Victory for the incumbent at Malaysian state elections in Sarawak has been billed by the government-friendly press as a turning point for the embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak. The state poll was won by chief minister Adenan Satem and Najib was quick to claim the credit.
But any applause for Najib is misplaced and overlooks Adenan’s popularity, which was achieved on the back of promised reforms and his stand against corruption in the aftermath of his predecessor Taib Mahmud, who retired with his family ranked among the world’s richest following over three decades at the helm of Sarawak.
This weekend’s election was not a test of national policies. It was fought on local issues in a state, which legally is an equal part of a three-way Malaysian federation that encompasses neighboring Sabah and the Malaysia peninsula.
In the election, Barisan Nasional (BN), the ruling coalition which is led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) which Najib heads, secured 72 out of 82 seats. UMNO has been the dominant party within BN at the federal level ever since Britain told Malaysia it was time to evolve into a country in its own right. That was almost 60 years ago and ever since then, politicians have enjoyed conflating the two political outfits when it suits their political purposes.
In this case, it is quite clear that Najib attempted to steal the headlines and craft national-level spin for a local story written by Adenan, who had earned high marks after Taib stood down by promising to respect the rights of the long-marginalized indigenous tribes, crack down on corruption and “put the fear of god into people who are dishonest.”
Illegal logging and allegations of massive fraud in Sarawak have been documented by Global Witness and the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), and Adenan’s reformist zeal was widely praised as refreshing and struck an immediate chord with the electorate.
BMF even noted that for the first time in the history of Sarawak a chief minister had shown some mettle by taking on the timber industry.
Of corrupt officials who profited under Taib, Adenan declared at the outset: “Some, of course not all, pretend they don’t know. The reason is very simple; either they are stupid, cowards or corrupt.”
This was not Najib’s policy prescription. Indeed, any comparisons between the prime minister and politicians in the East Malaysian state should probably lie with Taib Mahmud.
Najib’s name, and that of his free-spending wife Rosmah, has been synonymous with scandal even before he ousted his predecessor to become leader in 2009.
The acquisition of the French Scorpene submarines, the death of a Mongolian model and more recently losses incurred by the 1MDB investment fund have severely tarnished his leadership and led to speculation that he could be forced to ignominiously stand down.
Hence his need to desperately claim some kind of victory out of this weekend’s state polls in Sarawak, a much needed shot in the arm for the BN coalition, rather UMNO or Najib. In fact, Adenan warned he would quit BN if UMNO tried to compete in politics at the state level.
Malaysia’s longest serving leader and Najib’s chief critic Mahathir Mohamad proved gullible. He all but accused Najib of buying support ahead of the polls suggesting: “Now more than ever Najib will have to pander to the demands of Sarawak. In fact, Najib has been doing just that.”
“Anything that Sarawak asks for, Sarawak will get. The cry of Sarawak for the Sarawakians has become louder,” Mahathir, who was himself often troubled by the independent-minded nature of Sarawak and Sabah during his premiership, said.
Mahathir’s response was simply a cliché in response to Najib’s hollow boast and ignores Adenan’s attempts to end the corruption which flourished under Taib – and much of that while Mahathir was prime minister.
As Oh Ei Sun, Najib’s own former political secretary, put it: “BN’s overwhelming Sarawak win is due mainly to the Adenan factor.”
He told CNBC that Adenan had ushered in fresh reforms after more than three decades of rule by Taib and Sarawakian voters were now willing to give him another five years to prove his mantle.
“The win has very little wider implications as to the popularity of national BN,” he said.
That should be cold comfort for Najib rather than reason for applause.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt