Commentary: Free from the shackles of a fallen coalition, does Sarawak parties leaving spell the end of the Barisan Nasional?

Commentary: Free from the shackles of a fallen coalition, does Sarawak parties leaving spell the end of the Barisan Nasional?

Sarawak had strong reasons to leave the Barisan coalition given its unique circumstances, says one observer from the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

SINGAPORE: Sarawak’s Barisan Nasional (BN) component parties announced this week their decision to leave the Barisan Nasional after over 40 years of alliance.

In the recent general election, Sarawak BN parties won only 19 out of 31 parliamentary seats against the 25 out of 31 seats during GE13. BN fared worse in Peninsular Malaysia and suffered a crushing defeat in the same election.

With their departure, BN will now only have less than a third of the 222 parliamentary seats, diminishing its once historic greatness.


The BN parties in Sarawak are made up of the predominantly Malay and Melanau Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), the Chinese Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), the Iban Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) and the multi-racial Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP) .

A new coalition, the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), an independent party, will now be formed by these Sarawakian parties.

Abang Johari, Sarawak’s Chief Minister, has stated that GPS will not be a component of the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition but “… will cooperate and collaborate with the Federal government for national interest, and state rights and interests based on the Federal Constitution and the Federation of Malaysia”.

Abang Johari sworn in
Abang Johari was sworn in as the new chief minister of Sarawak on Friday (Jan 13). (Photo: Minister Wan Junaidi)

This is an interesting trajectory. Sarawak feels that any continuing association with the BN may further erode its popular support in the upcoming state election expected to take place in about three years’ time.

This move is also a matter of survival and pragmatism as the BN is no longer the power it once was, and Sarawak, if it remains in a formal alliance with the BN, may also find it difficult to push its concerns at the federal level with the Pakatan government now in power.

The decision to leave the BN was a “heavy one” but best for Sarawak because of the change in political scenario, according to Fatimah Abdullah, Sarawak’s Minister of Welfare, Community Well Being, Women, Family and Childhood Development.


The Sarawak government has to maintain a certain degree of separation because Sarawak is different from other Malaysian states.

The ethnic, religious and partisan divides that dominate peninsular politics hold much less relevance in Sarawak, where race and religion issues have not been allowed to polarise society. For instance, in Sarawak, structures of churches prominently coexist with beautiful mosques and temples around Kuching and its outskirts.

The Sarawak state government has always been keen to safeguard its religious and racial harmony and freedom, and other special rights under the Malaysia Agreement 1963. This was repeatedly emphasised by Abang Johari, and his predecessor Adenan Satem.

All the more, it has to uphold these safeguards because less than half of the 75.3 per cent Bumiputera population in Sarawak are Muslim, with the remaining Bumiputera comprising the Iban who are predominantly Christian.

Sarawak native
A Sarawak native. (Photo: Syafiq Safian)

Sarawak is uniquely multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religion, made up of different ethnicities and religions of a significant magnitude. In terms of total population, the Malay and Melanau makes up 30 per cent, the Iban about 45 per cent and the ethnic Chinese about 24 per cent of the total population.

The GPS being Sarawak-based, with its clear stance on Sarawak’s rights, is seen to be better able to defend and represent the rights and concerns of the Sarawak people.

Residents in Sarawak and political observers are reportedly positive about this departure. Leaving the BN would finally also free the Sarawak government from the “shackles” of the fallen party and its negative image associated with corruption, cronyism and the 1MDB scandal.


Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and leader of Pakatan, was very heartened and stated that although GPS was not a component of Pakatan, the announcement by Abang Johari to “cooperate and collaborate” signals that Pakatan will have even stronger support in parliament.

The GPS, not being tied to BN, will allow the party to cooperate with and support Pakatan at the parliamentary level, especially in areas Sarawak interests must be safeguarded.

So not being associated with BN would pave the way for Pakatan to be more willing to support Sarawak. (Where Pakatan’s decisions do not benefit Sarawak, GPS can also choose not to support.) 

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has been cleaning house since his election victory
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. (File photo: AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi)

It must also be remembered that Dr Mahathir and Sarawak’s former chief minister, Taib Mahmud, have had a good working relationship. Taib Mahmud is presently governor of Sarawak, and breaking away from BN will ensure the relationship between these two individuals can continue to grow. 

The Sarawak parties, though influential and significant, will however no longer be the kingmaker they once were. Observers will watch if this means a weakening of their ability to protect Sarawak's interests.

Among the special rights important to Sarawakians include the use of English as an second official language (unlike in the rest of Malaysia where Malay is the only official language), allowing Christians in Sarawak to use the term “Allah” in their worship, and not imposing restrictions on a Bahasa Malaysia bible. 

Those in Sarawak also want many state interests to be safeguarded including a requirement for 90 per cent of teachers in Sarawak are Sarawakians, and the reinstatement of Sarawak's rights in the Malaysia Agreement 1963.

With this separation, the BN will now play a further diminished role as an effective opposition. News reports on Thursday (Jun 14) also highlight that the BN is considering disbanding its coalition

Will this spell the end of the BN?

Barisan Nasional flag Sarawak
Natives sit under a Barisan Nasional flag in Sarawak, Malaysia. (Photo: Sumisha Naidu)


It is difficult to hazard a guess, as the BN still holds 60 parliamentary seats.

Let us not forget the 18 independent parliamentary seats held by Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), which together with the 19 seats of GPS, make up a formidable block.

PAS Terengganu has pledged support to Pakatan. However as both GPS and PAS are not a component of Pakatan, they may vote against decisions contrary to their interests.

It would be interesting to see how Pakatan in Sarawak will stand. Where Sarawak rights are threatened, will the Sarawak component of Pakatan work with GPS to protect Sarawak’s rights for instance?

Malaysia is now moving in unchartered waters. Though Pakatan is the majority party, it only holds a simple majority.

Looking ahead, there may be much lobbying and jockeying behind the scenes especially when important decisions are to be made, as Pakatan does not have the two-thirds majority it needs to make constitutional changes.

Lee Poh Onn is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)