Friday, 24 September 2010

John Teo (NST): The architects of Sarawak Bumiputera Unity

A very good article from the NST by John Teo, superb food for thought:

The architects of Sarawak Bumiputera unity

2010/09/24 (NST)
By John Teo

FOUR surviving outstanding Malaysians were recognised at the inaugural official celebrations of Malaysia Day on Sept 16 in Kota Kinabalu.

The recognition given to Sarawak's third chief minister, Tun Abdul Rahman Ya'kub, who went on to become its fourth Yang Dipertua Negeri, highlights how the increasingly frail 83-year-old and his 74-year-old nephew, current Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, tower over Sarawak in all of the state's 47 years of contemporary Malaysian history.

Rahman was chief minister from 1970 to 1981 whereupon Taib took over. But even under the rather hapless Tan Sri Stephen Kalong Ningkan, Sarawak's first chief minister from 1963 to 1966, and Datuk Tawi Sli who followed from 1966 to 1970, the uncle and nephew tandem loomed large as a political force.

The fractured nature of Sarawak politics reflects its rather nightmarish mishmash of ethnicities, where no single group commands anything close to a numerical majority. The larger groups are the Ibans and the Chinese with each comprising about a third of the state's population. But these two groups are, in turn, divided by regional loyalties and, in the case of the Chinese, also by dialect sub-groups and divisions between the urban entrepreneurial and rural farming classes.

The Sarawak Malays make up about a quarter of the state's population. Two dozens of smaller groups make up the rest, with the Bidayuhs (again split among a handful of dialect sub-groups) and the Melanaus (further split three ways among Muslims, Christians and animists) being the most prominent.

Whereas the Malays of Peninsular Malaysia can claim to be the obvious rulers of the country by virtue of their clear numerical majority, cobbling together a coherent ruling majority from Sarawak's disparate Bumiputera communities was a challenge from the first days of self-government.

The Sarawak Malays have traditionally been the most unified group with clear lines of authority wielded by the aristocratic Datus that could be traced back to the days of the Brooke Raj and beyond.

The political genius of Rahman and Taib had been their ability to parley intellectual heft as overseas-trained lawyers into political capital and prestige to unify first the Malays and the Melanaus under their Parti Bumiputra and later to orchestrate the merger between their party and that of the Ibans controlled by the late Tun Temenggong Jugah: the Parti Pesaka.

Such an achievement in forging a semblance of Bumiputera unity in Sarawak is all the more remarkable for the fact that Rahman and Taib are both Muslim Melanaus.

Even more startling has been the fact that despite a spectacular public falling-out between uncle and nephew through much of the nephew's tenure as chief minister (in fact, both were again seen publicly together only within the past two years), Taib was able to come out of the shadows of the charismatic Rahman and go from strength to strength politically.

As Malay unity in the peninsula has seemingly fractured in recent years, the almost indispensable glue that the uncle-nephew tandem manages to hold together Bumiputeras in Sarawak must increasingly look like the envy of the entire nation.

As if to remind the state -- and increasingly the nation -- about his continued indispensability, Taib's recent hint at withdrawing from the political scene was pure vintage. Not only was there a very public reaffirmation of support for him from many quarters in the state but even the prime minister was moved to weigh in.

The message couldn't have been clearer: Taib, despite a spot of recent bother about his own health and some personal tragedies, remains almost an indispensable force to the state and, increasingly, also the nation.

With political uncertainties clouding all across the nation, the void that Taib's sudden withdrawal from the political scene would have caused is almost the last thing that the political powers-that-be would want to contemplate.

For here, in a state that uncle and nephew almost willed into their desired image, Bumiputera unity remains seemingly solid. And even as no less than Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad agonises over how best for Umno and Barisan Nasional to retain Malay allegiance without alienating non-Malay support, Taib is showing that in Sarawak, there simply isn't any such angst because non-Bumiputera support is no longer even relevant to the state's power equation.

read the full article here.

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