From projects and vote-buying to patronage and betting, money politics in Sarawak is raining everywhere. But, as Bridget Welsh reports, there is little concern for the long-term damages as candidates and voters seek to cash in.

More than any other state in Malaysia, Sarawak’s elections have been seen to be determined by money. Vote buying and patronage are deeply intertwined in the state’s political fabric, as many voters look at the election period as one of festivity and entertainment.

Booze is purchased, and bounty is shared. Projects are announced, and even more ‘development’ promises are made in arguably one of Malaysia’s most neglected states.

The 2016 campaign is similarly being affected by the use of resources and highlights how uneven the playing field is in this election. Given the seriousness of the 1MDB scandal and the use of these tainted funds in Malaysia’s 2013 election, understanding the role money plays in determining the electoral outcomes is more important than ever. Money politics in Sarawak is not only intense; it is expensive. There is no question that the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) is using its control and access to resources to assure a victory in this Borneo state.

Less autonomy, more dependence and projects
One important development in the 2016 Sarawak campaign is the dominance of money from the federal government. The retirement of former Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud has reduced the amount of Sarawak-based political resources able to fund the election. Current Chief Minister Adenan Satem is relying heavily on federal funds for assistance, and this accounts in part for why he has allowed Prime Minister Najib Razak, under a scandal clad cloud, to play such a prominent role in the campaign. Money talks, especially in the ‘cash is king’ Najib government.

Funding from the federal government takes multiple forms. Promised ‘development projects’ are the most common. Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi announced this week that federal funds promised to Sarawak reached RM20 billion (US$5 billion) of which RM16 billion is part of a multi-year project to construct the Pan-Borneo highway. These allocations come from a variety of ministries, with education, defense and rural development among the most prominent, and are often part of the 11th Malaysia Plan announced last year.

The use of development to sway Sarawak voters is not new, as it has been a long-standing practice. Voters regularly face the stark choice of losing road access, funds for housing and a potential new hospital if they vote against the incumbent government. Unlike the peninsula, Sarawak continues to lack basic infrastructure and services, especially in rural areas.

Project announcements are explicitly tied to political support, almost always featuring local BN politicians and a federal minister as the announcer. Najib has been the most prominent ‘gift giver’. This campaign the amount of money promised has reached new heights. Excluding the highway, voters in Sarawak are looking at an average per voter project allocation of nearly RM5000 (US$1250).

The politicisation of development projects takes two forms. They are strategically applied to areas where races are competitive. Consider for example the promised new bridge in Kampong Long Lama in Telung Usan (RM70 million) or the repairs to long houses in Limbang (RM50 million). The closer the contest, the more the promises and visits to hand out largesse.

These political allocations also target specific communities. Najib promised the 341,000 RELA (People’s Volunteer Corps) members of Sarawak RM20 million for new uniforms. This is almost a third of the electorate, in a group that is seen to be closely aligned with the government. Similarly, there are promises to military and government personnel, with announcements of a new headquarters (RM 20 million) in Lanang and RKAT homes in Miri (RM94 million). Security personnel in Sarawak make up 25,022 0f the electorate, as early voters in many competitive contests, such as Dudong in Sibu.

Another key element of the targeting of voters involves strategic allocations to schools, churches, mosques and long houses. The state government has matched many of the religious donations that now reach over an estimated RM50 million, including promises to 110 churches in competitive Ba’kelalan. In return, posters and flags are often on display, with a striking number of churches in this election flying BN colors.

Costly vote-buying and constituency engagement
Money politics in Sarawak extends directly to individual voters beyond promises and projects. Voters are also given money and other favors directly. The amount of money involved here is estimated to reach well over RM1 billion. As in GE 2013, the Sarawak polls has featured regular ‘free’ dinners. These are not under the 1MDB label as occurred in West Malaysia, but are clearly organised by BN officials wearing their signature navy blue.

Thousands are given a free meal, and prizes are raffled off as voters are encouraged to support the incumbent coalition. Many leave with a door prize of RM1000 or even higher. To put these funds in perspective, the Najib government has announced a new monthly minimum wage of RM920 during the Sarawak campaign. Amounts given are more than some monthly wages, and there is more expected on the final day of polling.

In earlier elections, the funds involved were more of a token, RM50-200. With the high cost of living and perceived high funds available (with 1MDB amounts feeding this perception), demands in vote buying have gone up. The opposition has the difficult task of showing they are worth more than a month’s wage.  In GE 2013, the key financial conduit with the voters involved ‘needs based funding’ under the 1Malaysia banner. The 1Malaysia People’s Aid Funds (BR1M) are now regular cash transfers with the latest distribution date 27 April, 10 days before Sarawak polling. An estimated 7 million Malaysians are eligible to receive BR1M payments, from senior citizens to poorer households.

Given the economic conditions in Sarawak, one would expect these funds to be prominent, but it appears based on estimates of household numbers, that less than 100,000 Sarawakians get BR1M, in part due to the high costs of accessing it logistically, especially in rural areas. Nevertheless, the government continues to rely on this to win support, in the areas where BR1M is available.

There is additional cash on hand for distribution, to address the shortcomings in federal vote buying linked cash transfers.  These funds are part of the ‘slush’ campaign funds given to candidates, who can use these handouts at their discretion. The source of the funding is unknown, although it is usually tied to the BN and its leaders. The amount spent per constituency varies, with urban areas costing less due to less distribution. The amounts range from RM2 million to RM40 million per constituency. Candidates have been demanding more in the 1MDB era.

By comparison, opposition politicians work on a budget of RM 100,000 to 300,000 per constituency. How much will be pocketed by candidates, rather than spent in vote-buying will be important in shaping how much is spent. Funds in rural areas are given to the village or long house head, tuai rumah, with some of these funds believed to be pocketed. What distinguishes vote buying this election is that rather than just focus on the Dayak communities and in rural constituencies, more funds are being allocated for Chinese voters and in semi-urban areas.

Patronage and allies
A third area where money politics is prominent is in the alliance between the BN and business. In exchange for contracts, land and access, companies and individuals are given favour. It’s a traditional pattern, where the BN relies on the private sector for funding rather than using state resources directly.

The nexus between government and business cronies is well honed in Malaysia. This practice is still present and common in Sarawak, although a declining share of the overall funds is used to sway the election. Without fail during elections, the BN calls in the cards from the past and future cronies for funds.

Chief Minister Adenan has faced greater challenges in this area than his predecessor. In particular, his relationship with the powerful timber tycoons is not as warm due to Adenan’s mixed signals on logging. Importantly, Adenan has not engaged in extensive patronage, and this has created resentments. He has uneven and in some cases troubled relationships with leading local business people.

The resentments have spilled over into the conflict within the BN. In some contests, Adenan’s choice of candidate is not liked, and in others, the candidate chosen is involved in a long-standing rivalry, with business people willing to back opponents to the BN candidate. Najib has come in to try to resolve some of the disputes, reportedly promising funds to independent candidates to step down, as occurred in competitive Batu Kawah.

Whether these differences are settled or the sabotage festers will shape the results, as will how much crony-businessmen are willing to spend, especially in the crunch period of vote buying and on the decisive final ‘money’ day of the campaign.

Part of the effort to address the lack of state patronage for business involves the lucrative RM16 billion 1,096 km-long Pan-Borneo highway. Launched in March 2015 with an MOU signed in July 2015, the highway has had some challenges getting off the ground. Some of these involve land issues and logistics while others involve patronage and contracts.

Officials have promised business to bumiputeras and local Sarawakians and before the election, a RM1.7 billion contract was allocated out of 17 bids. Reports prominently discuss how the Pan-Borneo highway will benefit local business. Business people in Sarawak still depend heavily on contracts and access. Given the changes in Sarawak’s economy – the reduction of timber and the declining price of palm oil – construction infrastructure is seen as an important catalyst injection of capital. The road is much needed, but its tie to patronage is there, as it has repeatedly been used to win votes and allies.

Betting is back
The final dimension of money politics involves a different empowerment of local business, a resurgence of the local underworld. Funds are being reportedly used through betting to sway votes in some close urban contests. This system works by a financial backing of the odds that creates a situation where the person wins money if the results are in the favour of the financial backer’s choice of candidate.

This practice disproportionately has disadvantaged the opposition, although in today’s Sarawak campaign it has the potential to affect BN candidates as well. In the last few elections in Sarawak, betting had little impact on the outcome. Given the fragmentation of candidates and likely closer races in Chinese seats in urban areas this time round, this aspect of money politics may shape outcomes.

What is also clearly affecting the campaign is where some of the candidates are using their own money. The number of millionaires running is much higher than in West Malaysia. In some cases, as appears in the seat of Repok, the candidate is splashing funds in an unprecedented manner. Some of the wealthy candidates appear to have links to the underworld and are seen as local ‘gangster’ figures. Voters are questioning ties to the underworld and sources of funding.

From projects and vote-buying to patronage and betting, money politics in Sarawak is raining everywhere. In fact, in some constituencies, there are floods of funds. The amount collectively spent to woo the 1,138,650 voters has exceeded that of any state election in Malaysia. Easily one can estimate that the funds in this Sarawak election for slightly over one million voters are reaching at least at third of what was spent in GE 2013 for slightly over 13 million voters.

The massive injection of federal funding, including both projects and patronage, combined with mysterious election slush funds and splash local spending reinforces the view that this election is being bought. The Najib government appears to be willing to spend this amount to assure its political survival. The impact of Najib’s ever-increasing electoral spending only makes the electoral system more uneven and creates serious distortions in the priorities for development and well-being of Malaysians, including Sarawakians.

There is little regard to the damages money politics is causing Malaysia as unlike the rain, it is tied to a Najib reign.

Bridget Welsh is Professor of Political Science at Ipek University, Senior Research Associate at the Center for East Asian Democratic Studies of National Taiwan University, Senior Associate Fellow of The Habibie Center, and University Fellow of Charles Darwin University.

This is the third instalment in a five-part series. The next looks at the impact of 2015 redelineation and the electoral system on Sarawak’s election. Read the first article here and the second article here. Bridget Welsh would like to thank Sarawakians who assisted with the classification of polling stations, seats and analysis.