At 7 p.m. on the Malaysian side of Borneo island, Luang Entiyang turns the dial on a transistor radio in search of an anti-government talk show as about a dozen villagers sit cross-legged on the floor waiting to listen.
Similar meetings occur daily across the jungles of Sarawak, Malaysia’s biggest state and one that has underpinned the ruling Barisan Nasional alliance’s 55-year hold on national power. The two-hour broadcast by U.K.-based Radio Free Sarawak, in which villagers call in to tell stories of land-grabs by palm oil companies, aided by local officials, has helped to pry loose Entiyang and other lifelong BN backers since it began in 2010.
“It makes a great difference because we are listening and learning,” Entiyang, 61, said Feb. 15 at his home in Melikin, a hillside village about a two-hour drive from Kuching, Sarawak’s capital. “If BN wins the election, the natives will have nothing. They will take all the land. Once they betray us, we say goodbye.”
Opposition inroads in Borneo rain forests that hold a quarter of Malaysia’s parliamentary seats pose the biggest threat to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s tenure as he prepares to call an election in the coming weeks. The prospect of a loss has unsettled investors, who have made the FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index the worst-performing benchmark in Asia this year on concern the country will undergo its first transfer of power since gaining independence from Britain in 1957.
“There’s been more of an awakening in these rural areas, but how much that’s going to translate into votes is still a little bit up in the air,” Bridget Welsh, a political science associate professor at Singapore Management University, said by phone. “We’re talking about easily 20 seats in Sabah and Sarawak that are gray, that are competitive, that fundamentally will make the difference in national power.”
In 2008, Najib’s ruling BN alliance won 54 of 56 seats up for grabs in Sarawak and neighboring Sabah, cementing its 12th straight election win after peninsular Malaysia mostly split the other constituencies in the 222-member parliament. The opposition, which lost in 2008 by a 58-seat margin, is targeting at least 20 seats in the two states this year.
Both Najib and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim have made frequent visits to the two former British colonies that joined Malaysia in 1963, an area that has some of the highest poverty rates in the country and accounts for about half of its natural gas reserves and palm oil production. More than 60 percent of its 5.8 million people are Borneo natives, collectively known as Dayaks, who have traditionally lived off the land.
A move toward the opposition in the two states will be “enough to alter the shift in balance of power nationwide,” Anwar said in a Feb. 19 interview in Kuala Lumpur. Najib promised greater development in a visit to Sabah on Feb. 14, telling voters “there’s no need to think about the other parties,” according to state-run Bernama news agency.
Radio Free Sarawak’s broadcasts are making that more difficult. Clare Rewcastle Brown, the sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, founded the station in 2010 to provide remote villages with an alternative to state-run media. Funded by donors in Europe whom Brown declines to identify, RFS uses shortwave transmissions through London-based WRN Broadcast, whose clients include MTV and Nickelodeon.
Local authorities tried to block the station during April 2011 state elections by pumping gospel music on the same wavelength from a broadcaster in Ukraine, according to Brown, who was born in Sarawak. After she protested, Ukraine’s government stopped the jamming. Najib’s coalition won 55 out of 71 seats in the local elections, seven fewer than in 2006.
“We suspect there will be more attempts to jam us in the election,” Brown said by e-mail. “The anger and a new sense of unity and defiance is shown nightly over our show -- native people, and most significantly headmen, are calling to say enough is enough and it is time for change.”
The broadcasts mainly target moves by Abdul Taib Mahmud, Sarawak’s chief minister, who has ruled the state for 32 years, to lease land for palm oil plantations and build about a dozen hydropower dams by 2020, providing the capability to produce about 15 times more electricity than the state uses. Taib, 76, heads Najib’s coalition in Sarawak and oversees state portfolios for finance, planning and resources management. He declined a request to be interviewed.
Anwar’s opposition alliance sees Radio Free Sarawak as a way to break BN’s grip on an area where thick forest, broken roads and spotty mobile-phone reception make campaigning tough. Since 2010, it has distributed 25,000 Chinese-made radios costing about 35 ringgit ($11) apiece to villagers, according to See Chee How, a local opposition leader.
The rural electorates may help sway the national vote because some have four times fewer people than seats in Chinese-dominated urban areas that shifted support to the opposition in the 2011 state elections. Anwar’s coalition is “very optimistic” it could win at least 20 seats of the 56 available in Sabah and Sarawak, See said.
“Now our message is spreading throughout Sarawak,” See said in a Feb. 13 interview in Kuching. “Rural people can see the relevance to protect their land, protect their rights, to get a fair share of economic gains. They are ready for change.”
Najib’s alliance disputes that assessment. While BN may lose about six urban constituencies, it expects to retain all the rural Dayak seats, giving it 25 overall for Sarawak, according to Stephen Rundi, the coalition’s secretary-general in the state. The ruling coalition took 30 of Sarawak’s 31 seats at the last election.
Opposition claims that Taib is using his position for personal gain are unfounded, Rundi said. The government is working to tackle land problems, he said, particularly in “gray areas” where the boundaries between land belonging to the state and the indigenous people is not clearly demarcated.
Taib in January called Radio Free Sarawak “naughty” and asked authorities to halt its operations, Bernama reported. Najib’s alliance has trained a network of loyalists in Sarawak’s remote villages over the past year to counter the radio broadcasts, Rundi said, without saying how.
“They are talking about issues that are sensitive, and they play it repeatedly just to instigate people,” Rundi said in a Feb. 14 interview at his Kuching office. “Our strategy is to go to the ground as much as we can through the grassroots leaders to tell the people the truth and tell them not to be easily misled.”
Najib’s alliance has considered setting up a competing radio station because state-run broadcasts use long-wave transmissions and can’t reach certain remote areas, according to Edward Kurik, executive secretary of Parti Rakyat Sarawak, a rural-based party that is part of BN. Even so, he said, rural people would vote for Najib because they are afraid of losing benefits such as fertilizer subsidies and free school lunches.
“We are not people who dare take the risk,” Kurik said. “Why should we change if what we’ve got from the government is guaranteed? We are not born rich -- we depend so much on the government and cannot lose this political power.”
Sarawak’s poverty rate was 5.3 percent in 2009, compared with 3.8 percent for the whole country, according to government data. The porous borders in Sabah, with a poverty rate of 19.7 percent, have also posed challenges for the government.
Anwar’s alliance blamed Najib today for an ineffective response after an armed Muslim group from the Philippines claiming sovereignty over Sabah invaded a coastal town last month. At least 25 people have died, including eight Malaysian police, during the three-week standoff.
“We are disappointed with the weak leadership shown by the federal government whose responsibility is to keep Malaysia’s security intact,” the alliance said in a statement.
In Sarawak, people involved with the radio station have faced threats, said Nicholas Mujah, who helps villagers bring lawsuits against palm oil companies that encroach on ancestral lands and was arrested last year for copying broadcasts on CDs.
Peter John Jaban, a tattoo-covered Dayak who was one of Radio Free Sarawak’s first deejays, said he was detained last year under the Sedition Act. Villagers listening to the broadcasts are also intimidated, he said.
“Authorities and police will threaten them, saying if you listen to this you will be arrested, or your village would not be given roads or electricity,” Jaban, who has been blocked from leaving Sarawak, said in Kuching.
Rundi said the government “cannot just swallow” the “blatant lies” on Radio Free Sarawak. However, he said, the government opposed measures to intimidate people, including the use of gangsters by palm-oil companies to scare villagers.
“The government is always against all force and intimidation by anybody,” Rundi said by phone.
For indigenous people such as Entiyang, who worked for decades in a state-run medical clinic, taking cash to vote for BN became routine -- including the 50 ringgit distributed on election eve in 2008. Najib’s alliance won his district that year with more than 80 percent of the vote. Rundi denied that BN buys votes, while acknowledging payments to party workers.
Two years later, Entiyang disposed of the BN flag that hung above his house after palm oil companies began operating on what he and other villagers see as native land, and pressured locals to accept money in return for giving up their rights. He’s now involved in a lawsuit against the companies, United Teamtrade Sdn. and Memaju Jaya Sdn., one of about 300 similar land cases around Sarawak.
United Teamtrade has received a 60-year lease to develop the land from the Sarawak government and disputes claims that it’s encroaching on indigenous lands, John Su, a spokesman for the company, said by phone. The payments to villagers are a “goodwill gesture,” he said.
A man answering to the name Tan Thian Siang, who is the managing director at Tetangga Akrab Sdn. Bhd., which shares the same Kuching address as Memaju Jaya, hung up the phone when asked for comment.
“We are anxious to hear on the radio how other villages are dealing with these problems,” Entiyang said as he picked up the radio. “Without this, we really were blind.”