Sarawak election diary

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The much anticipated 10th Sarawak state election came and went. Although the election results showed a breakthrough for the opposition, especially in urban areas, the wind of change did not blow strongly enough for a change of government to take place. The significance of the dramatic results is yet to be understood fully. Ivy Kwek describes the challenges of two weeks of campaigning in unfamiliar territory.

I jumped on the bandwagon of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) campaign in Sibu, as I believe in change for good, for the country; as much as I would like to be perceived as neutral, I believe in getting involved.

Apr 1 — Arrived last night, we take a slow start with a sight-seeing tour and gett ing-to-know-you session with our local counterparts. The locals have already been working on the ground, launching operation centres in different corners to handle voter status checking services and other enquiries.

Apr 2 — Everywhere we go, we bring along “Ubah” – yes, that cute little hornbill that tweets and has a Facebook account. Very soon, he is seen appearing in many parts of Sarawak (and since then has made headlines and become a personality of his own).

April 3 — It’s Sunday but the real work has just begun for me and my colleagues. I am part of the communication team for the campaign, which is tasked with handling messaging and information dissemination. The day is spent planning strategy and setting up the centre. All eyes are on Lim Guan Eng, the secretary-general of DAP, as he announces the candidates for DAP. Th e team line-up looks promising – five freshies out of 15, four females out of 15, and a low average age of 39 years. Just heard the news that Native Customary Rights (NCR) activist Steven Ng is barred from entering Sarawak. A sign that “war” has begun.

April 4 — More volunteers from the peninsula arrive as Monday dawns.

April 5 — Have a depressing conversation with a teenage Iban girl. She couldn’t continue her studies after sixth form because her father is ill, and there is no university near Sibu. There is no electricity in her village, which makes it very hard for her to work on her assignments at home on her laptop. “What’s the point of giving us handouts during elections when they can’t solve our basic (infrastructure) needs?” she asks. Another lady in her 30s says that many politicians had made promises since she was a child, but these had never been fulfilled.

April 6 — Nomination day. Th e candidates and their contingents march to the respective nomination centres. It is clearly one of the most fiercely contested state elections, as all 71 seats are being contested. The nomination opens at 9am, lasts for an hour, and is open for objections for another hour. 

All of the seats have their nominations received without controversy, except for one – Muhammad Ali Mahmud, the brother of Sarawak Chief Minister, Taib Mahmud, is seeking to contest in Muara Tuang. He has not produced his financial statement for his 2006 election campaign upon submission of nomination, which is a requirement under election laws. However, the Election Commission dismisses the objection and accepts him as a valid candidate, and he is allowed to submit the statement at a later date. DAP begins its fi rst ceramahs in the evening in various towns. The team is greeted by a considerable crowd, which is an encouragement.

Supporters from Limbang praying before the nomination.

April 7 — One of the most interesting aspects of the campaign are the banners and billboards along the roadsides. Barisan Nasional (BN), the incumbent state government, leverages on its long experience in Sarawak and pledges to continue to serve the community and preserve unity. Chieng Buong Toon, the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) candidate who is also a local councillor (he earned the name “dredging councillor” for his work in clearing up blocked drains) leverages on his good name by putting up pictures of him helping out a local woman. At the other end, Pakatan Rakyat (Pakatan) has vowed to end corruption, highlighting recent allegations against the Chief Minister – his unexplainable wealth, his long tenure as Chief Minister and his family’s close links with government projects – juxtaposed against the low standards of living in the state. Pakatan banners and billboards plead for “Change”.

April 8 — Another NGO activist, Dr Wong Chin Huat, is barred from entering Sarawak upon his arrival at Kuching Airport. (He nevertheless succeeds in entering the state by flying to Sibu instead.)

April 9 — A message has been sent out to urge Sarawak voters living away from the state to return home to vote. The choice of date for polling day is not convenient – the week before polling day is Ching Ming (All Soul’s Day for the Chinese), while the week after is Hari Gawai, the harvest festival for the Ibans. It is financially difficult for many of the estimated 200,000 Sarawakians living outside the state to return home twice in such a short period of time (especially students).

April 10 — The battle of the banners is getting interesting with the rival parties now trading insults. To the SUPP’s claim “I’m here!”, DAP responds with, “for what?”. The latter also makes a travesty of the former’s billboard which claims that they are “One heart for Sibu” and changes it to “One heart for Pek Moh” (a reference to Taib Mahmud), implying that the BN’s intentions lie elsewhere.

April 11 — Postal voting starts today. The Malaysian electoral system allows postal voting for police personnel, members of the armed forces and Election Commission workers who are on duty on polling day. Six days before polling day, postal votes are issued through a procedure witnessed by agents from all contesting parties, and “posted”.

In actual fact however, only a very small number of overseas votes are sent by post.The postal votes for police personnel and members of the armed forces are dispatched by police and military offi cials respectively to designated police stations and army camps, whereas Election Commission workers are required to collect their own postal votes from the issuing centre.

Upon arrival at the issuing centre, Election Commission workers have a choice of either voting on the spot or to take the ballot papers back and return them later – a lenient provision that is not enjoyed by normal voters. The postal voting station will be open for six days until polling day.

In the face of a system that is prone to abuses, polling agents are sent to postal voting centres to ensure that postal votes are issued according to the official list, that the votes are picked up by the voters themselves and that the ballot boxes are not moved or stuffed with extra papers. For those votes that are dispatched to army camps or police stations, polling agents follow the car containing the ballot boxes to ensure that the boxes do not get “lost” along the way.

Below: A DAP billboard in Sibu.

A helicopter which is taking the Deputy Prime Minister on his rounds suddenly crashes in the town square. Sadly, the pilot does not survive the accident.

April 12 — Suspicions run high when the Malaysiakini and Sarawak Report websites come under a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) att ack. The next day, a large part of Sarawak experiences bad internet connection.

A DAP party worker in Sibu catches on video a group of people purportedly involved in vote-buying. A man is caught handing three or four women orange coloured papers similar to ballot papers. When they realise that they are being filmed, they quickly disperse into the crowd. Th ough the women later deny buying votes when contacted, this incident highlights the vulnerability of the system towards abuse.

April 13 — Yet another NGO activist is barred from entering Sarawak. This time it is Haris Ibrahim, the president of the Malaysian Civil Liberties Movement.

SUPP replies (via banners), “I’m here! Where are you?”

April 14 — In Sibu, DAP makes a late hour call for people from Peninsular Malaysia to volunteer as polling agents and counting agents. Polling agents and counting agents play a very vital role in ensuring a clean and fair election. For all the negative comments heaped on the Malaysian electoral system, it does allow polling agents and counting agents from all parties to observe the voting process.

Agents are entitled to object to any irregularities that they observe. The volunteers from Peninsular Malaysia are to be sent as a reinforcement team to the Iban areas where vote-buying is supposedly most rampant (I believe it is hard to resist the offer of RM100 per vote if your monthly income is only RM500).

A supporter at a rally clutching her Ubah doll in Kuching. Ubah, DAP’s mascot during the Sarawak elections was a major hit with supporters. DAP sold out of more than 20,000 dolls by the middle of the campaign in April.

An obvious problem facing the Pakatan campaign is the issue of manpower. At least one agent (two if we are to allow agents to take turns as most polling stations open from 8am–5pm) is needed for every ballot box as every vote counts, and there are around 40 to 50 ballot boxes for every constituency seat. In hotly contested seats where the margins of victory are narrow, it can take only 10 ballot papers stuff ed into each box for a winner to be overturned.

The response is encouraging, not only from party members but also members of the public who have no political background. It is not about volunteering for a political party, but for a cleaner and fairer election, and a better democracy.

April 15 — The message of the campaign continues to evolve. Sensing great dissatisfaction on the ground against the Sarawak Chief Minister, SUPP turns defensive in promising the departure of Taib Mahmud after the election in hope of salvaging support. Pakatan attempts to portray a positive outlook by campaigning that a vote for change will be a vote for a bett er future for the next generation.

Both sides are geared up for the last day’s rally. In Sibu, the rally sites of both rival parties are located close to each other and separated by a bridge. I watch the masses of people going back and forth along the bridge, rally-hopping! This scene sums up democracy for me, how voters are entitled to choose their leader, and how they need to be convinced and not coerced. Both rallies draw a huge crowd (although some may argue that the crowd in the BN rally only turned up for performances by pop stars Nicholas Teo and Michael Wong!). In other parts of Sarawak, spirits run high in the opposition rallies

April 16, 6am – It is D-day! We’ve just sent off a fl ock of polling agents to their respective polling stations. Two weeks have gone by so quickly and much has been done to woo voters. Now it’s decision time! I didn’t sleep last night; too busy doing last minute preparations for the polling and counting agents. I need to get some sleep!

1pm — Results start streaming in. Most polling stations close at 5pm, although some in the outskirts which have smaller numbers of voters close earlier according to schedules fixed by the Election Commission. We set up a temporary tally centre to keep supporters updated, with a screen for the crowd gathered in front of the office. Every time the numbers go up, cheers are heard from the outside of the office, as if we’re showing a World Cup final. Goal! DAP just took Meradong. Kota Sentosa is won too, as expected. Even George Chan is defeated in Miri! Batu Kawah is catching up and yes, we’ve just made it…

The latest result to arrive is Dudong. Th e counting of the votes is tense until DAP finally leads by a thousand votes. At that time, the counting of the postal votes for the constituency – about 700 votes in total – has yet to be completed. Just as the DAP team is about to celebrate its unofficial victory, a blackout occurs in the counting centre. Fortunately, the matter is resolved amicably between the leaders of both parties without unnecessary chaos.

In view of the numerous allegations of vote-buying and sabotage, one must ask if our Election Commission has been playing its role competently, like a referee during a football match, to ensure that competition is fair. Can our electoral system be improved, in areas such as postal voting, gerrymandering and even the choice of polling date, to ensure a truly level playing field?

After the final votes are cast, the campaign comes to an end. DAP fares bett er with 12 seats compared to the six won in the previous election. Hopefully a stronger opposition will provide a better, more effective “check and balance” in the state assembly. This is the beginning of a new chapter for Sarawak.

Ivy Kwek is the Research Officer for Parliamentary Affairs for DAP and was stationed at Sibu during the campaign.



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