Will Sibu make history?

Amidst the intense election campaigns of the Sibu parliamentary by-election, there is one way to help the beseeched electorate to make a sound decision. And that is by asking the following question:
Which political coalition – Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat – is more likely to fulfil the wishes of the Sibu people, if given the chance to run the federal and Sarawak state governments?
The simple reason for asking the question is that only the federal government has the power and resources and, to a lesser extent, the Sarawak government, to solve their problems and fulfil their
aspirations. And Sibu is now placed in the unique position to tip the political balance that may result in either one coalition assuming federal power come next general election, as will be explained later.
To begin, let us look at the problems people in Sibu are facing.
There are perennial floodings, lack of basic infrastructures for the rural areas, deprivation of customary land rights, problems of land lease renewal, abject poverty and prolonged economic malaise that have caused the mass exodus of youth from their homeland.
Can a member of parliament, whoever he is, solve these problems? No way, not even the state government. This is because many of these problems can only be overcome through changes of national policies and utilisation of large sums of money that only the federal government can provide.
Economy in bad shape
Take the sluggish economy. This is a national phenomenon. Sibu or even Sarawak cannot boom in a stagnant Malaysian economy, which has been in the doldrums for more than a decade.
The World Bank, in its recent economic report on Malaysia (dubbed “The Malaysian Economic Monitor”), described this phenomenon as “the middle-income trap” – unable to remain competitive as a low-cost producer, and yet incapable of moving up the economic ladder to a high-value economy, which is knowledge and innovation-based.
As rightly pointed out by the World Bank, this is due to the collapse of private investment (foreign and local) which has been hovering around 10% of GDP since the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis – a far cry from its pre-crisis height of 37%. This stands in contrast to our regional neighbours which have rebounded healthily in private investment rate, leaving Malaysia as the laggard.
Malaysia’s loss of competitiveness is rooted in politics – the inevitable consequence of an increasingly corrupt and authoritarian government.
The name of Malaysia has virtually disappeared from the radar screen of foreign investors, as none would be interested to invest in a country where the rule of law is openly and unabashedly flouted,
law-enforcing institutions reduced to political stooges, and the economy semi-paralysed by racist protectionism and cronyism.
Malaysia’s loss of grace with investors is most vividly illustrated in its massive capital flight – its 2008 foreign direct investment (FDI) outflow of US$14.1 billion exceeds its FDI inflow of US$8.1 billion by by a whopping 70%. Which other developing country in the world has such dubious distinction!?
Irresponsible squandering
Compounding this economic morass is the BN government’s atrocious financial management. Despite the country’s fabulous petroleum income – which now finances more than 40% of the
government’s annual recurring expenditure – the country has been running heavy budget deficits every year for the past 13 years.
Such recurring expenditure virtually exploded during Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s reign when it doubled within four years. And there is every indication that this trend will continue unabated despite promises to the contrary by Prime Minister-cum-Finance Minister Najib Tun Razak.
These hefty budget deficits are mainly caused by massive leakages through corrupt procurement practices and reckless spending for political expediency and personal gratifications, in addition to poor revenue collection from a lacklustre economy.
This huge income-expenditure gap is expected to widen in the days ahead as Petronas’ ability to foot the bill will decline in tandem with shrinking reserves and escalating costs.
With the federal treasury in such dire straights, the people of Sibu must take it with a bit of salt when BN leaders promise voluminous funds for infrastructure projects, including the flood-prevention scheme for Sibu, which will cost RM1 billion, according to Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
Sarawak impoverished by corruption
In fact, the masses of Sarawak should not be suffering in its present state of poverty and neglect if not for the gross mismanagement by one of the most corrupt state governments in the country.
Blessed with abundant gas and oil, and owners of one of the richest rainforests of the world, Sarawakians should have been enjoying a standard of living second to none. But instead, the state now ranks among the poorest in Malaysia, thanks to the seemingly never-ending rule of Chief Minister Taib Mahmud.
Disparagingly known as “Peh Moh” (white hair), this autocrat has during his 29-year-rule been accused of massively misappropriating the state’s timber wealth to himself, his family, political associates and business cronies, to the point that the once richest natural asset of the state is now near depletion.
In addition, his family’s financial empire under CMS flagship, which extends its interests to every aspect of the state’s economy, has virtually monopolised business opportunities offered by public
spending through sweet-heart deals.
The cruellest cut of Taib’s corrupt rule is perhaps the marginalisation of the indigenous population spread over the far-flung interior of this vast territory. In addition to suffering the destruction of the
natural habitat upon which they depend for their livelihood (due to reckless logging), they have been forcibly removed from their ancestral land without proper compensation so as to make way for the big logging and plantation corporations favoured by the Taib-led government.
There is not the slightest doubt that Sarawakians would have been wealthier and the interior population living in more civilised conditions, if the state had not been subjected to such corrupt authoritarian rule, under which only the ruling elite and their cronies prosper.
Pakatan's new politics
In sharp contrast to the aged and decadent rule of BN was the refreshingly new politics of Pakatan Rakyat which was swept into power in five key states in the Peninsula in the 2008 general election.
Pakatan’s administration was marked by transparency and accountability as exemplified by its no-nonsense public procurement policy through open tenders. This new style of administration is attested to by none other than the Auditor General who, in his last annual report, has exceptionally commended the Pakatan-controlled states for their prudent financial management.
This again stands in contrast with the BN-controlled federal and state governments which have been
ritualistically chided in every annual AG report for umpteen years for widespread squandering, negligence and corruption over the spending of public funds.
That Pakatan's electoral success in the 2008 election was no fluke and its popularity has been growing is verified by the series of by-election victories won by Pakatan against overwhelming handicap of strongly pro-BN public institutions and completely one-sided mass media favouring BN.
The political tsunami swept in by the 2008 general election has demonstrated beyond doubt that the people in the Peninsula have woken up to the folly and deceit of the BN regime. In fact, if not for BN’s monopolistic hold on Sabah and Sarawak, Pakatan would have captured Putrajaya, considering the fact that many BN members of parliament would have supported the new politics of Pakatan in a delicately balanced Parliament.
Sibu accepting the challenge?
This is where Sibu can come in to play its historical role. A Pakatan win in a traditional BN fortress like Sibu would embolden the indigenous population to vote for change, as these impoverished people have been casting votes for BN in the past more out of fear than out of love.
Sibu could then trigger off a domino effect that would enable Pakatan to score significant electoral success in the imminent state election – enough to cause the tsunami to also hit Sabah, thereby precipitating a change of regime and the ushering in of a new era for the country, come next general election.
Will Sibuans rise to the occasion to be the maker of history for a new Malaysia?
Kim Quek is a political commentator and a PKR member.

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