By DAMA CHIN
Since the Democratic Action Party (DAP) made its entry into Sarawak in 1978, it has left an indelible mark on Sarawak politics. It was the first political party based outside Sarawak to venture onto our shores, found anchor and then hooked up with Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Parti Islam Malaysia (PAS) in subsequent waves. It was also the first Peninsular-based party to create an impact by achieving electoral success (by any party originating outside Sarawak) when it won two seats in Bandar Kuching and Bandar Sibu in the 1982 Parliamentary Elections. Finally, by virtue of it winning the most seats in Sarawak by any opposition party since 1982, the DAP has also provided the only challenge to the SUPP’s historic dominance of Chinese votes in Sarawak.
The DAP originated as the offspring of the People’s Action Party (PAP), the dominant party in Singapore since 1959, when the latter packed up upon Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965. Since then it has been one of the more successful opposition parties in Malaysia to this day. In fact, in terms of number of seats won in national and state elections, the DAP has proven to be the most successful opposition party never to join the coalition of parties which have governed Malaysia since independence (the Alliance coalition from 1963 to 1974 and Barisan National coalition since 1974). The DAP’s entry into Sarawak in 1978 was brought about by a confluence of three factors.
Firstly, the party was already making serious attempts to play a role in Sarawak politics from as early as the late 1960s. But it was prevented from doing so by the state government which barred its top leaders such as Lim Kit Siang and Lee Lam Thye from visiting the state. Local conditions up to the mid 1970s were probably also not ripe for the DAP to make much headway. The Peninsular party was held in some suspicion by the local population and the power structure of the Alliance coalition governing the state was only taking shape from 1970 to 1974.
Secondly, in 1978 the Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abdul Rahman Yakub had reversed his previous decision of barring DAP leaders from Sarawak when he became estranged from the SUPP leadership (his Chinese partner in the state government since 1970). In an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, the Chief Minister and the SUPP were rapidly losing confidence in each other. SUPP leaders had indeed approached Kuala Lumpur to register their displeasure with Abdul Rahman Yakub in the hope of deposing him. On his part, Abdul Rahman Yakub was anxious to consolidate his own position in the event that the SUPP chose to oppose him or leave the coalition government.
Thirdly, a group of seasoned Chinese politicians emerged from the sidelines in 1977 seeking to challenge the SUPP for Chinese voters. This group was led by the losing faction of a major internal split in the Sibu-Binatang-Sarikei stronghold of the SUPP in 1976 which resulted in the departure of several senior party members. They were joined by some ex members of the Sarawak Chinese Association (SCA) which had dissolved in 1974 somewhat disgruntled with the SUPP. Three SUPP dissidents in fact contested against the party as independent candidates in the Parliamentary Elections of 1978.
It was under these circumstances that the group decided to join arms with the DAP. By September 1978, the first DAP branches were established in Kuching, Sibu and Sarikei. The party contested for the first time in the 1979 State Elections. All 11 candidates lost to SUPP opponents. For the 1982 Parliamentary Elections, it then nominated 5 candidates to contest in Sarawak. This time it won in two constituencies. Sim Kwang Yang polled 19,200 votes in Bandar Kuching to defeat the SUPP candidate by a majority of over 3,500 votes. In Bandar Sibu, Ling Sie Ming scored a slim victory over SUPP heavyweight Dr Wong Soon Kai.
Two more State and one more Parliamentary elections were held in the first decade of the DAP’s presence in Sarawak. The party’s performance was inconsistent in the urban, Chinese-majority townships that it concentrated on against the SUPP. In the 1983 State Elections, all seven DAP candidates including Sim and Ling lost. In the 1986, Sim retained his parliamentary seat but Ling lost. The following year, the DAP again lost in all the 11 constituencies that it contested in State Elections. Chinese voters thus revealed a peculiar trend: they could support DAP for the national parliament but would retain SUPP for the Council Negeri.
Two major salient points could be highlighted in an analysis of the current status of the DAP in Sarawak against the achievements of its first decade.
First, Chinese voters in the most densely populated townships showed political savvy. Initially, they supported the SUPP in Sarawak where it mattered most directly in terms of political leverage and economic gains. The rationale was that only a strong SUPP, and no one else, could offer them a much stronger bargaining position in the state legislature. They, however, did not mind supporting the DAP to `raise the volume of opposition noise’ in the distant national parliament. The electoral gains made by the DAP especially since the 2008 Parliamentary and 2011 State Elections, however, has turned that `smart’ logic upside now. The DAP now has a stronger presence in the state assembly at the expense of the now weaker SUPP. But unless the DAP and its coalition partners in Pakatan Rakyat make further gains and soon, what do Chinese voters in Sarawak stand to gain out of this new equation?
Second, the pioneering leaders of DAP Sarawak are an admirable lot. The key player in its formation in 1978 was Chong Siew Chiang who led the group of SUPP dissidents. He was already an established SUPP campaigner and in fact the incumbent state assemblyman for Repok before he was expelled from the party. Ling Sie Ming did not belong to any party until he helped to establish DAP Sarawak. By then, he had already made a name for himself as a passionate leader and advocate of Chinese education. Sim Kwang Yang – fluent in Bahasa Malaysia, English and Chinese dialect – attracted voters by virtue of his fiercely independent conscience and personal conviction. He comfortably defended his Parliamentary seat for another two successive elections, and his presence and performance in and outside Parliament approached that of long-standing national DAP leaders like Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh. In short, these were self-made men of considerable personal stature able to not only hold their own but also carry the battle against the establishment. In view of DAP’s recent electoral gains, a new generation of fresh faces – Wong Ho Leng, Chong’s own son Chieng Jen, Violet Yong, Fong Pau Teck and company – have been thrust into the limelight. Their success may be attributed far more to the groundswell of anti-establishment sentiments than any evident personal competence. It remains to be seen whether they can display leadership with personal charisma or gumption or both to sustain the momentum created thus far.