Studies of Malaysian politics are all too often studies of West Malaysian politics: they give short shrift to the distinctly different patterns in Sabah and Sarawak. As a result, prevailing analytical frameworks for understanding Malaysian political dynamics tend to be premised on what happens on the peninsula. This book aims to complement relatively few other state-level studies (for instance, Faisal, 2011; Lim, 2008; Loh, 1997a; Chin, 1996) to help redress that bias, through a grassroots-based exploration of politics in Sarawak. In doing so, we aim both to add to closely contextualised knowledge of a distinctive state's politics and to put wider theories of what drives electoral behaviour and shapes electoral outcomes to the test.
Of Malaysia's thirteen states and two federal territories, the only state that currently holds its state elections separately from the general election is Sarawak. Just as Malaysian political parties see in that timing an opportunity to test the waters in advance of their nationwide effort, it allows social scientists the chance for a focused study on a single state, isolating local issues and processes. Importantly, mainstream peninsular political discourse tends to frame the Sarawak state election (hereafter, SSE) as a bellwether for the general election; however, that equation is misleading. At the most basic level, Sarawak's demographic profile makes clear how unrepresentative the state is, particularly given the overwhelmingly communal tinge to Malaysian politics and political economy (among many others, von Vorys, 1975; Lim, 1980; Cheah, 2002; Lian and Jayanath, 2011; Weiss, 2013; Segawa, 2015).
Nationally, the Malaysian population is 61.5 per cent Bumiputera (Malay and indigenous), 21.0 per cent Chinese, 6.3 per cent Indian, 0.09 per cent ‘Others’, and 10.3 per cent non-citizens (Department of Statistics, 2016). For Sarawak, the comparable figures are 70.5 per cent Bumiputera, 22.5 per cent Chinese, 0.003 per cent each Indian and ‘Others’, and 6.5 per cent non-citizens. At least as important politically is the breakdown of the category, Bumiputera. (The Malaysian government glosses this distinction; official statistics focus on the catch-all term, aggressively promoted as of the 1970s with the launch of the New Economic Policy; c.f. Siddique and Suryadinata, 1981/82). In Sarawak, the Iban share of the population is the largest: approximately 30.3 per cent of citizens; on the peninsula, 63.1 per cent of citizens are Malay and only about 4 per cent other Bumiputera (Department of Statistics, 2011).