Politicians from the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) have always believed that they can fool all of the people all of the time.At least, until Sunday, when the people of Sibu made history by voting in the DAP candidate and rejecting BN’s choice from the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP).The slim majority of 398 votes may not sound convincing, but it is nevertheless a win for the DAP. If money politics had not been involved, the DAP might have had a majority of several thousand votes.

After BN’s shameful underhand tactics, with offers of money and promises of development that were made only last week (a similar tactic was done in the last Hulu Selangor by-election), this win is a clear message from the electorate.
This victory is well-deserved. The DAP worked hard for it but it must be under no illusion, for if the electoral dice had fallen differently, politics in Sarawak and Malaysia would have been business as usual.Politicians from both sides of the political divide had a gruelling week on the campaign trail. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak visited the area, not once but three times, in breathless pursuit of every last possible vote. During the last visit, the public was serenaded by the prime minister’s wife. Were these renditions BN’s swansong or were they the battle cries to arouse patriotic sentiment and an esprit de corps within the BN supporters?

Najib’s presence was seen as a desperate bid to woo the Chinese, Iban and Melanau voters. But campaigning wasn’t confined to members of the Cabinet. For the opposition, DAP national chairman Karpal Singh took a break from court proceedings in Putrajaya to put in an appearance in Sibu. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the de facto opposition leader, for whom sleepless nights and a rigorous schedule, both nationally and overseas, are nothing new joined the PAS president Datuk Abdul Hadi Awang on the opposition campaign trail.DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang said that it needed a miracle for its candidate to win and overcome BN’s money politics. But election day turned out just as confusing and frustrating as the campaign. There were lots of contradictory messages throughout the day. By 11pm, the outcome was inevitable and we now know a number of certain truths.

First, that BN lost, and badly. Najib made Sibu his personal crusade but the electorate showed him the door. Million ringgit bribes for Chinese and mission schools, church donations and financial gifts to longhouse residents did not sway these Sarawakians. Even the unprofessional manner of the Election Commission failed to stem the rising tide against BN.
There was no doubt that the DAP and Pakatan soldiered on as best as they could during the campaign, pitting their limited resources against the well-funded, bloated and well-oiled political machinery of BN.

Second, will Najib rise to the occasion as the “people’s prime minister”? At Rejang Park last Saturday, Najib said he would sign a cheque for RM5 million for flood mitigation measures on condition the BN candidate, Robert Lau, was “delivered” to him in the following day’s polling.In the same speech, he said that “his government cares for the people” and “fights for the people”. He made reference to being the PM of “1 Malaysia” and that the “people come first, and that “it is the people that matter”.Najib has acknowledged that Sibu needs money to solve its flooding problems. In addition, Sibu also has a lack of basic infrastructure in the rural districts, a serious gang culture, land rights issues, poverty, a prolonged economic malaise and a mass exodus of its youth. Will Najib put party political interests aside and act responsibly, in the name of national interests?

The failure of the electorate to “agree to a deal” must present Najib with one of his biggest challenges. How will he confront this problem? The Sarawak state elections are due. Sibu has shown a swing to the DAP, but the state is tightly controlled by its Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib Mahmud, and BN, which holds a tight rein on the federal government, still pulls the strings in Sarawak.It is interesting too that Najib told the people in Rejang Park: “You shouldn’t listen to people who make promises”, in a veiled reference to the Pakatan opposition. He then promised to help Sibu, only if BN won. He proclaimed that he was the “prime minister for all” and that his “stable government that cares and delivers” wanted to see a “strong, prosperous Malaysia”. So, will he honour his pledge now that he is the “people’s prime minister”?

The third truth is the “elephant in the room” in the form of Taib. He is reportedly one of the richest men in the world, with assets and businesses in Malaysia and worldwide. The major issues concern his style of governance and the appointment of his successor as head of state, and leader of his party.People may say that the White Rajahs of Sarawak, who ruled the state for 100 years, have gone. They haven’t. The Taib Mahmud dynasty is a poor copy of the original Brookes of England. Taib is not revered like the White Rajahs. His vision is short-lived.His political style and mismanagement of Sarawak’s resources suggest that he rules Sarawak as if the state were his own, with a vulgar display of wealth and a lack of concern and respect for the welfare of the people. Timber concessions and the approval of multi-million dollar projects are kept within a select band of people.Sarawakians are angry with him, and he was deliberately sidelined from the Sibu campaign trail as he was considered a liability. Companies operating in the interior have allegedly polluted the rivers and groundwater, destroyed jungle pathways and raped the women of the indigenous tribes. But still no form of justice is evident and no one has been made accountable.

Plantations benefit the owners, and dam construction, the project builders. Despite the development in trading, construction, property and road making, very little money and few benefits have filtered down to the common man. Education, provision of health services, law enforcement, electricity, running water, roads and basic infrastructure are still lacking in many parts of Sarawak.

The people of Sibu have delivered a clear message to the government. It remains to be seen if the opposition Pakatan and DAP can maintain this momentum into the state elections and also the general election.The real test lies ahead and the road will be bumpy. The newly-elected MP has to lead and show how to effect a fundamental change in politics, where national interests take precedence. The country must come first and not party politics.After his success was announced, an elated Wong Ho Leng expressed his gratitude to the voters: “Thank you Sibu. Thank you Malaysia. One small step in winning Sibu, one giant step to winning Putrajaya.”Wong should not be modest in his achievements and aspirations. When asked by reporters what he thought the results would mean for impending state polls, Wong replied that “Sarawak is ready for change.”

We disagree. He should have said “Malaysia is ready for change.”

* Mariam Mokhtar is commentator of Malaysian politics and life.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.