Sunday June 3, 2012
Having a firm grip
By Joceline Tan
The Chinese revolt in Sarawak has failed to dislodge Tan Sri Taib Mahmud and more Chinese seats may fall but the irony is that he is the super glue holding the Sarawak Barisan Nasional in place.
THE men in Kuching say that the secret to Tan Sri Taib Mahmud’s rather spritely looks is his young trophy wife Puan Sri Ragad Kurdi Taib.
She is a Kim Kardashian lookalike and her exotic looks and luxe style have given Taib’s ageing image a fresh lease of life.
The Sarawak Chief Minister turned 76 in May and his birthday banquet was a black-tie event held at the State Legislative Assembly complex. It was the grandest birthday celebration since his first wife Puan Sri Laila Taib died of cancer in 2009.
His daughters Hanifah and Jamilah were there on the stage, holding on to his hand as he cut an elaborate birthday cake. Guests received souvenir mugs bearing the official portrait of the couple.
He looked healthy and happy, and Ragad, who has shed some weight, looked as ravishing as ever. It has been more than a year since their nuptials but the couple still behave like a honeymooning couple. He often feeds her morsels of food while those around them look on in awkward fascination.
As Taib’s birthdays had been quite low profile for some years, some saw the big do as a sort of new phase in his life and a video screened during the banquet seemed to suggest as much. The video was a down-memory-lane account of his career, and what a career it has been! This is his 31st year as Chief Minister and next year will be his 50th in politics.
But as some of those at the banquet noted, there were lots of scenes in the video showing him and Ragad, but none at all of his late wife who had been by his side throughout his political career.
Taib seems to have put the humiliation of the losses suffered in the State election behind him as he prepares to face the general election.
Sarawak is no longer the solid fixed deposit that it was made out to be. More seats are expected to fall and predictions of losses for Barisan have ranged from six to 12.
But Taib’s own party, Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu or PBB, is set to repeat the clean sweep of seats in the general election as it did in the State polls.
The same cannot be said for the other three parties in the Sarawak Barisan Nasional.
The Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), the biggest loser in the State polls, is expected to lose more seats to the DAP.
Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) and Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP) can no longer take the native vote for granted.
As in last year’s poll, peninsular parties like DAP and PKR will be making an aggressive play for Sarawak seats in the general election.
Taib is aware that the Chinese are not with him but he will go on his own terms and when he is ready. Besides, the opinion is that the big loser in the State polls was not only the SUPP but also the Chinese voters. The Chinese thought they were voting out Taib, instead they have voted themselves out of the Government.
“How the Chinese feel about him has become irrelevant, there’s no point talking about it anymore. He is still the Chief Minister,” said a Sarawak journalist.
Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has been around long enough to know that you cannot push a man like Taib around. All talk of Taib going has died off and there seems to have been a new compromise between the two leaders.
Some say the two men have reached an understanding. What is apparent is that the Federal side will not press Taib about retiring and he will do what is needed to deliver in the general election.
When Najib was in Sarawak last month, Taib hosted a dinner for him in his palatial official residence on the outskirts of Kuching. Insiders said it was a significant gesture because he would usually have held it in a hotel.
Taib is somewhat like Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in that it is hard to elicit praise from them. As such, Taib drew public attention earlier this week when he said Najib has the capability to deliver and the vision to lead the country.
In the next breath, he slammed Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as someone who had caused “problem after problem” and had stood in the way of development in Sarawak during his time as Deputy Prime Minister. It was a double compliment of sorts.
Najib has also been working to iron out the friction caused by the contest for the SUPP leadership. The friction was not just because of Miri MP and Federal Minister Datuk Seri Peter Chin Fah Kui defeating Sibu SUPP warlord Datuk Wong Soon Koh for the presidency but also the fact that Taib had preferred Wong over Chin.
Taib was also displeased that Chin had sought Najib’s blessing to contest. As a result he viewed Chin as “a federal candidate”.
Taib is known for his imperious manner and for months after the SUPP election, he ignored Chin. His glaring absence at the SUPP Chinese New Year open house was a pointed snub of Chin’s leadership and became the talking point throughout the next 14 days of the lunar festival.
Taib claimed he could not make it because he was tired and busy yet he spent the next three days in Miri, Sibu and Bintulu visiting the homes of politicians and some of the biggest tycoons in Sarawak. The first house he dropped by in Sibu was that of Chin’s rival, Wong. It was a big loss of face for Chin.
At a dinner hosted by the Sarawak Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry a few days later, he shook hands with everyone lined up along the red carpet except Chin. The snub, said a journalist at the event, continued when Taib omitted Chin from the honorific during his speech.
When he returned to the VIP table after the speech, he again tried to ignore Chin’s outstretched hand until Ragad tactfully nudged her husband’s hand towards Chin. Even then, it was more a brush of hands than a handshake.
Talk of the town
But the tensions are slowly easing. When Najib flew into Sibu last month, he brought along Chin and there was a major photo session where Najib, Taib, Wong and Chin were featured holding on to a symbolic “unity rope” woven by the Orang Ulu.
The talk is that Najib has struck a truce between the two camps and asked the two rival SUPP politicians to work together for the sake of the coalition.
Since then, Chin and Wong have made statements talking about putting up a united front against the opposition. It remains to be seen whether the “unity rope” will hold or break.
As for Taib and Chin, they are not exactly on the same page yet, but winter has thawed into spring between them.
But the talk of the town in recent days has been the emergence of the Sarawak Workers’ Party (SWP), a new political party led by Larry Sng. Sng’s father is a former MP and assemblyman and his father-in-law is developer tycoon Tan Sri Ting Pek Khiing.
The emergence of SWP is quite typical of the bizarre twists and turns in Sarawak politics and there is more to it than meets the eye.
For a start, SWP has been declared Barisan-friendly and is widely believed to have the tacit blessing of Taib. Sng, 33, used to be part of the State Government until he was sacked from PRS after falling out with PRS president Datuk Seri James Masing a couple of years ago.
But Taib is reportedly very fond of Sng and had appointed him Youth Special Adviser after the State polls. That was a slap in the face for Masing.
Bigger troubles lie ahead for Masing, however.
Jaws dropped when Sng announced that his party would be contesting in all the six Parliamentary seats contested by PRS in the election.
A grudge fight lies ahead but more than that, it is apparent that SWP was formed to take on PRS in the election, finish off the party and to rival its place in the Barisan.
Masing has evidently fallen from grace with Taib and speculation remains rife about the “sin” he committed against the latter.
Whatever the reason, his party is in the danger zone. And Sng, given his close ties with Taib, is the man to watch in the months ahead.
Sarawak politics has not been this complicated in decades.
According to political analyst Dr Jeneri Amir, this general election will be the toughest that the Barisan has ever faced.
“It’s not only the Chinese seats in the town areas, but I think the opposition will also make inroads in the rural heartland,” said Dr Jeneri.
The days when Taib romped home with near-clean sweeps are over. The DAP has grown very ambitious and is preparing to be the big winner again.
DAP politicians have been on Taib’s back, reminding him of his retirement plans. At the last State Legislative Assembly, Bandar Kuching assemblyman Chong Chieng Jen demanded to know when Taib was stepping down.
Taib snapped at him: “I am not going to tell you because it is our private affair. When the time comes, I will announce.”
DAP is looking to add another four or five Parliamentary seats to its current two. But it may not be able to hold on to Sibu, the seat that State DAP chief Wong Ho Leng won in the 2009 by-election, due to several developments.
The Barisan is planning to field Temengong Vincent Lau, the local paramount leader who, according to local banker Dr Gregory Hii, is quite well-liked and respected in Sibu.
“Ho Leng has also been perceived as rather high-handed in his political style after his party did so well last year,” said Dr Hii.
Sarawak politics has changed irrevocably after the last State election and it is unlikely Taib would want to endure another State polls and another bruising round of attacks.
But he is not the type to be dictated to. He is used to doing the dictating and he will decide when to go.
Several years ago, his deputy Tan Sri Alfred Jabu Numpang, in a birthday tribute to the Chief Minister, said he wished he could clone Taib so that Sarawak would never be without him.
It was a brazen case of apple-polishing and many people cringed in distaste.
Anyway, Taib has no wish to be cloned and he knows that he has overstayed his welcome. He probably feels his age even though his wife makes him feel young again.
But as some in the Sarawak media have pointed out, the irony is that Najib and the Barisan still need Taib to be around for the general election because Sarawak’s most powerful man still has the ability to deliver the seats.