought in a professional team from Malaya to handle the social media, selling SUPP’s Sarawak nationalism like a slick advertisement campaign. So far, it’s working and I would argue that the SUPP’s social media presence in this GE14 is superior to the DAP’s.

The personal history lies in the background of the two candidates.

Sim Kui Hian is the son of Sim Kheng Hong, one of the original strongmen of Kuching SUPP. Sim Kheng Hong was Sarawak deputy chief minister for 17 years (1974-1991) and was known to be particularly close to  Rahman Yakub, Sarawak’s chief minister from 1970 to 1981.

The standard joke among insiders is that SUPP’s Pending branch is actually the Sim family branch, since the family has exerted control over the Pending branch since its founding. In a nutshell, Sim Kui Hian was born into SUPP royalty and his rapid rise to the presidency was aided by his family tree.

Chong Chieng Jen’s pedigree is almost similar to that of Sim Kui Hian. Chong Siew Chiang, Chieng Jen’s father, was a founding member of Sarawak DAP in the late 1970s.

Prior to that, he was a SUPP state assemblyman for the Repok constituency (Sarikei town). The twist in the story of how DAP came to Sarawak occurred when Chong Siew Chang consulted Rahman Yakub, then Sarawak’s chief minister, about bringing DAP to Sarawak.

Prior to that, Rahman Yakub had used Sarawak’s immigration autonomy to deny Lim Kit Siang, DAP’s national leader, entry into Sarawak. According to Siew Chang, Rahman told him he would not ban Kit Siang from Sarawak if there were DAP branches in Sarawak. The real reason, of course, was to weaken SUPP’s hold over the Chinese community by giving the Chinese an alternative to SUPP.

So the current two contestants have a history going back to the early years of SUPP and Sarawak DAP. They are both the children of the most senior party members and heirs to their fathers’ political legacy. The upcoming contest is thus a clash between the second generation. Sim became SUPP president in 2014 while Chong became chairman of Sarawak DAP a year earlier.

The choice for the Chinese voter in Stampin is not simply ‘Dacing vs Rocket’. Rather, it’s informed by historical context and personal history. Without understanding this, you will not be able to really understand the significance of Stampin at GE14.

This article first appeared in the New Mandala here.


JAMES CHIN is the inaugural director of the Asia Institute, University of Tasmania.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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