Borneo still BN’s as cash handouts resonate more than corruption, analysts say

The popularity of Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem (pictured) will even out any major shift in support for the opposition, according to a political analyst. — File pic
The popularity of Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem (pictured) will even out any major shift in support for the opposition, according to a political analyst. — File pic

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KOTA KINABALU, Oct 11 — Sabah and Sarawak will remain Barisan Nasional’s (BN) vote bank should elections be held now as tangible assistance like fishing nets matter more to the impoverished rural electorate than abstract issues like corruption or autonomy, analysts said.

While some urban and semi urban seats may swing in the opposition’s favour as the economy declines amid controversy surrounding state investment firm 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) that is under investigation, the rising popularity of Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem will even out any major shifts, according to pundits.

“The opposition party here still fails to strike a chord with the majority rural voters of Sabah and Sarawak. The issues they bring up are valid, but at the end of the day, bread and butter issues are what will win over their votes,” political scientist Dr Faisal Hazis told Malay Mail Online.

The associate professor at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS) in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia said old issues like illegal immigrants and autonomy, or new ones like the 1MDB controversy and the weakening economy, did not resonate with rural voters.

“As unhappy as they are with the government, they still see some value in the BN – an occasional fertiliser subsidy, a repaired bridge, a kindergarten, fishing nets, these cash handouts although not to their satisfaction, means the BN has actually penetrated their lives.

“The opposition, on the other hand, have little presence, and many do not know what really makes them tick. Corruption, democracy, fulfilling of the 18 or 20 points, autonomy, works with an urban area, but this means nothing to the majority rural voters who struggle to put food on their table,” he said, referring to the 18 and 20-Point Agreements for Sarawak and Sabah respectively.

Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) political communication senior lecturer Dr Jeniri Amir said it was not unexpected that Sabah and Sarawak voters had more faith in the ruling BN government, given the opposition’s lack of financial resources and exposure in mainstream media.

“The opposition have a challenge ahead of them to make inroads into rural east Malaysia. You cannot expect them to bring much tangible development. At the moment, they do well in their role as the watchdog for the BN government in the two states,” said Jeniri.

He said opposition parties should continue to educate voters and increase their political awareness that will eventually lead to more mature mindsets.

“This will take time – maybe another ten to 15 years. But meanwhile, they should continue to educate their voters, take on and built their presence,” he said.

Analysts warned BN, however, that the ruling coalition should not assume that Sabah and Sarawak will always back them as the rumblings of autonomy and secession, while they did not translate to loss of votes now, would only get louder if left unaddressed.

“The government cannot turn a blind eye to these aspirations, it’s a real manifestation of the marginalised rural people. Neglecting this sentiment will lead to more trouble, and both the state and federal leaders should be concerned,” said Jeniri, who said a recent survey in rural Sarawak indicates that more than 50 per cent of the people felt marginalised.

Another survey Jeniri conducted saw Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s popularity plummet to below 40 per cent, though BN was expected to retain support in Sarawak, he said.

Hazis, who said that the battlefield in the next general elections will be Malay areas in peninsular Malaysia, said that the Sabah opposition needed a credible Bumiputera leader to pull the pact together and to capture the non-Malay Bumiputera segment.

“However, if the opposition can win more Malay seats while retaining the non-Malay, then they have grounds for negotiation with Sabah and Sarawak political parties – then they can really playing the role of kingmakers,” he said.

In the last 2013 elections, Sabah and Sarawak alone delivered enough parliamentary seats to help BN win a simple majority, although the opposition made substantial inroads into urban and semi-urban areas in both states.

Out of the 25 parliamentary seats in Sabah, 22 were won by BN while their Sarawak counterparts hold 24 out of 31 seats.

Rural areas constitute 18 of the 25 federal seats in Sabah, as well as 25 out of 31 in Sarawak.

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