By Francis Paul Siah
For the past year, there have been talks of a possible reconciliation between the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) and its breakaway group, the United People’s Party (UPP).
Soon after the April 2016 state election, the late Sarawak chief minister and state Barisan Nasional (BN) chairman Adenan Satem directed SUPP and UPP leaders to seek ways to end their differences and chart a common ground for the possible unification of their parties.
To show that he was serious in wanting to see the two Chinese-based parties come together, Adenan appointed SUPP president Sim Kui Hian and UPP president Wong Soon Koh as full ministers in his cabinet after the elections.
To further prove that he was being fair to the two warring parties, he also appointed SUPP’s Lee Kim Shin and UPP’s Jerip Susil as assistant ministers.
So SUPP and UPP got two representatives each in the cabinet. That seems fair and square. Everyone appeared to be happy and contented, and the war of words between the two rivals dissipated.
Until now, that is.
Last Thursday, the UPP president gave notice to state BN components that his party was ready to participate in the coming 14th general election (GE14).
He claimed that UPP was strong in central Sarawak and that it was the best party to win back the parliamentary seats of Sibu and Lanang for BN.
Sarawak holds its state elections separately.
Soon Koh’s press conference at the state legislative assembly was a follow-up of the party’s public claim to the two seats three months ago.
In August, Soon Koh even named his party’s potential candidates, Andrew Wong Kee Yew for Sibu and Andrew Ting Kee Nguan for Lanang, declaring that they were winnable and ready to take back the two urban seats from DAP.
Now, Sibu and Lanang are SUPP seats. The party lost the seats to DAP in GE13 in 2013.
Does anyone honestly think that SUPP will hand the two seats on a silver platter to UPP, its bitter rival? Even the village idiot would protest and fight for what belongs to him, and rightly so.
So what’s the hype about reconciliation? Indeed, UPP’s salvo has resurrected the animosity and mistrust among SUPP leaders for their rival.
“We were willing and sincere in wanting to cooperate with them. After Adenan’s directive to us, we attempted to find ways and means to resolve our differences.
“We offered them the olive branch and have been civil to their leaders, careful to avoid making unnecessary statements which may cause ill-will and mistrust,” a senior SUPP leader told FMT.
“What does Wong Soon Koh’s announcement tell you? He jumped the gun and announced his party’s potential candidates for Sibu and Lanang when those two seats were traditional SUPP seats. Now, who is guilty of kick-starting this new row?” fumed the SUPP leader who requested anonymity.
But I can understand UPP’s desperate demand for the right to contest in Sibu and Lanang for BN come GE14.
UPP, set up in 2014, badly needs the Rejang Basin in central Sarawak for its survival. Sibu, Lanang and Sarikei are three parliamentary seats which the party must have, for therein lies the majority of its supporters. The party can kiss itself goodbye if it is not given the opportunity to contest seats within its bastion.
Soon Koh is a seasoned hand in politics. He was brought into politics by his late cousin, former deputy chief minister and SUPP president Wong Soon Kai, in 1987. His 30-year political career has seen him as state assembly speaker and full cabinet minister, holding various senior portfolios. He is currently the second finance minister.
UPP is also known for its financial clout. Why, you must already be on fine footing from the word “go” when you are backed by the business empire of one of Malaysia’s richest men.
Tiong Thai King, one of UPP’s founders and chief funder, is the trusted younger brother of billionaire and media mogul Tiong Hiew King. Seriously, who can get bigger than that?
The UPP president is also politically astute. He is aware he has the upper hand over SUPP in central Sarawak and his pronouncement is part of his strategy to tell the BN leadership that UPP is the party to win back the Chinese votes for the ruling coalition.
On the other side, SUPP is now led by a political novice, Sim Kui Hian. In his early 50s, Kui Hian was barely in active politics when he was thrust into the limelight in 2013 as the new SUPP president.
The son of former deputy chief minister Sim Kheng Hong, Kui Hian surprised everyone by wresting the Batu Kawa seat from DAP in the state election last April. That was about his finest achievement in politics.
On SUPP’s financial position, Kui Hian once told me, “I have been very honest with party members. I told them I had been living on a mere civil servant’s wages before politics. If suddenly I come up with a lot of money, it must surely be through fraudulent means. So let’s avoid that.”
The SUPP president, a cardiologist, served as the head of the Heart Institute at the Sarawak Medical Department before his foray into politics.
Head to head, man to man, the SUPP novice is no match for the UPP president with his wealth of experience and political acumen.
But party to party, SUPP is miles ahead of its young breakaway upstart.
Founded in 1959, SUPP is Sarawak’s oldest political party. There is still a lot of goodwill for the party among Sarawak Chinese.
Many still remember that SUPP was the only party which opposed Sarawak taking part in the formation of Malaysia.
With the anti-Malaya and pro-independence movement gaining momentum in Sarawak today, the local sentiments for SUPP remain tight and strong, particularly among the older generation.
Today, perhaps it’s best for SUPP and UPP to forget reconciliation because any effort will be futile.
Political reconciliation is about the process of rebuilding damaged political relationships, and trust is a key part of that process.
I do not see any semblance of trust in this uneasy SUPP-UPP relationship. In fact, I expect to see more betrayals and back-stabbing in the days and months leading up to GE14.
Perhaps, the two rivals should stop wasting their time and effort in any reconciliation talks.
Just go and slug it out against each other in GE14. Contest under your own party symbol if you are brave and confident enough to do so instead of hiding under the BN skirt.
Let the Chinese voters of Sarawak choose the lesser evil. But be ready to be disappointed, too. You may both be rejected.
Adenan has passed on, and new Chief Minster Abang Johari Openg seems more engrossed in other matters than this petty SUPP-UPP row.
As for Sibu and Lanang, I think Sibu MP Oscar Ling and Lanang MP Alice Lau from DAP can continue to sleep soundly every night, long after GE14.
Sorry to my friends in SUPP and UPP – that’s what my gut feeling tells me, but I could be wrong.
Francis Paul Siah is a veteran journalist from Sarawak who currently heads the Movement for Change, Sarawak.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.