In Malaysia's Biggest State, Indifference to Najib Is His Friend

  • Malaysia's ruling coalition seen winning Sarawak state poll
  • Victory would not be endorsement of Najib, analyst says

In the rainforests of Borneo island, the name 1MDB doesn’t mean much. About a thousand kilometers from the Malaysian capital, more basic issues are likely to return Prime Minister Najib Razak’s coalition to power in the Sarawak state election next month.

Blue water tanks in Lebor village near Serian.
Blue water tanks in Lebor village near Serian.
Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

Amin Amid, 72, has watched life improve in his coastal village in Malaysia’s biggest state over the decades. Locals have electricity, schools, clinics and recently big blue tanks to store water. He hasn’t heard of 1Malaysia Development Bhd., the government fund hit by multiple financial scandals, or questions over hundreds of millions of dollars that showed up in Najib’s bank accounts three years ago.

When told, he doesn’t particularly care.

“I don’t really understand the issue,” said Amin, an ethnic Malay who sells palm sugar, coconut oil and fermented shrimps by the side of a two-lane main road. “He definitely has a lot of not-so-good news going on, but I’m not really bothered. He is already the leader, what else can we do?”

Indifference to the scandals outside Malaysia’s biggest cities will probably help Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition retain Sarawak -- a state held since 1963 -- in elections on May 7. It would show the difficulty his opponents have in gaining momentum among ordinary Malays by painting him as corrupt and self-serving. But it’d also be a warning to the premier that voters could shift their allegiance if they feel their lives are impacted by a slowing economy.

Rural Support

Najib’s critics, including ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad, have embarked on a nationwide tour aimed at winning over Malays, the largest ethnic group in the country and the bulwark of BN. They’ve struggled to make a serious dent in his support in rural areas, despite months of attacks over 1MDB’s finances and the $681 million the government said was a donation to Najib from the Saudi royal family. Najib, who has since returned the bulk of the money, has denied any wrongdoing, as has 1MDB.

Signage for 1Malaysia is displayed on the facade of The Urban Transformation Centre in Kuching.
Signage for 1Malaysia is displayed on the facade of The Urban Transformation Centre in Kuching.
Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

With the collapse in global commodity prices last year denting incomes in the rubber and palm oil nation, alongside a goods and services tax introduced in April 2015, Najib is also working to woo Malays. He could potentially claim a Sarawak win as a personal endorsement even if the popularity of Chief Minister Adenan Satem, in power since February 2014, is the bigger factor. Equally, a weaker showing would be seized on by his critics.

For Sarawak voters, “local and state issues are far more important than national issues and also national personalities,” said Faisal S. Hazis, head of the Centre for Asia Studies at the National University of Malaysia. Faisal is the author of “Domination and Contestation: Muslim Bumiputera Politics in Sarawak.”

Voter Demographics In Sarawak
Voter Demographics In Sarawak

Najib had visited Sarawak 47 times since he came into power in 2009, more than his five predecessors combined, Adenan said during one of Najib’s trips last month, jokingly suggesting he could get a new wife from the local Iban community. The premier has since made at least three more visits, promising to ensure infrastructure projects are implemented.

Separated from peninsula Malaysia by the South China Sea, Sarawak was the country’s third-largest state or territory contributor to gross domestic product in 2015, accounting for an estimated 10.6 percent of output. It contributed to half the country’s crude oil output and is the sole provider of liquefied natural gas, according to Standard & Poor’s.

Najib touted development of Sarawak and neighboring Sabah state in his budget speech in October, pledging funds for paddy fertilizers, longhouses and a 1,796-kilometer highway linking the two states that will cost 28.9 billion ringgit ($7.4 billion.)

Map Showing Sarawak Within Malaysia
Map Showing Sarawak Within Malaysia

The premier “wants to claim credit” for BN’s popularity in Sarawak, said See Chee How, an opposition People’s Justice Party lawmaker. “That’s why he comes so often and gives money here and there, promising this and that.” Najib’s office declined to comment.

In a state with one of the highest poverty rates in Malaysia and the lowest literacy rate, voters rely on the government for farming subsidies as well as jobs in the civil service, See said.

Electoral officials are adding 11 seats to the state assembly, redrawing boundaries last year in a way that critics such as Maria Chin Abdullah of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections said at the time was skewed in favor of BN. Najib has described the move as necessary to better serve voters.

Almost 80 percent of the 82 seats up for grabs are in rural areas, according to Faisal. A large section of the state is covered by mountain highlands and rainforests, with some settlements accessible only by helicopter or a long river trip. BN and its allies have 55 of the 71 current seats. In the 2013 federal election, Sarawak and Sabah contributed about a third of the parliamentary seats won by BN.

Sarawak State Assembly Makeup
Sarawak State Assembly Makeup

Adenan, who has abolished bridge toll charges, lowered electricity tariffs and implemented policies supportive of Chinese-language education in Sarawak, said this month he is confident of BN winning at least 60 to 70 seats.

Sarawak is also the subject of perennial allegations that both opposition and government parties have offered cash for votes. A court ruled that BN’s victory in the Bukit Begunan constituency in the 1996 state election was null and void on the grounds of vote-buying. BN won the subsequent by-election.

Nicholas Mujah, secretary general of Sarawak Dayak Iban Association.
Nicholas Mujah, secretary general of Sarawak Dayak Iban Association.
Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

“Sarawak politics is all about money, nothing is an issue,” said Nicholas Mujah, secretary of the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association who helps the indigenous group fight land rights cases.

Mujah, whose parents live in a traditional longhouse, stood as an opposition party candidate in the 2013 federal election and lost. Some voters would probably accept as little as 30 ringgit from parties for their vote, he said. “Election is like fruit season, it’s time to get money.”

Urban Voters

A spokesman for Adenan said his office won’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment on last year’s boundary redraw, and claims by opposition politicians of vote buying.

Special Report: Malaysia 1MDB Controversy

Voters in urban areas are more inclined toward national issues. “Najib should call for a general election now to see if voters still support him,” said Chew, 55, an ethnic Chinese opposition supporter in the capital Kuching who would only give her surname. “Of course 1MDB matters. It is Malaysia’s money, it is our money.”

Najib Razak at a cheque presentation ceremony in Kuching on April 17.
Najib Razak at a cheque presentation ceremony in Kuching on April 17.
Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

And the development promised by Najib’s government hasn’t reached everyone. Iban farmers Jaya and Nuli said indigenous groups are sidelined. About 40 percent of Sarawak people are non-Muslim natives, collectively known as Dayaks, while Malay Muslims are about a quarter of the population.

“When there’s a Malay village, there will be tarred road all the way to their house,” the duo said collectively through a translator at their wooden longhouse in the foothills of remote Sebuyau town. “If you go to an Iban area and the road is very nice, something must be wrong.”

Still, Najib’s allies are counting on distance to keep his troubles at bay.

“Over here Najib is not a problem,” said James Masing, Sarawak’s land development minister. “1MDB is not our problem. That’s Najib and you guys’ problem over there. It doesn’t affect us.”

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