On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

In pole position for the Sarawak election

THE number of politicians from Kuala Lumpur, including the Prime Minister, making their way to Sarawak has increased over the past one month as talk of a state election steps up.

Media organisations have also started to make logistic preparations for the impending big political event.

There is a sense of optimism in the air for Barisan Nasional as there is a general expectation that it will make another strong showing again. There is even talk of a near clean sweep.

The Barisan is already in pole position with 62 representatives against the DAP’s six and one from the PKR. There are two other state assemblymen – an independent and a Parti Cinta Malaysia representative – who are regarded as Barisan-friendly.

While there is no clear indication when the state polls would be called, the consensus among political analysts and the media is that the expected victory for the Barisan would be a major boost for the coalition before the general election.

It would certainly shore up the credentials of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who will mark his first year in office next month.

With the battle between the Barisan and Pakatan Rakyat becoming more intense in the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak have now become a crucial battle ground.

At parliamentary level, the Barisan holds 30 seats against one seat held by the DAP. The Bandar Kuching parliamentary seat has always been an opposition stronghold.

Sarawak has never been easy for the opposition as state issues are more dominant than federal concerns.

It does not help that some Kuala Lumpur-based politicians do not even know the geo­graphy of the state, let alone its sentiments and peculiarities. Multi-culturalism is not just tolerated or accepted but celebrated in Sarawak, which is such a joy for visitors coming to this state.

State leaders, including Muslims, openly talk about their financial support to churches with pride. Some declare having taken tests in Bible Knowledge during their school days, without worrying if it would affect their political image.

In February, prominent entrepreneur Datuk Raziah Mahmud created history by becoming the first non-Chinese chairman of a Chinese school in the state, probably in Malaysia too.

In the spirit of 1Malaysia, her company Kumpulan Parabena Sdn Bhd donated 4ha of land to SJK Chiaw Nan, with construction of the new RM10mil school building to begin next year.

She urged bumiputras to attend Chinese schools, saying the reasons were obvious – Chinese is an important language of business.

When a church in Lutong, Miri, was damaged in January, Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud condemned the incident and told the media that his great-grandfather offered to help the Christian missionaries when they first arrived in Mukah, saying this was not against Islam.

Talk of race supremacy and whipping up religious sentiments are absent in Sarawak. It would surely be frowned upon.

The DAP and PKR are still regarded as outsiders in a state where parochialism still matters. The DAP has its home-grown leaders and a few have earned the respect of the Chinese community, which comprises 30% of the population.

But the PKR has no one to lead the charge. Any alliance between the DAP and the PKR would have to be led by the former.

The geographical terrain also makes it near impossible for the Pakatan to take on the Barisan with its strong campaign machinery.

Campaigners need to travel by boat and helicopter to reach many parts of the state. Even boat rides can take days in some interior constituencies.

A ceramah at a restaurant may work in some urban seats in Kuching or Sibu but would not be possible in the longhouses, where gatherings are small and casual.

In short, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim would have little traction in the state, as Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri George Chan aptly put it in an interview with Malaysian Insider.

The Sarawak United People’s Party headed by Chan, however, has it tougher in the battle for the urban votes.

He has expressed confidence in winning back the lost state seats but for sure, there is plenty of work to be done.

But the man calling the shots – Taib Mahmud – is still very much the man who would deliver the votes.

Although he is 74 years old and has to contend with critics questioning his hold on the leadership, no one can dispute that Taib is reliable. It is a fact that the federal leaders acknowledge; in the next general election, they know they need him more than ever.