This article previously appeared in The Malaysian Insider.
Barisan Nasional’s (BN) loss of the Sibu Parliamentary seat did not surprise me. After all, BN had lost the seat to the DAP once before in 1982.
I wrote an analysis of the political situation in Sarawak in this column last year and had pointed to the successful transition from the chief minister to a younger, credible leader with less baggage as the key to rejuvenating the Sarawak BN political leadership.
The current political situation in Sarawak mirrors the malaise of the federal BN government before Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad decided to step down and save it in 2003. Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud took over the leadership of Sarawak from the unpopular Tun Abdul Rahman as chief minister and had developed Sarawak significantly over the last 30 years.
He had successfully insulated Sarawak from the vagaries of national politics, and delivered political stability and economic development as a result.
Yet, despite his success, he finally became the albatross around the camel’s neck.
And despite his success and gentlemanly style of politics, he was an easy target for the opposition to focus on.
The Sarawak BN were clearly unprepared for the aggressive and no-holds-barred personality assault on Taib and his band of ageing, long-serving political brothers.
They paid the ultimate political price for being unwilling to play racial politics to counter the opposition and lost the Sibu seat, although I disagree with DAP’s Lim Kit Siang in calling it the Sibu miracle. It isn’t, and doesn’t guarantee that DAP and Pakatan Rakyat can win big in the state elections.
The DAP’s success was mainly due to two factors.
First, they have managed to rejuvenate their leadership bench with younger, well-educated and committed cadres like Tony Pua, Liew Chin Tong and Anthony Loke.
They have been attractive new faces for the DAP to sell, to mask their own ageing top leaders like Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh.
The DAP have tried for many years to bring in new faces but many of them have failed to impress the public or simply ran afoul of Lim Kit Siang’s dictatorial style and were removed from the top ranks.
The public have forgotten that despite accusing the BN of practicing cronyism and nepotism, they have enhanced it through the party secretary-general who is the Penang Chief Minister, Lim Guan Eng, and Puchong MP, Gobind Singh Deo.
Both men are the sons of party stalwarts, Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh
Second, they have managed to transform the DAP from being multiracial to an almost exclusively Chinese leadership.
As a result, their campaigns have been more focused on Chinese community issues, and exaggerates the fears and insecurities of the Chinese community.
This strategy has successfully attracted the support of the Chinese community, who increasingly look at Chinese issues at the micro-level instead of the bigger picture.
Maybe that is the reason why the efforts of the prime minister to allocate more resources to the Chinese community, with the objective of striking a new equilibrium in the national wealth share, was received negatively.
Still, Taib should have taken the cue from the March 2008 general election and expedite the rejuvenation of Sarawak BN by identifying and appointing capable successors to him and his merry men.
I understand that radical change to the current political bureaucracy.
The prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, has tried to make incremental changes to BN and Umno in the other states without tangible success.
But at least he has started the process to clear the decks of leaders with excess baggage and replace them with fresh, younger ones.
After Sibu, he may need to accelerate that process of rejuvenation.
I understand that it would be difficult for Taib to accept that someone else can replace him.
After all, even the great Dr Mahathir still cannot accept that he is no longer in charge, seven years after being forced to retire.
He even left Umno a few years ago just to remove Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
But as my late father liked to talk fondly about Taib as a proud, kind, selfless and religious man, he would know what needs to be done.
Just don’t humiliate him.