By KS Paul
KUCHING: Chinese-based Barisan Nasional parties, MCA, Gerakan and Sarawak United Peoples’ Party (SUPP), are at a crossroads.
The 14th general election (GE14) will be the battleground for the Chinese community to decide if the three parties should be given a fresh lease of life or be buried for good for their lack of clout and their ineffectiveness in handling Chinese interests.
All three parties had their worst electoral outing in the 2013 general election.
MCA could only manage to deliver seven parliamentary seats out of the 37 contested. And of the 90 state seats the party was given to contest, it won only 12. The party’s failure rate was 85%.
Gerakan fared no better. It was left standing with only a solitary parliamentary seat, losing 10. In the battle for the state seats, it was wiped out, losing all the 31 seats it contested.
Sarawak-based SUPP, too, faced near annihilation, winning only Serian, a Bumiputera-majority seat but failing in the other six Chinese-majority seats. The GE13 was its worst electoral performance since its formation in 1959.
Nevertheless, the party, now under its new chief Dr Sim Kui Hian, made up for its ignominious performance by putting up a commendable performance, partly due to the Adenan Satem popularity factor, three years later in 2016 for the 11th Sarawak state election.
It secured seven of the 13 seats it contested.
In the 2011 election, SUPP had won six of the 19 seats while in 2006, it had managed to deliver 11 out of 19 seats to the coalition.
SUPP was in the opposition during its formative years but joined BN in 1970. At the height of its popularity, the party won seven parliamentary seats — in the general elections of 1974, 1995 and 1999.
Under Dr Sim, the party seems to have regained some respect.
The heart specialist had himself stood in the predominantly Chinese-majority seat of Batu Kawah in a three-cornered fight, beating his nearest rival, DAP’s incumbent Christina Chiew Wang See, by a 2,085-vote majority.
Many believe Dr Sim, who succeeded Peter Chin Fah Kui as president, is the right man to resuscitate the ailing party and pull it out of its doldrums.
Though he has gained the admiration of some of the constituents for his tireless work to improve his constituency from the day he was sworn into the state assembly, the hardworking doctor has a Herculean task ahead.
SUPP, under Dr Sim’s predecessors, had lost its deputy chief minister’s post and the mayorship of the Kuching South city council (MBKS) during former chief minister Taib Mahmud’s administration.
For the party to regain the Chinese community’s confidence, Dr Sim has to convince Chief Minister Abang Johari Tun Openg to return the MBKS mayorship and the deputy chief minister’s post to the party.
But it’s not going to be easy. First, Dr Sim has to prove that the Chinese are returning to BN. And how is Dr Sim, who is the state local government and housing minister, going to achieve that? Simple. Ensure a spectacular performance in GE14.
SUPP is eyeing the same number of seats it contested previously – Miri, Bandar Kuching, Stampin, Serian, Sarikei, Sibu and Lanang.
Of these, only Serian is considered a sure-win.
The party has a very good chance of wresting back Miri from the opposition. Its candidate, touted to be the most winnable, is party secretary-general and Piasau assemblyman Sebastian Ting, a well-liked figure among his constituents.
Though Ting was defeated in his first attempt by PKR’s Michael Teo for the seat in 2013, this time around political observers believe Ting can deliver the seat to BN in a repeat clash.
Sibu and Lanang might elude BN if SUPP gets to contest these two. Observers say BN-friendly United People’s Party (UPP) stands the best chance to deliver these seats.
Sarikei may return to the ruling coalition if there is the right candidate.
Bandar Kuching, for now, is out of the question for SUPP as this is a DAP stronghold and there is no one at the moment who can come anywhere near to challenge incumbent Chong Chieng Jen, the Sarawak DAP chairman.
Chong, who also doubles as Kota Sentosa assemblyman, has been doing an excellent job in Parliament.
Will Dr Sim take on DAP’s Chong in Bandar Kuching?
Dr Sim is perhaps the only person who can unseat Chong. Furthermore, this is a golden opportunity for Dr Sim to win back Chinese support for SUPP.
If he wins, he will make quite a strong case for Abang Johari to consider giving back the post of mayor and deputy chief minister to SUPP.
Political analyst Dr Jeniri Amir of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak thinks Dr Sim might just pull it off.
“But in the coming GE14, the victory margin for Dr Sim, if he wins, will be very small,” says Jeniri.
“It’s not impossible. He just might win. It has happened before in Bandar Kuching. Song Swee Guan, defeated three-term DAP strongman Sim Kwang Yang in the 1995 general election.”
Song, who was the first Kuching South mayor, was the last SUPP MP to represent the constituency. He polled 27,514 votes to unseat Sim Kwang Yang by a 3,184-vote majority.
Song won by an even bigger majority of 8,389 votes against Chong in a three-cornered fight in the 1999 election.
SUPP did not field Song in the 2004 election because of his financial problems. The party fielded Wee Kok Tiong but he lost to Chong.
SUPP nominated Alan Sim in 2008 but he failed to wrest the seat back from Chong.
There is talk that Dr Sim might contest in Stampin in the coming polls. Putrajaya sources say the national BN leadership is insisting on him standing in the constituency as it feels the doctor has the best chance to wrest the seat back for the coalition.
This is due to his popularity and the fact that SUPP has won two of the three state seats in the 2016 state election, namely Batu Kawah and Batu Kitang — which together with Kota Sentosa make up the Stampin constituency.
Dr Sim is said to be reluctant, preferring his party’s public complaints bureau chief Wilfred Yap to be the candidate there instead.
A defeat for the party president in Stampin could taint his popularity.
There is also speculation that Chong may decide to leave his safe Bandar Kuching seat and take on Dr Sim.
Dr Sim’s close ties with Prime Minister Najib Razak may prompt the SUPP chief to stand in the constituency. But this could prove fatal as the voters would interpret his decision as being “greedy”.
As it is now, he is a senator, state minister, assemblyman and party president.
The Chinese-majority voters in Stampin could just decide to teach the doctor a lesson by voting against him.
But if the national BN leadership is adamant that Dr Sim should stand in GE14, he should perhaps propose a counter-offer by considering to do a “Lee San Choon” by taking on Chong in his own den in Bandar Kuching.
The move could help SUPP regain some of the seats the party lost in GE13 and reverse the party’s fortunes.
It would show that the party can still win seats in Chinese-majority areas. It’s likely Dr Sim and his party will gain the admiration and respect of the Chinese voters for this brave decision.
“The voters might just decide to throw their support behind the doctor, but if he wins, it will be by a razor-thin majority,” says Jeniri.
Community leader Dr Chou Chii Ming, agrees.
“Instead of contesting in Stampin, the SUPP president should challenge Chong in Bandar Kuching. This daring move may even win back Chinese support and confidence in the party.
“If he wins, it will be historic. But if he loses, he can still walk with his head held high, knowing that he has taken the fight to the DAP chief in his own ‘hor siew’ (Chinese for tiger’s lair, meaning stronghold),” says Chou.
Lee, the then MCA president, had in the 1982 general election, responded to a challenge by DAP to contest a seat with a large Chinese majority.
He accepted the challenge and contested the parliamentary seat of Seremban against DAP strongman and chairman Dr Chen Man Hin, who had held that seat since 1969.
Lee won the contest by a slim 845-vote majority, leading his party to one of its best electoral performances, taking 24 out of 28 parliamentary seats and 55 out of 62 state seats contested by his party. In the process, he regained Chinese support and respect for MCA.
There is nothing to lose but everything to gain if Dr Sim decides to emulate Lee, taking the fight to Chong in his own backyard.
If he wins, chances are the state BN leadership will have to consider giving back the deputy chief minister’s position and the mayorship to SUPP. If he loses, he and the party will still regain the respect of the Chinese community.
This will set the pace for Dr Sim and SUPP to win back Chinese support in the next state election.
KS Paul is an FMT reader.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.