Sarawak heads to polls in search of lost prosperity
by Steve Suwannarat

Local elections today in the northern Borneo state, which has been part of the Malaysian federation since 1962 and where only 25% of the population is Muslim. The economy weighs heavily with the local GDP lagging and poverty climbing among the most disadvantaged sectors of the population.


Kuching (AsiaNews) - The people of Sarawak, the Malaysian state that together with Sabah occupies the northern part of the island of Borneo, go to the polls to elect their representatives in the local parliament of Kuching. This is the twelfth election since the territory joined the Malaysian federation in 1963.

Restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic add to the usual difficulties for many people registered to vote, especially in harder to reach areas. Constitutional rights, autonomy and equal development in the context of the country remain pressing issues in this veritable kaleidoscope of ethnicities and faiths.

Only 25% of Sarawak's population are ethnic Malays and Muslims, another 25% are of Chinese origin; the rest are Indians and a mosaic of indigenous ethnic groups known collectively as Dayak, the best known of which is the Iban. Sarawak is also the most Christianised state in Malaysia, with over 42% of the population baptised, compared to a national average of less than 1%. The 218,000 Catholics are divided between the archdiocese of Kuching and the dioceses of Miri and Sibu.

Socio-economic proposals will mainly guide voters' choices in today's vote. For example, the outgoing coalition government, Gabungan Parti Sarawak, has declared its willingness to support a minimum income of US$ 354 a month, promising accelerated development by 2030.

While in mainland Malaysia, politics is mainly about attacking the Barisan Nasional coalition, which has ruled since independence and which the opposition accuses of illiberal attitudes, corruption and favouritism towards the Malay-Muslim majority, in Sarawak the confrontation is above all between different personalities and development proposals.

The growth of the local gross domestic product has averaged 0.9% over the last five years, compared to 2.7% for the country as a whole. All this while there has been a growth in poverty among the 40% of the population living in the most disadvantaged conditions. The official unemployment rate rose from 3.1% in 2019 to 4.3% last year, while the pandemic also contributed to a 7.1% drop in GDP in 2020. In essence, in casting their votes for the 349 candidates vying for the 82 assembly seats, voters (1.25 million out of nearly 3 million inhabitants) expect to make up for lost wealth and time.