SUPP, the oldest political party, is still riven with regionalism and factionalism politics.
KUALA LUMPUR: As the branch elections for the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), the oldest political party and a major component of the state Barisan Nasional, kick off this Sunday, there is talk that it might be influenced by clannish and regionalism tendencies.
Political analyst James Chin of Monash Sunway University, who has written extensively on the SUPP, explained that for the first decade after its formation in 1959, the party was dominated by leaders from the Kuching region, and power was concentrated in a small group of the Hakka, Chao-ann and Hokkien dialect groups.
This had caused resentment from the Sibu SUPP, which at that time was mostly made up of the Foochows.
“Since the late 1970s, power has been more evenly distributed among the regional and dialect groups within the party, with predominantly Sibu Foochow making more inroads, particularly under Wong Soon Kai when he became party secretary-general in 1982,” he told Bernama.
He said the rise of the Foochows in SUPP was very much linked to their entrepreneurial spirit, allowing them to move beyond Sibu – to Kuching, Miri and Bintulu – and growing in influence particularly in the fields of education, small businesses, timber industry and politics.
“This meant that the power structure in SUPP had to change to accommodate this group,” he said.
Chin explained, in fact, that both regionalism and factionalism along dialect lines had been acknowledge when Wong was the party president (1990-1996) to the extent that Wong, himself, described it as the “undesirability of factionalism within a party”.
“The situation is unlikely to be resolved soon. Regionalism is a natural phenomenon, while the various dialect groups are still too clannish to allow this to go away as these have been used to consolidate support.
“Party leadership sees these as natural occurrences which cannot be solved, but can be managed,” he said.
Political observers believed the clan factor, to a certain extent, was also at play in Miri, especially in five SUPP brances there where more than 50 percent of members are Foochows who originally come from Sibu, with some reportedly eyeing top branch posts.
None of the SUPP leaders from Miri, when contacted, was willing to discuss this, except to say that party members should look at the bigger picture when it comes to electing the party leader.
“I believe the party members can see that the party is for everybody. That is what we have been emphasising all this while,” said Pujut Branch chairman Andy Chia.
In the party’s history, only Wong Soon Kai, a Foochow from Sibu, has ever become a party president.
He stepped down after he was defeated in state election in 1996 and was replaced by Dr George Chan, who is from Miri.
The other presidents were Ong Kee Hui and Stephen Yong Kuet Sze, both from Kuching.
Zero sum game
Party insiders believe that during the party election in December, the issue of support based upon clans is likely to resurface in the contest between organising secretary Peter Chin and deputy secretary-general Wong Soon Koh.
“When it involves zero sum game where the winner takes all, obviously this sentiment will be played up again,” James Chin said, adding that the predominantly Hokkien and Hakka members from Kuching are backing the Miri group.
But party leaders from Sibu and Kuching have played down such issues, saying it is not a major factor for party members.
SUPP Sibu publicity chief Daniel Ngieng said there are always people who like to bring up this issue, but he believed party members are mature and would not be influenced by those who stir up such sentiments.
“Certain people would like to play with these issues. This is not healthy, as the party is looking from the overall interest of all people, regardless of their race and dialects.
“We fight on principle,” he said, adding that party members should not become entangled in such issues.
Kuching branch chairman Lily Yong said she does not believe such sentiments are important to the party anymore, but admit that there is some sense of regionalism due to their preference for the leader.
“It is acceptable as long as they support each other. Of course, some people want to play it out and normally they do it in a subtle way,” she said.