Sibu By Election: Women votes crucial
SIBU, May 1, Malaysian Insider — Wooing the women voters is crucial for Barisan Nasional (BN) in retaining the Sibu parliamentary seat in the May 16 by-election, says Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) deputy women’s wing chief, Datin Fatimah Abdullah.
She said women voters made up slightly more than half of the 54,695 voters in the constituency.
“Today’s women will make their own decision. They no longer follow what the men say. They will evaluate what is happening and what is good for themselves and their children.
“That’s why women voters have a very important role in the Sibu by-election. As there are slightly more women voters than men here, we want the women to help convince the men to get solid support for BN to retain the seat,” she told reporters, here, today.
Earlier, Fatimah launched the ICT with K-Bestari Workshop and 1 Malaysia Local Content Competition organised by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) at the Methodist Pilley Institute.
Fatimah, who is also Minister in the Chief Minister’s Office, said Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s leadership would have a positive impact on the Sibu by-election.
She said Najib introduced many initiatives such as the 1 Malaysia concept, New Economic Model (NEM), Government Transformation Plan (GTP) and National Key Result Areas (NKRA) in promoting unity, bringing progress and moving the country to a higher level of development.
“The people can see the changes that have been brought by the prime minister within one year in office which benefit the people in many areas which are close to their hearts,” she said.
The by-election has been called following the death of deputy transport minister and five-term Sibu MP Datuk Robert Lau Hoi Chew from liver cancer on April 9.
Nomination day for the by-election is May 8 and polling on May 16.
Lawyer Robert Lau Hui Yew, 45, is the BN candidate to defend the seat while Sarawak DAP chairman and Bukit Assek assemblyman, Wong Ho Leng, 50, will be contesting against him. — Bernama
By Sheridan Mahavera
SIBU, April 27 — The first thing you notice about Sibu are the roads. Smooth, even stretches are as rare on Sibu roads as courteous drivers. Travelling on them is a teeth-shattering experience not unlike riding a boat during heavy swells.
According to a local businessman, almost every Sibu driver has had a flat at least once in his life that was caused by either a sink-hole or a sharp bump.
It is an issue that will certainly be a hot campaign topic in the upcoming Sibu Parliamentary by-election.
What is often unmentioned is that this renowned town on the bank of Malaysia’s largest river was built on peat soil, which sinks everything from roads to houses.
But that aspect of Sibu’s land — that it is difficult to build or grow most things on — has blended into the identity and sense of place of Sibu residents in a way that is different than most other people’s relationship with their environment.
In other words, a Sibu resident relates to the land differently than a person from other riverine towns such as Alor Star or Klang.
For the founding spirit of today’s Sibu, which flows thickly through its majority Foochow Chinese, is that they conquered this land — that they persevered and built one of the wealthiest towns in East Malaysia, despite the swamp, the snakes and the rampaging head-hunting tribes.
So the reasoning is if their ancestors can do all that and get rich doing it, why can today’s politicians and administrators not build something as simple as flat roads?
But this by-election will be more than tapping that Foochow “can do” attitude to solve pot holes.
It is about coming to terms with the fact that what made Sibu rich also led to its eventual decline both in terms of infrastructure, a place to live in and standing as Sarawak’s former “Number Two city.”
Built on wood
What is known as Sibu today was built up from a mostly Malay Melanau hamlet on the bank of the Rejang river by the thousands of Fujian Chinese migrants shipped in during the 1900s.
They were brought in by a businessman named Wong Nai Siong, who was contracted by English White Rajah, Charles Brooke, to provide labourers to clear and open up this outpost.
Like its sister settlement in Sitiawan, Perak, a Foochow family would be given as much land as they could clear, says local history researcher Johnny Hii.
The settlers first planted rubber until the mid-60s, when some of the more enterprising families discovered that they could make a whole lot more money from the ancient trees in Sarawak’s interior.
Timber for Sibu was what tin was to Ipoh. According to municipal councillor and SUPP’s candidate for the upcoming by-election, Robert Lau Hui Yew, Sibu became a global capital for tropical wood and the local companies that grew rich on it are some of the world’s biggest players.
The industry, which included logging and sawmilling, was so big it practically fed every other business in town, from banking to logistics to shipping.
It also birthed two of Sarawak’s biggest dynasties, the Rimbunan Hijau (RH) and KTS conglomerates.
The two of them are among the biggest timber firms in the world and their companies have vast and varied interests, from oil palm to hotels and ICT.
But critics such as the Sarawak DAP see their prominence as an unhealthy dominance in Sibu.
KTS is controlled by the family of the late Deputy Transport Minister Datuk Robert Lau Hoi Chew. Hoi Chew’s “successor” and cousin Hui Yew, is the youngest son of KTS Group chairman, Lau Swee Nguong.
RH is controlled by the family of Tiong Thai King, the MP for Lanang. His constituency is roughly one half of the Sibu town area.
The parties that they represent, the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) and the Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party are Chinese-majority multi-racial outfits that are lynchpins of Sarawak Barisan Nasional.
KTS owns national Chinese newspaper, Oriental Daily, and Borneo Post, east Malaysia’s largest English language newspaper.
Tiong Thai King’s brother, RH founder Tan Sri Tiong Hiew King, controls two of Malaysia’s most popular Chinese dailies, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Guang Ming Daily.
“The politics, business, jobs everything in Sibu is controlled by these two,” claimed Sarawak DAP publicity secretary David Wong.
From Number Two city to Number Four
When he first opened his furniture shop in the 70s, Lee Seng Ling remembers how Sibu was so awash with money there was practically a bank on every street corner.
Then sometime in the mid-90s, it all started drying up. The timber camps started folding, there was no more rattan and people stopped planting pepper.
And then businesses started dying and the young began leaving for Kuching, Sabah, West Malaysia and Australia.
By the turn of the century, aside from the two conglomerates and a few smaller timber tycoons, no one was making much money in Sibu.
Many of the white collar jobs were also with either KTS or RH, says David Wong, who returned from Canada in 1986 and could only get an offer from KTS, which he turned down.
The decline of Sibu coincided with the loss in support for the SUPP, which has traditionally represented Sibu.
The SUPP has both lost and regained two Parliamentary and three state seats from the DAP in a succession of various general and state elections from 1982 to 2006.
SUPP’s most spectacular defeat thus far was in the 1996 state elections, when its then president and Sarawak deputy chief minister, Tan Sri Wong Soon Kai, lost the Bukit Assek seat to the DAP’s Richard Wong Ho Leng.
Another shopkeeper who remembers that election speculates that Soon Kai was booted out by voters who were tired of his unfulfilled promises.
“He kept promising to bring in development but never delivered,” says the businessman who requested anonymity.
It was in 1990 when Hoi Chew, a former municipal council chairman, became its MP that things started looking up.
The senior Robert is widely credited with putting in place a slew of measures aimed at ending the rot and neglect.
He reorganised the town’s haphazard traffic flow, put all the hawkers and produce sellers under one roof, built parks and got people to start paying attention to cleanliness.
Yet, for all Hoi Chew did for the look and feel of Sibu, there is a sense that he never really brought the money and jobs back in.
This is probably one reason why despite consistently holding on to Sibu, the SUPP cannot manage to get more than half of the support from the Chinese who make up more than 60 per cent of its 53,000-odd voters.
“It used to be dead a few years back,” says Nahizam Umar, of what Sibu has to offer for kids like him.
Nahizam and his friends regularly gather at the town’s landmark “Sibu Gateway” to breakdance and practise routines for competitions in town and through-out Sarawak.
The 24-year-old says there are now more X-games competitions, more basketball tournaments and dance events in Sibu to keep youths occupied.
He also does not agree that there are no jobs or prospects.
“If you take a look at the youths in this town, some of them are just not interested in working.”
Just like he says, many of the shops and restaurants in Sibu’s town centre have vacancy postings.
Problem is, wages are paltry and because retailers are held back by a shrinking consumer base, they cannot afford to pay more.
It is a dilemma a computer hardware store owner faces when he ponders the future of his business and that of his family.
“We are seriously thinking of relocating to Kota Kinabalu. The market there is huge and stores like mine say they sell computers ‘like jual sayur’ (like vegetables),” says the store owner who declined to be identified.
“Everyone is moving out of Sibu. Families are relocating to Kuching just to give their kids a better education.”
He could be persuaded to stay in Sibu if the powers-that-be brought in a catalyst that could spark up the economy again such as a university.
“It would create the jobs, the market and the incomes necessary for businesses to really do well.”
Ho Leng, who is also Sarawak DAP chairman, says the SUPP promised to bring in the Tunku Abdul Rahman college in the 1996 election — the same year deputy chief minister Soon Kai was defeated.
The harbinger of things to come
Apart from its roads, perhaps the only thing more distressing is the annual floods that submerge the downtown area, at times with up to chest-high smelly water.
In places such as Bukit Assek, it only takes one hour of rain to flood the ground floor of its sunken houses.
It is a given that this is a by-election issue and in the minds of residents, it is a graphic sign of how far their town has decayed.
The Federal government is building bunds and pump houses as part of a RM237 million flood mitigation project but there is an undercurrent of resentment about why the floods occur, says the DAP.
“The Rejang river became very shallow because all the logging filled it with siltation,” says Ho Leng.
When the monsoon pours in upstream areas like Kapit, the water gushes down towards Sibu.
SUPP prospective candidate Hui Yew counters that floods are an act of God and the BN party is bringing in the necessary funds to fix the problem.
“We don’t just criticise, we do something about it,” says Lau.
But what is harder to explain away, says a DAP sympathiser, is that although timber seemed to do so much for Sibu in the beginning, in the end, it benefitted only a select group of people.
“The rest of us just get the floods.”
Though it may not be said outright, both the SUPP and DAP know that the campaign ahead will be cast in those terms — whether the people of Sibu should still trust the forces that have held sway over their town to do what’s best for them.
And in the larger picture, that question is also at the heart of the state elections which will likely be called later this year.
Sibu will hopefully provide a glimpse of how that question will be answered.
comment The by-election machine of BN switched on right on the day (April 9th) the incumbent five term MP of Sibu, Robert Lau, passed away after a long battle with cancer at the age of 66.
Already waiting in the wing was his replacement, 45-year-old Robert Lau Hui Yew (right). He is actually the cousin (not the son, as some might assume), of the late deputy transport minister.
He has introduced himself as ‘little Robert’ or xiao luobo in Chinese, to emphasise his lineage.
The parents of both Roberts pioneered KTS trading, which is involved in multiple businesses throughout the country as well as abroad. The corporate activities range from logging, plantation, and fertiliser manufacturing, to sale of power saws, heavy machinery, air-conditioners, construction materials, garden tools, as well as bee farming, media and travel services.
The group, one of six major timber companies of Sarawak, also invests in Indonesia, China, Australia and Brazil in timber, plantations, construction and other businesses.
Recently KTS’s tree plantation project in the Baram area of the northern Sarawak touched off a controversy when affected Penan communities staged a road blockade late last year.
However, its international image remain largely undamaged as contrasted with its rival, the Rimbunan Hijau group, another Sibu based timber company.
KTS dominates the various local language media of Sarawak. The group owns See Hua, Borneo Post and Utusan Borneo that reach a good number of readers throughout the state, as well as Sabah. They also own a national Chinese paper, Oriental Daily that seems less competitive than the Sin Chew, the RH group’s national daily.
With these advantages, little Robert’s entered the public consciousness at the funeral of the senior Robert (right) to mark the beginning of Lau family’s effort to develop its new representative in the political arena.
Sibu residents know that KTS has always had a policy of having a family member sitting in Parliament. Back in 2004 while the senior Robert’s health was still intact, little Robert had already been chosen as his successor.
Hui Yew which literally means “able to shine” finished his secondary education in the mission- run elite Sacred Heart school and continued his tertiary education by reading law in Australia.
His name appeared in the board of directors in several of the KTS subsidiaries, including the plantation industry which is currently establishing an oil palm plantation across the Igan Bridge opposite the Sibu Town Square.
Incidentally, open burning there, and at the neighbouring RH plantation to clear peat swamps caused a near inferno last April. The local environment authority claimed that the fire went beyond the scale permitted. The boss of RH plantation is also the town mayor of Sibu and MP for Lanang. Despite being business rivals, they seem to have much in common.
Little Robert has maintained a low profile before becoming a member of the Sibu Municipal Council. The public is now informed that he was formerly active in sport.
It is probable he is wants to portray an image attractive to young voters – 37.5 percent of the electorate are aged below 40. He is also launching a Facebook campaign.
Unlike his elder cousin, an accountant by profession, “xiao Luobo” a corporate lawyer is expected to play a positive political role.
His party, Sarawak United People Party (SUPP) is keen to portray him as a Mr Clean, as opposed to the senior Robert who was rumoured to have links with Sibu secret societies.
However, the ability of the younger Robert is yet to be tested while the senior Robert is still remembered for his contribution to the street orderliness and rubbish management.
Over the past weeks, the candidate-to-be who also heads the sanitation committee of the town council, has paid special attention to meeting the hawkers in the central market. His visit to a church kindergarten’s toilet was very impressive as his humbled himself to tapi (shake hands, in local Iban) the children.
As an observer, I first met little Robert during the 12th national election in 2008 in front of a polling station. He was accompanying his team in distributing food and drink to some people. When he saw me wearing a Mafrel name tag he immediately branded me as a west Malaysian. Perhaps, in his mind, the troublemaker had to an export of the Peninsula!
He challenged me to speak Foochow, the Sibu dominant Chinese dialect, prove I was a local.
It would not be too far wrong to say that SUPP does not want the interference of Semenanjung people be it Pakatan, Umno or NGOs.
Delivering the votes
Having said quite a bit on the personal character and background on little Robert, let me come to some points on whether he would deliver.
In the 12th Parliamentary Election, BN won less than 40 percent of the Chinese votes of the Palawan state constituency.
SUPP’s Sibu chief, Soon Koh (far right) could not understand why Sibuans were so “ungrateful”.
We know that the main portions of Sibu are built on peat swamp. Often there’s the problem of sinking ground. The situation can get worst as new construction takes place without proper planning or shortcuts taken due to corruption.
Residents of the low lying areas are experiencing more frequent floods year by year. Promises for better drainage remain as promises. A bund system along the river bank following the Dutch model has been proposed for several years.
However, as time passes, the mighty Rajang continues to be silted up by indiscriminate logging activities upstream. With the impoundment of the Bakun Dam, more uncertainties can be expected soon. The patience of Sibu people is running out.
Common sense says that upstream management and excavation of riverbed sand would be a better solution.
It is rather hard for little Robert to convince the people that he can solve the problems that his senior could not.
If this is the case, he is unlikely to obtain more Chinese votes than his predecessor. The Chinese votes of P.212 Sibu makes up 66.7 percent of the total vote, and that swing is probably very slim as most of the urbanites’ minds have already made up their minds
An analysis of the last parliamentary result reveals that BN got two-third of the Malay votes that comprise 10.4 percent of the updated electoral roll.
SUPP actually pays less attention to the Malay voters as that was left to PBB, the state’s BN component party headed by Taib Mahmud (right), a Malanao Muslim. A good number of Malays in Sibu are not happy with Taib’s leadership, perhaps, due to a mixture of racial sentiment and for receiving little share of the economic cake. We remember well that the flags of UMNO were once flying high in the Kampungs before the formation of PKR.
With the setting up of PKR branch in Nangka (one of the three state constituencies within the Sibu Parliamentary constituency) the same handsome majority may not recur among the Malay votes.
As for the Iban votes (33 percent) of the Bawan Assan state constituency, only about one quarter went to the opposition in 2008. These are votes in the bank for BN.
NCR land rights
Lau’s efforts, which is largely concentrated among the Chinese, would count for little should NCR land rights awareness issue find its way to the longhouse folks.
However, this may not be the case for this by-election as few land disputes have surfaced in these outskirts of Sibu.
However, as more and more indigenous customary lands in the constituency are now being issued to the corporate sector, including the Hua Seng Oil Palm Plantation related with KTS, conflicts could surface soon, similar to what many other longhouses throughout the state are experiencing.
Little Robert, who sits on many board of directors in the corporate world, cannot hide himself and it won’t be easy for him to resolve the conflicting interests he represents.
However, he should be optimistic of his chances of winning as his campaign would be fully supported by his family fortune as well as the official funds that have already been pouring in.
Already a grant of RM2 million for four primary schools during the Education Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin’s (left) visit on April 19th has been promised.
The fight for the seat, likely a straightforward one to one battle, is expected to be very tough. We can expect the both sides to mobilise their respective human and material resources that would make Sibu as busy as Bangkok.
In spite of the opposition’s effort to strategically form the Pakatan Rayat for the by-election with four component parties, namely, PKR, DAP, PAS and SNAP, the advantage is still on the side of BN. This is because Pakatan’s machinery simply cannot match the BN’s.
In this sense, the little Robert may be able to shine, but whether he can deliver after that, is left to be seen.
MC WONG has been an environmental and social activist since the1980s with particular focus on the indigenous peoples of Sarawak. He holds a masters degree in environmental management.