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Zaini Othman Mohd. Mahadee Haji Ismail Zaid Ahmad


In today’s modern democratic system, elections are considered one of the institutional
ways to symbolize the citizens’ participation in the system. Political scientists such
as Lipset (1960), Dahl (1971), Held (1993) and others, recognize election as an
important characteristic that must exist in any community or nation which practices
democracy. This paper serves three main purposes. Firstly, it analyzes and debates
issues pertaining to the practice of democracy in Malaysia with particular reference
to Sarawak state election 2001. Secondly, it studies the extent to which election
practices in Malaysia manifest the fundamental tenet of democracy i.e. a fair and
just political competition. Finally, it presents a possible explanation on the
unsuccessful attempts of the opposition parties to overpower the political hegemony
of the Barisan Nasional.
Keywords: Democratic, symbol, election, fundamental, and opposition
In any democratic system, peoples or citizens participation in political process is
essential. The peoples’ participation is manifested in various forms and means. The
formal way is through the casting of votes in an election, participating in election
campaigns to support contesting candidates or election manifestos. On the other
hand, the informal way of exercising people participation is through ensuring
continuous freedom to voice their appeals towards the ineffective government
policies. What is pertinent in democratic practice is that the voice of the peoples
should be heard.
In modern nation-state era, the ancient form of direct democracy that was
once practiced in Athens is virtually impossible to implement. The majority of
democratic countries today, undertake to carry out a system that is quite indirect
i.e. through a parliamentary system, or presidency system, or a system that
promotes federalism or republicanism. From the point of view of modern
democracy, the citizens are not directly involved in the decision-making process.
Nonetheless, they are involved in the selection of leaders who will legislate or
formulate the policies laws and regulations of the ruling government. No party or
regime or individual can maintain power without peoples’ supports as much as
no single political system can sustain its ‘democracy’ without peoples’ participation.
In the same vein, certain political scientists are of the opinion that democracy would
not work well if political power is dominated by certain leaders or groups or parties
for too long1. Ideally speaking, democracy is supposed to be able to ensure that
Jati, Vol. 12, December 2007
there is no corruption in the leadership and more importantly democracy can ensure
fair and justice in its political process and maintain a rotation of power and leaders.
As an example, the United States adopted a system that a person is not
allowed to hold the presidency post for more than two terms. The election process
in the United States runs well and the citizens fully participate in the electoral
process. This is in line with the principle of democracy that there must be a
mechanism to ensure that all parties are given a fair treatment and a fair chance to
contest or to support the contestants and their manifestos. There should also be a
mechanism to ensure that no one will stay in power for too long. This mechanism
must be legitimate and “respected” to allow for it to be practiced fairly and without
any fear or reservations.2
In today’s modern democratic system, elections are considered to be one of
the institutional ways to symbolize, empirically or abstractly, the participation of
citizens in the system. In fact, political scientists such as Lipset (1960), Dahl (1971),
Held (1993), and others, in their debates on democratic system have listed election
as one of the important characteristics that must exist in any community or nation
which practices democracy. In fact, election institution has always been used as the
most important yardstick in any study conducted to measure the level of
Furthermore, election has been institutionalized as a ‘space’ that not only
allows the citizens to select their leaders, but also for any entities, whether they
are individuals, groups or organizations to compete for power. And the ‘space’ has
to be freed from any control, influences and even political hegemony. The question
is however, how true is the premise that indicates election as one condition of
democracy that truly represents the notion of democracy; and to what extent the
‘space’ is intellectually or non-intellectually free?4 Taking Sarawak State Election
in 2001 as the empirical source, these questions will be discussed in the following
sections. The state election in 2001 is taken as a case study due to a major political
setback in federal general election in 1999. Such analysis is pertinent as political
setback experienced by the ruling party in the federal general election may have
certain impacts on state election. This paper has three major purposes. Firstly, is to
analyze and debate on the concept and practice of democracy, especially the election
in Malaysia. Secondly, is to examine the role of election election as an indicator of
democracy. Thirdly, is to provide an alternative explanation on the failure of the
opposition to compete within the political hegemony of the Barisan Nasional.
One of the factors with regards to democracy (and this includes the election
institution) in many countries especially the former British colonies, including
Malaysia is a type of democracy “introduced” by the colonials. In other words, the
idea of democracy in some post-colonial countries did not grow or develop like
how it did in the West. In the West, democracy was developed a result of social
awareness in relations to the rights of citizens in the political process. The practice
of democracy in the West was initiated by peoples’ movement that eventually led
to the French Revolution or the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries
which consequently changed the political landscapes of the Western European
Zaini Othman, Mohd. Mahadee Haji Ismail, Zaid Ahmad - Elections and the Hegemonic Politics
Upon gaining the independence in 1957, Malaysia, initially, had some doubts
over its ‘capability’ to administer stately and social affairs without any assistance
from the British. The suspicions were closely related the racial divide in Malaysia.
The British imposed a condition that the local leaders representing these mixed
cultures must be able to work together, before they can get status of an independent
The cooperation was successfully reached though “unintentionally” between
UMNO (United Malays National Organization) and the MCA (Malayan Chinese
Association) at the Kuala Lumpur Municipal Election in 1952.6 The cooperation
was further strengthened especially in 1955 when UMNO, MCA and MIC (the
Malayan Indian Congress) collectively formed a coalition called Perikatan to win
the national election, the first election in the history of Malaysia. Perikatan which
was led by the late Tunku Abdul Rahman (who later became Malaysia’s first Prime
Minister), won the election handsomely.
Since then, Perikatan (which from 1973 was known as Barisan Nasional or
the National Front), became the only political party which not only controlled the
helm of leadership, but also won all of the 11 general elections. Many attempts have
been made to explain this phenomenon. Scholars such as Barraclough (1984), Case
(1993), Jesudason (1995), Anne Munro (1996) and Crouch (1996) argued that the
success of Barisan Nasional in dominating the country’s administration and winning
all of the elections were due to the purposive-depoliticization policies practiced by
the Barisan Nasional government, such as the Internal Security Act (ISA) 1960, the
Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Societies Registration Act and the
domination of Barisan Nasional in various state apparatus such as the Election
Commission, the Public Adminstration, the Information Department, the Security
Forces and other related government agencies. Such policies had given many
advantages to the Barisan Nasional to prevent possible political competition created
by the Opposition especially during elections, allowing Barisan Nasional to
maintain its status quo.7
The points raised by those scholars certainly carry some academic merits.
However, in comparison, the arguments do not seem to satisfactorily explain the
success of other political parties in other situations. For instance, during Mexico
national election in 1997, Mexican National Action Party when it beat the
Institutional Revolutionary Party (IRP) after its 67 years of political reign in Mexico
during the national election in 1997. Similar situation can also be seen in Taiwan
when the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) pulled off a
stunning victory against the Kuomintang, the party which ruled Taiwan for more
than five decades, in the island’s presidential polls in 2000. Another more interesting
case was the failure of the Golkar in sustaining its domination of Indonesia’s
administration during the reformasi (reformation) era in that country. The three
illustrated cases could be used as an alternative debate (in the context of Malaysia
in general and Sarawak in particular) because political parties such as IRP, DPP
and Golkar were very strong and had controlled their respective state apparatus.8
In the general context of Malaysia particularly in Sarawak, the ability of the
ruling parties to control political competition cannot be seen as a mere political
process. One needs to carry out a social analysis that goes beyond perspective
analysis which is institutional in nature as pointed out by particular scholars in
their debates on Barisan Nasional political hegemony in Malaysia.
Jati, Vol. 12, December 2007
As clarified earlier, the idea of democracy (including that of elections and
selection of candidates or representatives) was an administrative idea introduced
by the West (read the British) into Malaysian politics. However, this does not mean
that the exposure to the administrative idea, which was based on such democracy,
had entirely changed the orientation of the feudal political culture, which had long
been embedded in the values and the Malaysians’ political norms up till today. In
fact, the practice of Malaysia’s democratic administration after the colonial era is
seen to have been ‘mixed’ with feudal values and political norms.
This phenomenon can be observed clearly through the development of
democracy in Malaysia under the political leadership of Barisan Nasional. For
example, since the country’s independence 1957, Barisan Nastional had always been
promoting the patronage democracy idealism. Through this patronage democracy,
the political elites who formed Perikatan (Barisan Nasional) had promoted the idea
of a party vanguard which later became a prominent feature in the context of social
political orientation. The United Malays National Organisation or UMNO, one of
Barisan Nasional party components, clearly practices and become part of the Malay
political culture. UMNO, in it’s strive to obtain the political support from the Malay
community had put the party as a party that represents the political interests of
the Malays in Malaysia. In other words, UMNO delivers a political message that
the Malays’ security, their rights, their socio-economic wellbeing and development
depend on their loyalty and political support for UMNO.9
This demand for loyalty and political support not only highlighted the
continuation of norms and values contained in the feudalism context of the Malays
during the monarchy-ruled period, but it also exposed UMNO’s intellectual
hegemony over the Malay community in the context of democracy being practiced
in the post colonial era. The intellectual-hegemony phenomenon10 practiced by
UMNO has greatly influenced the development and expansion of the Malays
cultural and political orientation in post-colonial times and this abstract factor has
contributed to UMNO’s ability to project the party’s vanguard image to safeguard
the political interests of the Malays. In turn, UMNO enjoys the political support of
the Malays.
Similar idealism also became the practice of the other Barisan Nasional party
components such as the MCA, MIC, Gerakan Party, Parti Pesaka Bumiputra Bersatu
(PBB), Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) in Sarawak and Umno-Sabah. All of these
parties practice the vanguard party idealism through intellectual hegemony towards
their political supporters in their efforts to gain political loyalty. Hence, the practice
of democracy through the election process during the post-colonial period relied
heavily on the community’s intellectualism.
This phenomenon does not only occur in the political sphere but also take
place in other areas including economic and businesses. In the acclaimed mission
to create a peaceful and stable society, the Barisan Nasional leaders especially after
the May 13 196911 incident had carried out an economic developmental based on
the developmentalist state idealism. The program in question is a policy known as
the New Economic Policy (NEP). The implementation of NEP has allowed the
government to play a significant role in shaping the country’s economic
development based on national interest, ethnic preferential and social coerciveness.
In fact there was a kind of notion as indicated by Green (1974) that the role
and intervention played by the government in the implementation of economic
development policies was crucial for a nation that has a complex social structure,
Zaini Othman, Mohd. Mahadee Haji Ismail, Zaid Ahmad - Elections and the Hegemonic Politics
either from the different racial mix or the wide disparity in the development of the
different races12. As a result, we can observe, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s,
there was a certain kind of optimism towards this approach i.e. to develop the
economies of developing countries including Malaysia through its NEP.
The NEP was launched during the Second Malaysia Plan (1971-1976) as a strategy
to improve participation of the Malaysians from different races in the economic
development. The Barisan Nasional government, especially UMNO, has stated that
the main reason for the May 13 incident was due to the alienation of the Malays in
the country’s economic activities. The NEP had two objectives, first, to eradicate
poverty and the income gap among Malaysians; and second to restructure
Malaysians based on economic balance. NEP is the brainchild of the Barisan
Nasional-led government to serve these purposes.
After the launch of the NEP in 1971, the role played by the government (read
Barisan Nasional) became more evident especially in Malaysia’s economic and
political development. Empirical evidence can be seen through the inceptions of
various economic development agencies such as The Federal Land Development
Authority (FELDA), Federal Agriculture Marketing Authority (FAMA), Rubber
Industry Smallholders Development Authority (RISDA), etc. At the state level,
economic political institutions were established as the investment arms for the State
Governments such as Perbadanan Iktisad or Perbadanan Ekonomi Negeri (State
Economic Development).13
The setting up of such institutions portrayed the important roles played by
the Federal Government in the political economic development of Malaysia. From
the socio-political viewpoint, the Government’s intention was to bring the
Malaysian community (especially the Malays) into the competitive capitalist
economic system. And the main objective was to reduce the economic gap between
races in Malaysia. Indirectly, this had helped to mobilize the Malaysian community
to become more interactive in the political and economic development in Malaysia.
In the early and up to the mid 1980s, the Malaysian leaders shifted its
economy from agriculture base to import-substitutions and manufacturing base.
Since the shift, the Malaysian economy has experienced a remarkable growth, in
fact among the fastest in the world. Although, such change of approach may have
help to protect the people and the nation’s interest, it had also left certain impacts
on the development of democracy and cultural and political orientation among the
The prevailing involvement of the government in the political and economic
development has provided the Barisan Nasional an influential political force since
1957 particularly in the construction of the populace ideology, especially the Malays.
With such an approach, the government was able to instill a kind of cultural and
political orientation asserting that only the ruling government has the ability to
maintain economic and political stability in Malaysia. Economic development
programs such as FELDA, FAMA, the Federal Land Consolidation and the
Rehabilitation Authority (FELCRA) and the Heavy Industries Corporation of
Jati, Vol. 12, December 2007
Malaysia (HICOM) for example had successfully suppressed any possible political
resistance and political boycott from the population’s majority.14
Evidently, the populace ideology has always been commendably manipulated
by the Barisan Nasional in the course of political competition during elections.
Election campaigns are always looked upon as an image display of the
‘government’. If we analyze the series of elections held in Malaysia since 1955, the
populace ideology approach has been used as a kind of mechanism for the Barisan
Nasional to win political support. More often than not, elections in Malaysia were
not only the medium for the citizens to practice their democracy rights but as a
platform for Barisan Nasional to announce the Government policies and programs.
In most cases, the declaration of the Government policies or programs via
the election “platform” has been seen by the peoples as party program of Barisan
Nasional. For example, in the Indera Kayangan by-election in Perlis on 19th January
2002, a number of announcements were made by Barisan Nasional including
allocation of an additional RM100 million to upgrade the construction of a Tamilmedium
university as announced by the MIC president Dato’ Seri Samy Vellu in
Kedah together with a few other small allocations.15
Such populace orientation did not only aim to capture political support from
voters in the short-term period, but also to strengthen the Government’s intellectual
hegemony over the citizens in a longer-term. Through such economic policy and
political control, the ruling party was able to construct a false understanding
regarding differences between the Government’s policies and the party’s programs.
This aspect – the control and use of the economic and political factors to obtain
mass political support – was carefully detailed and debated by Frey (1978)16. Frey
explained that within any political system -specifically in developing or poor
countries whereby a majority of the population still has very low level of education
- there exists confusion among the community regarding the philosophy and
function of a political system, of which they are associated with. It is quite common
among this society to look at the political system as one that is protected by the
activities and programs organized by political parties competing for power to rule.
The confusion becomes more serious during election campaigns. The
incumbent party as the caretaker government makes use the Government’s agencies
to strengthen its populace ideology and later control the intellectual hegemony
within the society. In relation to this, Frey’s (1978) views through his political
economy model can be used to explain the democratic practice and the election in
this country. However, we must also bear in mind that there is another factor that
must be taken into account i.e. the feudal values commonly known as neo-feudal.
The combination of a Government-party model (political economy model) and neofeudal
values, in the end demonstrate that the patron-client phenomenon in a
democratic system – specifically during the elections, or what is now defined as
patronage democracy - had really reinforced the Government’s intellectual
hegemony over the majority of the people.
Federalism is Malaysia model of political administration. The political control at
the state-level by a party that shares the same ideology or objectives with the ruling
party at the federal level is important to ensure sustainable control of power and
Zaini Othman, Mohd. Mahadee Haji Ismail, Zaid Ahmad - Elections and the Hegemonic Politics
ideology. Therefore, the practice of patronage democracy was brought to state level
politics. This can be observed from the politics and election practices in Sarawak.17
However it has to be clarified that patronage democracy which existed in the context
of the development of democracy in Sarawak is not an “exported” ideology from the
Federal Government in Kuala Lumpur. In fact, it was already firmly established
during the time when Sarawak was under the influence of the Brooke-British family
The patronage democracy became obvious when political parties began to
formalize in Sarawak in the 1950s. This can be observed from the emergence of
political parties controlled by the aristocrats or leaders from their respective groups.
The idealism of patronage democracy in Sarawak was dominantly seen during the
formation of Malaysian Federation in 1963 and after 1970s the idealism has widely
spread within the political culture of the Sarawak community. Through the level
coalition known as Barisan Nasional+3 (BN+3), led by Parti Pesaka Bumiputra
Bersatu (PBB), the patronage democracy had successfully planted the image as
vanguard party in Sarawak. This image became more dominant and hegemonic
when Tan Sri Taib Mahmud took the helm of the BN+3 Sarawak as Chief Minister,
replacing Tun Abdul Rahman Ya’kub in 1981.
The image of BN+3 leadership as a vanguard for the socio-political prosperity
of the community gained its impacts when in 1992, Tan Sri Taib Mahmud
announced his vision to stimulate the growth of Sarawak’s economic and political
development through a policy called the “politics of development” (PoD). The PoD
as the umbrella policy for the state’s political economic development is in fact a
complementary to the Vision 2020 launched by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr
Mahathir Mohamad in 1990. According to Tan Sri Taib Mahmud, the politics of
development is the backbone policy to other policies implemented by the leaders of
BN+3 in Sarawak. He later explained in detail the idealism behind the policy;
The PoD (politics of development) is a total commitment to development
objectives. In other words, we put development objectives as paramount in
our political actions. If at one time or another, our political interest is in
conflict with the development objectives, the former should by all means give
way to the development objectives in as far as politics allow us to do so. In
other words, our politics must be subservient to the demands of development,
and that means, we who are the leaders, whether at the top or grassroots level
must be aware of our vital role as the representatives of the people.19
It is apparent that the objectives of PoD were primarily aimed to provide
physical development of the Sarawak community. In the PoD framework, the party
leaders in Sarawak strengthened its intellectual hegemony as an asset to dominate
the state’s politics, especially after 1992. The spread of intellectual hegemony
through the PoD policy has brought about various shapes of political culture that
are synonym with the patronage democracy ideology. For example, within the
framework of the PoD policy, wealth-generating resources for development such
as timber concessions, business and infrastructure development contracts are
channeled to the people by means of political elitists. This gave rise to the patronage
image and later generates a new political mindset whereby a community depends
on the state’s intellectual hegemony to guarantee loyalty and support for the party
in power.
Jati, Vol. 12, December 2007
During elections, the electoral-patron image became clearly visible when the
ruling party announces major development projects to a certain group of society as
an ‘exchange of votes’ and ‘political support’ to the ruling party’s contesting
candidates. During the 1996 state election, the ruling party declared a development
project worth RM50 million in its election campaign. Indirectly, this was some kind
of a display to the Sarawak community of the capability of BN+3 to lead the political
and economic development of Sarawak. As a result, the BN+3 won more than 90
percent of the seats contested that year.20
The results indirectly showed how patronage democracy practiced by the state
has accomplished a chain of patron-client relationship within the framework of a
democratic system. The distinct display of the patron-client value implicitly puts
democratic idealism delicately entwined within the neo-feudal value reconstructed
by the political elitists in their practice of democracy in Malaysia in general and
Sarawak in particular. Realizing the ability of the idealism to sustain the status quo
of the party, the ruling political party had manipulated its intellectual hegemony
through patronage democracy in the 2001 Sarawak state election.
In that particular election, the initial expectations of several political
observers was that something interesting would happen. The assumption was based
on a few general and specific factors, prevalence at both the national and state
levels. Firstly, at the national level, patronage democracy as supported by Barisan
Nasional has faced a stiff competition from the opposition whom since 1998 had
formed an opposition alliance in the name of democratic-justice idealism. Together,
they established Barisan Alternatif or the Alternative Front led by the Parti Islam
se-Malaysia (PAS), Democratic Action Party (DAP), and Parti Keadilan, whose
leader is the wife of the former Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim,
Datin Wan Azizah Ismail.21
The formation of Barisan Alternatif, if studied explicitly is not new as far as
the opposition parties in Malaysia are concerned. Even before this, there have been
similar alliances called Barisan Sosial in the 1960s and the Gagasan Rakyat-
Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah in 1990. However, this time around Barisan Alternatif
is seen to have the ability to give a tough challenge to Barisan Nasional. Barisan
Alternatif, as seen by political observers at that time was not just an ad-hoc pact
that has no clear idealism; but an alliance that has a concrete political course and
idealism striving for democracy and fairness.
The Barisan Alternatif’s ideals of democracy and fairness was believed to
have the ability to challenge the hegemony of patronage democracy which has been
firmly rooted in Malaysian politics. This optimism was further strengthened when
during the 1999 national election in Sanggang, Pahang; Teluk Kemang, Negeri
Sembilan; and also Lunas, Kedah, the Barisan Alternatif Opposition performed
fairly well where it was able to compete with the hegemonic domination of the
Barisan Nasional patronaged democracy. In fact in Terengganu and the by-election
in Lunas, the “new” political ideals of democracy and justice have “overpowered”
the Barisan Nasional political domination. This development put the Sarawak
election in an interesting situation for study, given the fact that Barisan Alternatif
was also contesting in the election.
Furthermore, Tan Sri Taib Mahmud as chief minister of Sarawak and in his
capacity as the PBB president had announced that he was not defending his Asajaya
seat, which he had represented for so many years. Instead he wanted to contest
for the Balingian seat, situated in Mukah. This development had caused various
Zaini Othman, Mohd. Mahadee Haji Ismail, Zaid Ahmad - Elections and the Hegemonic Politics
speculations among political observers; and the most obvious was related to the
presumably erosion of Tan Sri Taib Mahmud’s domination among his voters in
Asajaya. Both of the issues had led the academics to assume that 2001 state election
on Sarawak would be an interesting case for study.
The Sarawak State Legislative Assembly was dissolved on 13th September
2001 to make way for the 8th state election. The election involved eight political
parties and 173 candidates. On the nomination day, four seats were won
uncontested by the Barisan Nasional candidates in N11 Batu Kawa, N25 Batang
Ai, N49 Katibas and N62 Ba’kelalan. Such victories however could not be taken as
an indication that other Barisan Nasional candidates would have an easy task
ahead. This was evident from the optimum deployment of the Barisan Nasional
campaign machinery to ensure the party’s victory since the nomination day well
into polling day.22
As indicated above, the biggest test for any party in power is the ability to
sustain its dominance. For the Sarawak Barisan Nasional, this eighth election is seen
as the most challenging election that should not be taken lightly. This is because
the recent political development has indicated that the Barisan Nasional’s political
ideology would be facing hard political competition from the merged opposition
parties. In Sarawak, the opposition party criticized the PoD ideology championed
by Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib Mahmud since 1992.23
To ensure that the state ideology remained fixated in the mindset of the
people, election campaigns became the appropriate platform for leaders to
propagate this message to the people. In the Sarawak eighth state election, Barisan
Nasional launched its election motto ‘Moving Forward in Unity for a Better
Sarawak.’ The phrase ‘moving forward’ is to reflect the state ideology which means
development along with Barisan Nasional, while ‘unity’ is defined as solidarity that
is parallel to Barisan Nasional coalition concept.24
With such a motto, the Barisan Nasional attempted to give a strong message
to the Sarawak voters that only a party like Barisan Nasional coalition is able to
change and improve the living standard and wellbeing of the people. This message
is carried by all of the Barisan Nasional candidates in their political appeals. As an
example, in a press statement made by Lily Yong, a Barisan Nasional candidate
contesting for the Padungan seat said that her main objective was to ensure the
Barisan Nasional’s responsibility as development driver for the Padungan remains
at it is. From political point of view, such a statement is certainly to inculcate in
the voters’ minds that development could only be materialized if they are loyal to
the Barisan Nasional. Lily Yong’s victory in the election was evident that such a
statement in one way or another has to a certain extent influenced on the voters.25
During the election campaign (from 18th September 2001 to midnight of 26th
September, 2001), the rite of patronage democracy was once again displayed. It was
at the nomination day in Mukah, the then Deputy Prime Minister Dato’ Seri
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi accompanied Tan Sri Taib Mahmud and later officiated
the opening of a new school, Sekolah Kebangsaan and Sekolah Menengah
Kebangsaan Bandar Baru Mukah. To the voters, this clearly symbolizes the support
of the Federal Government towards the vision of the State Government showing
the picture of patronage democracy in practice26. In fact the Deputy Prime
Minister’s visit was given a grand welcoming ceremony displaying another facet
of political feudalism at work.27
Jati, Vol. 12, December 2007
A similar phenomenon can be observed in the Barisan Nasional campaigning
programs. Tan Sri Taib Mahmud, in a political campaign in Lawas, stated clearly
that the BN+3 in Sarawak was in the midst of allocating RM400 million to develop
Lawas’ infrastructure, including developing 100,000 hectares of land for palm oil
cultivation for a period of six years beginning 2001.28 Apart from Tan Sri Taib
Mahmud as head of the caretaker government, the other state political leaders also
utilized their ‘official duty’ time to announce various development projects. For
example, Datuk Sim Kheng Hui, Assistant Minister of Social Development and
Urbanisation, at an official function in Pending has announced the allocation for a
small rural project worth RM113,000 to 23 associations around Kuching.29
Meanwhile, Datuk Abang Johari as Tourism Minister and state assemblyman for
Satok also presented financial assistance to 84 Bumiputera entrepreneurs in
Apart from this, other state apparatus were also mobilized to fortify state
intellectual hegemony. The State Forestry Department, Petroleum Nasional Malaysia
(PETRONAS), Amanah Ikhtiar Malaysia (AIM) and Welfare Department Malaysia
made several announcements on development projects worth millions of ringgit
where they are made patrons. The mass media also played their roles to further
strengthen the state intellectual hegemony while the election campaign took place.30
One of the glaring examples of the media involvement is the talk show
program with state leaders called ‘Untukmu Sarawak’ (For You Sarawak). In this
televised program, Sarawak’s top leaders such as Tan Sri Taib Mahmud, Datuk
Adenan Satem, Datuk Haji Awang Tengah and Datuk Taha Ariffin were invited as
guests or panelists, offering the viewers the opportunity to hear the rapid
development achieved by Sarawak under the Barisan Nasional leadership. The
Government-controlled television through TV1 also broadcast speech by the then
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad a day before polling day. Among
the crucial points raised by the Prime Minister in his political appeals were the need
for Sarawak people to vote for Barisan Nasional for their own interests, well-being,
development and prosperity.31
The program had indirectly strengthened the state intellectual hegemony
among the Sarawak community. Beside the electronic media, national print media
also took part in intensifying the state intellectual hegemony during the campaign
period. Throughout the month of September 2001, the national print media had
run news stories and articles aimed to propagate and strengthen the state
intellectual hegemony. For example, Utusan Sarawak on 19th September 2001
published an important news story focusing on the rural community of Sarawak
particularly in Mukah regarding the Barisan Nasional development programs to
supply water and electricity to all schools in Mukah. The then deputy prime
minister himself announced the project that is valued at RM23.5 million and will
benefit 463 rural schools in Sarawak.32
In its issue dated September 20, 2001, Utusan Sarawak ran a special column
to focus on the achievements and the state development planning of the Barisan
Nasional in Sarawak. The column named ‘Development Style’ published facts and
information about the infrastructure and development built by the Barisan Nasional
government for the convenience of the people in Sarawak. This included the
construction of roads, more schools in rural areas and increasing the number ferry
services. A similar article was also published in the Sunday Tribune newspaper
dated September 30, 2001, which implicitly aimed at strengthening the state
Zaini Othman, Mohd. Mahadee Haji Ismail, Zaid Ahmad - Elections and the Hegemonic Politics
intellectual hegemony particularly among the Bidayuh community. The statement
by Sarawak’s Assistant Finance Minister Michael Manyin ak Jawang, published in
the Borneo Post showed the significant role played by the media on strengthening
the state intellectual hegemony.33
When the election results were announced on the night of 27th September
2001, once again the Sarawak BN+3 party took control of the state leadership.
Various assumptions were put forward to explain the almost 99 per cent winning
of the state assembly seats. Referring to the notion of political hegemony advanced
by Gramsci (1971), patronage democracy as apparently practiced in Malaysia
politics particularly in the case of Sarawak election 2001, it is quite obvious that the
state not only controls the existing agencies and institutions but also to a certain
extent shapes the community’s mindset and political culture. In this case, it seems
that the state party has succeeded in creating an image as a vanguard and protector,
which is a new concept, or neo-patron that is to protect and safeguard the
community’s interests.
The Malaysian community is so complex and diverse in nature, especially
those in Sarawak (where the community’s structure is much more complex and
heterogeneous as compared to the Peninsular Malaysia), patronage democracy is
seen as an effective and workable political idealism. In other words, patronage
democracy has been successfully practiced in maintaining the political hegemony
of the ruling coalition in Malaysia, particularly in Sarawak, and this is evident in
Sarawak election 2001.
This paper has observed several facets of democracy, its values and practices in
elections in Malaysia with a particular case study in Sarawak election 2001. Based
on the notion of political hegemony, this paper has attempted to elucidate the ability
of Barisan Nasional to maintain its political hegemony and domination and to
sustain the support of the voters at the national as well as at the state level. This
paper suggests a possible explanation to this situation by referring to the notion of
patronage democracy. This paper takes a stance that Barisan Nasional political
hegemony needs to be seen from a wider perspective. This includes the
complementary relations between the economic and political factors such as the
practice and propagation of patronage democracy and as a vanguard party. The
propagation of such idealism is meant to further strengthen the hegemonic
intellectualism between the state and the people as suggested by Gramsci (1971).
In other words, the ideal form of democracy that supposedly ensures freedom,
participation, justice and transparency is also subjected to certain values,
interpretation and practices. Practically speaking, democracy as a political doctrine
is incapable of preventing the prevailing of hegemonic and patronage politics, as
portrayed in the previous discussion. The Sarawak state election 2001 clearly
illustrated that the political hegemony of the coalition party could be maintained
through the practiced of patronage democracy and patron-client politics.
Jati, Vol. 12, December 2007
1 Dahl in Polyarchy stated that for any political system, which had been controlled by a
certain individual or a group, whether or not it is democratic, has the tendency to move
towards dictatorship. For more details, please refer to Robert Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation
and Opposition, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970).
2 For more details on this aspect, please refer to Lipset, Seymour Martin, Political Man,
(London: Heinemann, 1960).
3 A group of political scientists from the University of Stanford, led by Diamond in their
study in relation to the development and the practice of democracy in Asia had put election
as one of the barometer to determine the degree of democracy in any state. For a more
detailed study, please refer to Diamond, Larry. How People View Democracy: Findings from
Public Opinion Surveys in Four Regions. Paper presented at the seminar on Democratization,
Stanford University, 11 January, 2001. Held, David. Prospects for Democracy: From West to the
East, (London: Polity Press, 1993): See also Seymour Martin Lipset, Political man, (London:
Heinemann, 1960).
4 By this, the non-intellectuals in the context of this writing were referring to the roles played
by the bodies responsible to conduct the election process. For example in Malaysia, the
Election Commission is regarded in the non-intellectual context as a body that is
independent in handling the election process.
5 See Bedlington, Stanley, Malaysia and Singapore: The buildings of New States, (Ithaca and
London: Cornell University Press, 1978).
6 See Zakaria Hj Ahmad, “Malaysia: Quasi-Democracy in a Divided Society”, Linz, Diamond
& Lipset, (Eds.), Democracy in Developing Societies: Vol. Asia, 1989.
7 This aspect was discussed at length by Kua, Anne-Munro, Authoritarian Populism in
Malaysia, (London: Macmillan Press, 1996).
8 For more details please refer to the series of reports published in Newsweek from
September 1998 until July 1999.
9 See, Chandra Muzaffar, Protector, (Penang: Aliran, 1970).
10 The intellectual-hegemony concept was introduced and developed by Gramsci Antonio.
See Hoare, Q. & Smith, Nowell G, (eds.), Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio
Gramsci, (London: Lawrence 1971). He used this concept to explain the failure of the
revolutionary proletariat launched by a group of farmers in Southern Italy around 1900.
11 For a fuller account on the background of the May 13 incident and the implementation
of NEP, see Selvaratnam, “Towards National Harmony” in a Year of Political Transition”,
Southeast Asian Affairs, (Singapore: ISEAS, 1982).
12 See e.g., Green, R.H, “The role of the state as an agent of economic and social development
in the least developed countries”, Journal of Development Planning, No. 6, (1974), 1-40.
13 See e.g., Lette, Richard, Malaysia’s Demographic Transition: Rapid Development, Culture and
Politics, (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1996).
14 See, Kua, Anne-Munro, Authoritarian Populism.
15 Berita Harian, 17 January 2002.
16 For further details on Frey’s political economy model, see Frey, B.S, Modern Political
Economy, (Oxford: Martin Robertson, 1978).
Zaini Othman, Mohd. Mahadee Haji Ismail, Zaid Ahmad - Elections and the Hegemonic Politics
17 Sarawak, situated in the western part of the Borneo Island has a geographical area of
724,450 per square kilometre. It is the largest state in the Malaysian Federation. The state’s
population comprised various ethnic backgrounds such as Iban, Bidayuh, Malay, Melanau,
Kayan and Kenyah. Unlike the composition of the population in the Peninsula comprising
55% Malays, 34% Chinese, 11% Indians and others, in Sarawak there were no ethnic group
who forms the majority. According to the 1998 census statistics, the population of Sarawak
was 1.99 million; whereby 5.6% are Melanaus, 21.4% Malays, 28.6% Ibans, 8% Bidayuh, 6%
represented the various other ethnic Bumiputra (indigenous) groups, 27% Chinese and 3.9%
of other ethnic groups. For a detailed figure, please refer to Statistics Department Malaysia,
18 For a comprehensive discussion on Sarawak’s political history, see Sabihah Othman, Malay-
Muslim Political Participation in Sarawak, 1952-1987, (Singapore: ISEAS, 1987): Jayum Jawan,
Iban Politics and Economic Development: Their Patterns and Change, (Bangi: Universiti
Kebangsaan Malaysia Press, 1994).
19 For further observation see Abdul Taib Mahmud, ‘The Politics of Development: Roles of
the Challenges for the Elected Representative’, Jurnal Azam, VIII, (1992), 2-15.
20 For a more interesting discussion, see Aeria, Andrew, ‘The Politics of Development and
the 1996 Sarawak Elections’, Kajian Malaysia, vol. XV, (1997), 57-83.
21 For further details, see Shamsul A.B. The Redefinition of Politics and the Transformation of
Malaysian Pluralism, Research Workshop on Southeast Asian Pluralism, August 5-6, Shah
Village Hotel, Petaling Jaya, Kuala Lumpur, 1999.
22 For more details, please refer to Utusan Sarawak, 19 September 2001.
23 This is evident during the national election campaign in 1999 in Sarawak where the
opposition strongly criticized the PoD ideology especially on the nepotism, corruption and
non-transparency practices. However the result of the 1999 election in Sarawak did not
clearly portray the strength of the Barisan National Government at the state level, which
has been in power since 1963.
24 Interviews with the PBB party workers for the Pantai Damai seat in relation to the
meaning of the Barisan Nasional election motto on 27th September 2001.
25 Sarawak Tribune, 13 September 2001.
26 See reports in Utusan Sarawak, 19 September 2001.
27 See a chapter written by Hanapi Dollah & Mohd Rizal Yaacob entitled Traditionalism in
Sarawak Politics.
28 Utusan Sarawak, 20 September 2001; please see New Straits Times, 19 September 2001 which
clearly reported Tan Sri Taib Mahmud’s statement as follows: ‘Taib: I’m contesting to bring
development in Balingian’.
29 For more details, please refer to Borneo Post, 6 September 2001.
30 See media reports from dailies such as the Borneo Post, the New Straits Times and Utusan
Sarawak between 13 September 2001 and 26 September 2001.
31 The program ‘Untukmu Sarawak’ was aired at 7.30pm on TV1 throughout the entire
campaign period of the Sarawak election.
32 For more details, see Utusan Sarawak, 19 September 2001.
33 See Borneo Post, 12 August 2001.
Jati, Vol. 12, December 2007
Abdul Taib Mahmud. “The Politics of Development: Roles of the Challenges for the
Elected Representative.” Jurnal Azam, VIII (1992), p: 2-15.
Aeria, Andrew. “The Politics of Development and the 1996 Sarawak Elections.”
Kajian Malaysia, vol. XV, (1997), pp: 57-83.
Anne-Munro Kua, Authoritarian populism in Malaysia. London: Macmillan Press. 1996.
Bedlington, Stanley. Malaysia and Singapore: The buildings of New States. Ithaca and
London: Cornell University Press. 1978.
Borneo Post, 6 September 2001.
Chandra Muzaffar. Protector. Penang: Aliran, 1970.
Dahl, Robert. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University
Press. 1970.
Diamond, Larry. How People View Democracy: Findings from Public Opinion Surveys in
Four Regions. Paper presented at the seminar on Democratization, Stanford
University, 11 January, 2001.
Frey, B.S. Modern Political Economy. Oxford : Martin Robertson. 1978.
Hoare, Q. and G. Nowell Smith (eds.). Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio
Gramsci. London: Lawrence. 1971.
Green, R.H. “The role of the state as an agent of economic and social development
in the least developed countries.” Journal of Development Planning. No. 6, (1974),
pp: 1-40.
Held, David. Prospects for Democracy: From West to the East. London: Polity Press. 1993.
Jayum Jawan. Iban Politics and Economic Development: Their Patterns and Change. Bangi:
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Press. 1994.
Lette, Richard. Malaysia’s Demographic Transition: Rapid Development, Culture and
Politics. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press. 1996.
Lipset, Seymour Martin. Political Man. London: Heinemann. 1960.
Sabihah Othman. Malay-Muslim Political Participation in Sarawak, 1952-1987.
Singapore: ISEAS, 1987.
Sarawak Tribune, 13 September 2001.
Selvaratnam. “Towards National Harmony in a Year of Political Transition”,
Southeast Asian Affairs. Singapore: ISEAS. 1982.
Shamsul A.B. The Redefinition of Politics and the Transformation of Malaysian Pluralism.
Research Workshop on Southeast Asian Pluralism, Shah Village Hotel, Petaling
Jaya, Kuala Lumpur, August 5-6, 1999.
Utusan Sarawak, 19th September 2001.
Zakaria Hj Ahmad. “Malaysia: Quasi-Democracy in a Divided Society.” Diamond,
Linz and Lipset. (Eds). Democracy in Developing Societies Vol. Asia 1989.

Article Details

How to Cite
OTHMAN, Zaini; HAJI ISMAIL, Mohd. Mahadee; AHMAD, Zaid. ELECTIONS AND HEGEMONIC POLITICS: A MALAYSIAN CASE. JATI - JOURNAL OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN STUDIES, [S.l.], v. 12, p. 161-174, dec. 2007. ISSN 2600-8653. Available at: <http://jati.um.edu.my/index.php/jati/article/view/5734>. Date accessed: 18 jan. 2019.