This analysis/investigative report was produced during the 2011 state election of Sarawak, the largest state in Malaysia that has been governed by the same chief minister for 33 years (1981-2014). Abdul Taib Mahmud, 77, often described by his critics as the “richest man in Malaysia”, stepped down in February 2014 as the chief minister and assumed the position of Head of State (the ruler in a constitutional monarchy), continuing to assert his influence over the state. His family business empire controls over 400 companies in every sector in Malaysia and holds overseas assets more than US$250 million in four countries. The 2011 state election saw a historic breakthrough by the opposition, winning 15 out of 71 seats in the state legislative assembly. The opposition (PKR, DAP and PAS) made significant inroads in urban constituencies but rural areas remained a stronghold of the ruling coalition (BN) mainly due to extensive money politics and political intimidation.
I was stationed in several rural constituencies for almost one month to cover the campaign and investigate the degree and impacts of vote buying and political patronage culture.
The original story was published here (paywall).
Rural vote under grip of money, intimidation
5:05PM Oct 31, 2010
By Kuek Ser Kuang Keng
While DAP ceramah in urban centres are magnets for thousands, indicating a possible clean sweep of all seats there, in contrast, the PKR campaigners in rural constituencies are struggling hard to turn traditional BN supporters against the politics of development, money and fear.
Pervasive poverty has made rural voters very vulnerable to financial enticement compared to the urbanite. Most families in the interior earn between RM100 to RM500 per month and a significant number of longhouses and villages are still without treated water and power supply.
The opposition often complains that their hard work in the constituency is destroyed by BN’s last-minute ‘money assault’.
A ‘kapitan’ – an official Chinese community leader appointed by the state government who declined to be named for fear of reprisal by the authorities – explained in detail to Malaysiakinion the working of money politics in the interior.
“For instance, the BN candidate here had promised to give RM500 to every family in exchange for their support. We (kapitan) will pass the word to every family that we oversee,” he said when met recently at his house.
“If the candidate does not fulfil the promise, I afraid the voters will not vote for him. In the last few days, they’ve been asking me about the money,” he added.
“For white areas (BN strongholds), the money may be handed out before polling day. However, for black areas (where BN lost in last election), the money may be withheld until after polling day to make sure they vote for the BN.”
Where cash is king
He also revealed that the diaspora which returns to vote can claim RM60 transportation fee from the BN, distributed by the kapitan.
Money politics peaks on the night before polling day, he said, when all in Iban longhouses stay up throughout the night waiting for BN’s last-minute cash handouts.
“BN will send its agent to visit pintu by pintu (individual lots in a longhouse) to distribute cash, ranging from RM50 to RM300.
“Last time when I was campaigning for BN candidate, we had to travel from one longhouse to another from midnight until dawn, distributing the money,” he added.
Malaysiakini also witnessed a BN candidate handing out cash when greeting Iban folks in the longhouse during his nightly campaign. He passed the cash when shaking hands with them.
Although the opposition has called on voters “take the BN’s money but vote for the opposition”, which had been proven effective in the peninsula, it does not seem to work with the Iban cultural and traditional emphasis on gratitude and appreciation.
“When they receive money from you, they feel that they owe you something so they will repay your kindness the next day (polling day),” said an Iban PKR campaigner when met at Engkilili, an Iban-majority rural seat contested by the party.
The more financially well-off candidates would fully exploit this characteristic by throwing parties and dishing out free meals in the longhouses, coupled with crates of beers, which is an all-time favourite drink of the Ibans.
Minds boxed in by superstition
There had also been cases of those distributing the cash asking their recipients to swear loyalty to the BN, some even made to drink water said to be cursed.
“This is a psychological tactic to intimidate voters. They will vote for the person who gave money because the fear of tulah(curse),” claimed another PKR campaign coordinator in Saribas.
The situation is compounded by the shallow political awareness among the people. Most of the time they think that the funds given by BN MP or assemblyperson under the minor rural projects (MRP) allocation is from the latter’s own pocket.
MRP is the state government’s annual allocation for every Sarawak BN representative of over RM1 million. The representatives then distribute funds in the form of cheques to the development and security committees (JKKK) of longhouses and villages, and other local associations.
Similar to the political patronage culture in the peninsula, rural voters here often openly ask for funds when their representative calls on them.
When Malaysiakini followed the campaign of BN’s Lubuk Antu MP William Nyalau Badak to a longhouse at Mepi Pasir in his constituency where the chairperson of the JKKK’s women bureau went on stage to ask for RM5,000, which William gracefully promised in his speech later.
Largesse distribution, opposition poor second
Not only BN candidates, their opposition counterparts are also said to be giving cash handouts to voters during their campaign, but the amount, of course, cannot match their wealthier rival.
Apart from money, development politics and a surveillance network are important elements for the regime to maintain its rural region hegemony.
Unlike peninsular politics where politicians avoid offending the voters, Sarawak government leaders often hold them to ransom by threatening to withhold development allocations should they lose support.
“Let’s say, if a seat falls to the opposition but the state and country are still under the BN, what’s going to happen? How would the constituents go to the government and ask for something?” said Tasik Biru incumbent and assistant minister of environment Peter Nansian Ngusie, according to a report inBorneo Post last week.
“Not that we would not take care of the people but those who vote for the government would be given higher priority. That’s just being practical,” he said, adding that the people who vote for the opposition should look to them for help.
Supp deputy secretary-general Wong Soon Koh (above) who is also the second finance minister and Minister of Environment and Public Health concurred.
Fear very effective control tool
The Bawang Assan candidate had openly sounded the warning that Sibu voters would lose their only minister and be denied development allocations should the seat fall to the opposition.
At the lower level, voters were told of horror stories of children being expelled from schools, civil servants sacked, villagers deprived of fertiliser and other government assistance, to the collapse of government, should they vote for the opposition.
Hence it is not surprising that opposition candidates, such as Abang Zulkilfi Abang Engkeh from the PKR, who contested the marginal seat of Saribas, has to repeatedly tell the villagers during ceramah that three of his children were able to enrol into public universities despite his active involvement in the opposition.
The atmosphere of political fear and intimidation is ratcheted further by the extensive network of community leaders appointed by the state government to serve as its eyes, ears and guards.
At the divisional level, a community leader from each ethnic – Malay, Chinese and Iban – is appointed as temenggung, the paramount leader of that particular ethnic community.
This is followed by the appointment of ‘pemancar’ at the district level and ‘penghulu’, ‘kapitan’, ‘ketua kampung’ and ‘tuai rumah’ at the lower level.
A community is overseen by a ‘tuai rumah’ can be as small as 20-lot longhouse.
Public funds’ role propping up
These key posts are recommended by BN elected representatives and appointed by the government for a four-year term with a monthly allowance of RM450, raised to RM800 earlier this year.
“If we find out that certain areas did not vote for BN, the ‘kapitan’ overseeing that area would warn the people there that their government assistance could be terminated. The same goes to longhouses,” said the kapitan interviewed by Malaysiakini.
People in the interior are mostly involved in agriculture, relying heavily on government agency’s aid which includes the provision of fertiliser, seedling and herbicide.
Tuai rumah were alsotold by BN leadersthat they have the right to chase away opposition from campaigning in their areas. However, not many are willing to do so because of the Iban’s inherent friendly nature.
“If the kapitan or tuai rumah are found supporting the opposition, they would be sacked,” he added.
So, it is extremely difficult for opposition to secure victory in the interior under such circumstances unless other existing factors could overcome these hurdles, including the selection of unpopular candidate at Linggan and Pelagus, and pressing local issues such as the impact from the construction of dams in Bengoh and Belaga.