The battle for S’wak Central Region quietly rages on — Commentary

The riverine town of Sibu is a unique place.

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by Lian Cheng

While speculations have been running wild over the prospective candidates for the Selangau and Lubok Antu parliamentary seats which is allocated to Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), the two parliamentary constituencies of Lanang and Sibu, supposedly under Sarawak United Peoples’ Party (SUPP) are not as peaceful as they appear. Seat-wrestling is obviously ongoing.

A few days ago, SUPP president Datuk Dr Sim Kui Hian publicly stated that as of the last national Barisan Nasional (BN) supreme council meeting on Sept 8, the current seat allocation formula would remain the same where SUPP will still be allocated its traditional seven parliamentary seats.

The very next day, United People’s Party (UPP) secretary-general George Lo released a statement stating otherwise.

Lo who is a lawyer by profession, had confidently negated SUPP’s claim of contesting in all the seven seats, calling it a premature assumption. He argued that in 2016 state election, SUPP also made the same claim of fielding candidates for all its traditional 19 seats as well as two out of the 11 new seats created in the last election. However in the end, the reality was that out of the 20 seats that SUPP was allocated (it was only allocated one seat out of the 11 new seats created), seven had been given to UPP under the name of direct BN candidates.

These seven seats were Opar, Engkilili, Mambong, Bawang Assan, Dudong, Pelawan and Pujut.

Not only was UPP given the blessing to contest in seven seats as opposed to SUPP’s 13 seats, UPP president Dato Sri Wong Soon Koh was appointed a full minister, taking a seat in the state cabinet.

This is a hard cold fact that SUPP would want to forget but UPP can’t wait to bring up now that the general election is around the corner.

With the precedent, it is not over-confident nor unrealistic for Lo to say that SUPP’s claim of contesting in all traditionally SUPP seats of Bandar Kuching, Stampin, Serian, Sarikei, Lanang, Sibu and Miri is premature.

“In my view, it is premature for anyone to say that they will definitely get seven seats just as it was premature before the last Sarawak state election in 2016 for them to say that they will get 21 seats and would not accept a seat less,” said Lo in a press statement two days ago.

Lo’s point was confirmed by Wong in previous interviews concerning the parliamentary seat allocations for the pending general election.

In previous interviews, Wong who is also Bawang Assan assemblyman has been stressing that he had hoped to be given three seats he specifically named Lanang and Sibu but not the third seat. His reason being that UPP was confident in wresting back the two seats from Democratic Action Party (DAP).

It has been quite true that UPP, a splinter party from SUPP, is comparatively stronger in the urban areas of the central region.

Being predominately Chinese areas where the majority of the Chinese are Foochows or having Foochow relatives through marriages, Lanang and Sibu are distinctively unique, and arguably it would only take another Foochow to understand the politics within the constituencies.

Sibu town itself where the main activities centre, is a close-knit town where just a mere mention of a name means the whole family tree can be recited on the spot. The politics of Lanang and Sibu can only be understood and manipulated by those who are politically and financially deep-rooted there.

That is why Wong is so confident. He is right to say that UPP can win in Sibu and Lanang.

To give Lanang and Sibu to UPP means there is still a fighting chance against DAP. To give the two seats to SUPP means suicide on the part of BN.

Comparatively, while UPP may have a better chance to win than SUPP in these two areas, victory remains an uphill battle where chances of winning is minimal in view of the strong opposite tide.

In order to win the young voters, UPP like any other party, is expected to field young candidates. Word on the streets is that Wong’s son, Datuk Andrew Wong, will be contesting in Sibu while Sibu Resident Hii Chang Kee has been groomed to wrest back Lanang.

The Sibu parliamentary seat comprises the state constituencies of Nangka, Bawang Assan and Pelawan while the Lanang parliamentary seat comprises Bukit Assek and Dudong.

UPP would have a higher chance to take down Sibu than Lanang due to its voter composition where non-Chinese constitute about 50 per cent. Nangka is a Malay-majority seat; Bawang Assan is a mixed area of Iban and Chinese voters; while Pelawan is a Chinese majority area where the Chinese voters constitute more than 90 per cent of total voters.

That being said, one also has to bear in mind that in the 2010 Sibu by-election where it was a direct fight between BN and DAP, the then DAP chairman Wong Ho Leng still won with a razor thin majority.

For Lanang, the Bukit Assek state seat is a black area for BN while Dudong seat is a mixed area of Iban and Chinese voters. For UPP to win, it would have to work hard to win over the Chinese votes in Bukit Assek which may be seen as impossible due to the voters’ “opposing BN sentiments”.

In the 2013 general election, DAP retained Lanang seat through Alice Lau who polled 26,613 votes against the then SUPP candidate Datuk Tiong Thai King who garnered 17,983 votes.

For Sibu seat, DAP’s Oscar Ling managed to garner 26,808 votes to defeat Temenggong Datuk Vincent Lau, who polled 23,967 and an independent candidate Narawi Haron, who lost his deposit with only 203 votes.

With the 14th general election to be called anytime, the allocation of seats and selection of candidates must be done soon, and quickly too.

It has been known that for the state BN to wrest back all the Chinese majority seats, both SUPP and UPP must work together. That is why there were numerous calls by Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak for the two parties to bury the hatchet and patch up.

That being said, and the fact that all attempts since the time of late Chief Minister Pehin Sri Adenan Satem has failed, one would wonder whether any future attempt will work in bringing the two parties together. With the general election fast approaching, would the whole situation end up like before — that there will be a compromise again like in the 2016 state election where UPP be given the two seats of Sibu and Lanang and SUPP, the rest of the seats?