WHAT is the biggest significance of the Sibu by-election outcome? I now believe it is not that Sarawak Pakatan Rakyat (PR) won its first seat since the recent establishment of its Sarawak chapter or that Barisan Nasional (BN) remains five seats away from retaining its parliamentary two-thirds majority.
Najib glaring at Sarawak on map, Sarawak saying 'HAH!'
It is the outright rejection of clientelism in the face of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's infamous and indecent "you help me, I help you" proposal. Among other things, he offered Rejang Park residents RM5 million to mitigate floods in return for them supporting BN candidate Robert Lau Hui Yew in the by-election.
The outcome? A drop in support for the BN by nine percentage points, and an increase in DAP's margin by some 400 votes in the Chinese Malaysian-majority polling district.
Earlier, Najib had pledged RM18 million for 67 Chinese-language secondary and primary schools in Sibu and asked Chinese educationists to reciprocate favourably. Now, overall, in Sibu, Chinese Malaysian support for the BN is estimated to have dropped from 38% to 31%.
No one knows if the BN would have done better if they had not made those conditional offers. But many voters were probably angered by such cheapskate campaigning offers which made the prime minister sound more like a traffic police officer asking for bribes.
It is telling that Rejang Park — incidentally where DAP also held rallies almost every night — has registered the highest rise in support for DAP of all the polling districts in the Sibu parliamentary constituency.
This is not the first time that a by-election has backfired on the BN. Less than a month ago, Najib made another conditional offer of RM3 million to the Rasa community for an 81-year-old dilapidated Chinese-language primary school in the Hulu Selangor parliamentary by-election.
The outcome? The Rasa polling district gave PR a support level of 82%, the highest for PR in the entire constituency. After a two-day delay, Najib eventually presented the cheque as BN did win the seat after all.
About a year ago, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin gave RM1 million to a Chinese-language school in Simpang during the Bukit Gantang parliamentary by-election.
Does the BN understand the Chinese Malaysian voters?
What did the BN get? Again, lower Chinese Malaysian support for the BN to the extent that Muhyiddin complained about Chinese Malaysians being ungrateful.
What did the Chinese Malaysian voters want in all these cases? This is an old question that probably started being asked as early as 1990 when 70% of Chinese Malaysian voters supported the opposition coalitions led by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.
Umno's Chinese Malaysian dilemma?
Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad implies that the recurrent phenomenon is Umno's Chinese Malaysian dilemma.
According to Mahathir, "In trying to win over Chinese [Malaysians] with allocations and abolishing New Economic Policy (NEP) provisions, the BN will lose Malay [Malaysian] support as indeed it did in 2008."
"On the other hand, no matter how the government tries to satisfy Chinese [Malaysian] demands, Chinese [Malaysians] have clearly rejected the BN," he said.
Now, I doubt that many Malay Malaysians would punish the BN if they could be assured that all poor Malay Malaysians will be taken care of alongside the poor of other races. Similarly, I doubt that Malay Malaysians would revolt if all competitive Malay Malaysians, alongside competitive non-Malay Malaysians, enjoyed adequate support to thrive in international and domestic competition.
Mahathir got it wrong in thinking the majority of Malay Malaysians who deserted the BN in 2008 did so in protest to keep the NEP. The fact is a significant number of Malay Malaysians supported Parti Keadilan Rakyat, PAS and DAP for a fairer deal for all.
Only uncompetitive Malay Malaysians wanting to continue enjoying protection stand to lose, should bumiputeraism be done away with and replaced by "market-friendly affirmative action" or some sort of pro-competition "welfare state".
In other words, if Umno has a problem transforming itself beyond its 1Malaysia campaign, the problem does not lie with the majority of Malay Malaysians, as Mahathir implied in the first part of his theory. Of course, Mahathir would have organisations such as Perkasa and Gerakan Kebangkitan Rakyat rallying behind him, a bit like Mao Zedong's Red Guards but in a different historical context.
I would agree, however, with the second part of Mahathir's Umno's Chinese Malaysian dilemma theory — Umno has no idea of how to win back Chinese Malaysian voters.
The majority of Chinese Malaysian voters will not enter into any short-term deal with Umno until Umno truly understands who they are now. They are neither grateful for Umno's offers nor are they afraid of Umno's threats.
What's wrong with Chinese Malaysians? For starters, they are citizens now, no longer clientele of some modern feudal patrons.
Chinese Malaysian voters know that the government
should serve the peopleNeither the carrot nor the stick works for them now. For they know the carrot belongs to the nation and the stick cannot be effectively used against them without hurting Umno first. They know that the people are the boss, and governments their servants.
What needs to be stressed here is that the problem is not "Chinese" in character. The "declientelisation" process has happened to most urban Malaysians now. For example, most urban Malay Malaysians no longer buy into the notion that they need ketuanan Melayu to protect them.
Ten out of 11 parliamentary constituencies in the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur and 10 out of 13 state capital parliamentary constituencies, including Kota Baru, Kuala Terengganu and Shah Alam, are represented by the opposition. Could this have happened without the support of Malay Malaysian voters?
After all, wasn't the NEP meant to help Malay Malaysians become urbanised? And so, why would Malay Malaysians abandon Umno after being urbanised? Is it that "Melayu mudah lupa" or "Melayu sudah sedar"?
To label it Umno's Chinese Malaysia dilemma would therefore be inaccurate — it is really an urban Dilemma. Umno could still refuse to transform itself and find a life beyond patronage politics. But in that case, it should be prepared to shrink into a rural party that reigns only where "instant noodle" projects and handouts can still buy votes because there is no wi-fi coverage to spread democratic values.
Yet, to be even more precise, this staunch ungratefulness and irresponsiveness to Umno is not even limited to urban areas. How much has Umno put in to buy Kelantanese voters over throughout the years? Why haven't they reciprocated?
And so, how would one ultimately explain Umno's disappearing clientele? One could attribute it to either the voters' own dignity or democracy. In either case, the citizens don't thank Umno for what they rightly deserve. Rather, they shun Umno for withholding their rights.
In Sibu, unfortunately, many rural voters are still trapped in clientelism because of poverty. But how long can the internal colonisation made possible by Umno's indirect rule via Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud last?