Malaysia's Premier Has Little to Fear in Nation's Biggest State

  • Fractured oppostion struggling to make inroads in Sarawak
  • Najib is weighing when to call the next general election

A largely uncontested by-election in Sarawak reaffirmed the strength of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s base in a key Malaysian state, showing the challenges his opponents face to defeat him in the next general election.

Jamilah Anu, the widow of popular former Chief Minister Adenan Satem, easily won Saturday’s vote to fill a local assembly seat in Sarawak, one of two Malaysian states on Borneo island. It had been left vacant by the death of her husband in January, and major national opposition parties chose not to contest out of respect.

Najib Razak with a crowd of supporters in Kuala Lumpur.

Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

That’s good news for Najib, who has weathered more than a year of scandals and is weighing the right time to call the next federal election due by mid-2018. Sarawak and neighboring Sabah accounted for about a third of his Barisan Nasional coalition’s seats in the last general election, and signs of waning support there would boost the opposition’s chances of taking power for the first time since independence in 1957.

“Najib can be assured that Sarawak BN will pretty much deliver its share of seats for the parliamentary election,” said Ibrahim Suffian, an analyst at the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research in Kuala Lumpur. “A lot depends on whether they can come up with a credible leader for the opposition. As things are right now, there isn’t one in the offing.”

Najib Scandals

The BN-led coalition retained power in 2013 with its slimmest margin ever, and would have lost if not for the Borneo states. Since then Najib has been mired in controversy surrounding several international investigations into alleged corruption and money laundering by public officials at 1Malaysia Development Bhd., the national development fund whose advisory board he had chaired.

Yet opposition parties have struggled to take advantage of Najib’s woes. The coalition that banded together four years ago under the leadership of Anwar Ibrahim has fractured since his imprisonment following a sodomy conviction and has yet to find a way to regroup.

Voters in Sarawak ignored the 1MDB scandal during a state election last year, handing the ruling coalition an even bigger majority in the local assembly. Rather than banding together to take on BN, the two major opposition parties -- the Democratic Action Party and People’s Justice Party -- returned to previous habits of fighting against each other.

The city of Kuching in Sarawak.

Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

The ruling coalition had a clear appeal to voters, promising handouts to the poor and a pipeline of development projects, including construction of a 28.9 billion ringgit ($6.5 billion) highway linking the two Borneo states. BN was also buoyed by Adenan, the deceased chief minister, who led the coalition’s election campaign and became popular by fighting for issues close to the hearts of Sarawak voters, including greater autonomy for the state.

Fixed Deposit

Baru Bian, the head of People’s Justice Party in Sarawak, said the opposition was willing to sit out Saturday’s election out of respect for Adenan and to give his successor a chance to carry out his vision.

“They are the same issues that we have been championing,” Baru said. “The question now is whether he is going to deliver. When the time comes for the general election, that is how the people will judge.”

Opposition parties also realize they face an image problem in the Borneo states, including that they are too focused on peninsular Malaysia, which sits across the South China Sea and is home to both the country’s economic capital, Kuala Lumpur, and its administrative one, Putrajaya.

“To me, one major key to getting into Putrajaya is Sabah and Sarawak,” Lim Guan Eng, secretary-general of the Democratic Action Party, said at a news conference on Feb. 7. “But it appears today that we have forgotten about Sabah and Sarawak.”

He suggested the opposition needed to do a better job of highlighting the scandals surrounding Najib to voters in Borneo rather than “preaching to the converted.”

Ruling coalition members are confident that as long as they follow through on promises made in local campaigns they will remain a bulwark against the opposition, said James Masing, one of Sarawak’s two deputy chief ministers and a BN legislator.

“Sarawak will remain a BN fixed deposit,” he said.

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