There is a rising tide of excitement and euphoria among many politically conscious Dayaks in Sarawak over a series of massive grand dinners held first in Sibu, then in Miri last week, and finally ending in Kuching in the immediate future, to welcome Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Since the next Sarawak election is widely speculated to be held next year, the sudden surge of Anwar’s PKR in this East Malaysian state could be a prelude towards an all-out no-holds-barred assault on the Sarawak Barisan Nasional. The prize that PKR seeks will be state power in the Land of the Hornbill, to add to their Pakatan Rakyat stable of state governments, in Penang, Perak, Selangor, Kedah, and Kelantan.
In this ambitious project, the Dayak voters’ support becomes critical, for they constitute nearly half of the total population of Sarawak.
By virtue of the logic of politics of race, which is entirely based on ethnic head-counting, the Dayaks ought to be the dominant community in Sarawak.
The chief minister ought to be a Dayak.
The reality is quite a different thing. The first Sarawak CM Stephen Kalong Ningkan (1920-1997) was indeed an Iban. But he was forcibly removed in 1996 by a federally initiated Declaration of Emergency and a constitutional amendment. Since 1970, the two Sarawak CMs have been Melanau Muslims.
Since then, the Dayak communities have been mired in political marginalisation and socio-economic backwardness that can hardly be imagined by people living in affluent states of Peninsular Malaysia.
Time stood still
Living mostly in the vast rural areas of Sarawak, many still live without basic amenities such as roads, jetties, clinics, treated drinking water, and electricity. Time for them has stood still since independence in 1963.
In most villages that I have visited, young men and women have left their community, to seek work and better prospect in large towns in Sarawak, with increasing number crossing the ocean to West Malaysia and Singapore. Only the very old and the very young are left to eke out a meagre living on their land. The massive exodus of the young has practically emptied the rural communities of the vital force for social and economic renewal in rural Sarawak.
(The think-tank people in PKR should start to think about devising a method to enable these Sarawak diasporas to go back to Sarawak to vote in the next state election.)
Meanwhile, the Dayak people have seen escalating erosion to their land tenure held under Sarawak Native Customary Rights (NCR), from first massive logging, and then giant plantations and dam building have robbed many Dayak communities of their land. Without land, the physical survival and the survival of their cultural traditions and ethnic identity are threatened.
It would be tempting to blame the socio-economic marginalisation of the Dayaks entirely on racial discrimination, but that would be too simplistic. Although many Malay/Muslim politicians and technocrats have amassed fabulous wealth under the patronage of CM Taib Mahmud, the Malay/Melanau people too live in the same kind of socio-economic quagmire that impedes progress in their community.
I have visited the coastal area of Samarahan near Kuching. The people there had been represented by Taib Mahmud in Parliament for decades, and despite some huge drainage and irrigation projects, the Malay people there are still poor. For some fishermen there, they wake up to think of how to find their next meal.
Since the political demise of Stephen Kalong Ningkan, the failure of the Dayak nationalist impulse in Sarawak in presenting a more inclusive Sarawakian narrative is one of the reasons for its failure.
26 indigenous communities
Even so, the imagined Dayak nation – as a theoretical construct – is an anomaly within the context of the politics of race in Malaysia.
As an important political category, the terms “Dayak” and “Dayakism” came to prominence only upon the formation of Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) in 1983 as a splinter group from the Sarawak National Party.
The term “Dayak” is supposed to signify all non-Muslim natives of Sarawak. But by definition in the federal constitution, there are some 26 different indigenous communities in Sarawak that can be regarded as Dayaks. If you include all the sub-groups that fall within any one of these communities, then there are actually well over 40 distinct ethnic groups that could be considered as “Dayak” communities.
They are all divided by lineage, language, customs, and religion. Many of these communities have even fought prolonged bloody wars with one another in the old days.
(I once asked a Jagoi Bidayu from the Bau area why the Bidayuhs had chosen to live mostly on high grounds up on the hillside, thus earning them the name of “Land Dayak” under the British administration, in contrast to the Ibans who were called “Sea Dayaks”. He said that in the old days, it was easy to shoot down at the enemies during wars with the marauding Ibans.)
The Bidayuh is an interesting case in point. Though lumped together as a single ethnic group, this small community comprising some 8% of the total population of Sarawak has seven major dialects, and countless sub-dialects. Sometimes, when you travel 20 kilometres down the road, you find another group of Bidayuhs speaking another dialect. Such ethnic diversity may be a gold mine for cultural anthropologists, but it must be a nightmare for politicians to try to forge a Dayak nation, without recourse for appeal to a single language, a single religion, and a single history.
Fortunately for them, all the Dayaks of Sarawak are united in two things. With the exception of some Penans, they all depend on shifting cultivation as their traditional way of life. Land is more than a piece of property. Their land is the source of their immediate sustenance, the bosom of the gods that protect them, and the burial ground of their ancestors.
Their land, their rivers, and their forests are all alive with mysterious forces that interact with them in their daily lives. They will never harm the land which is like a mother to them. To fault shifting cultivation for deforestation is the paragon of cynicism. To deprive their land rights through legislative and administrative fiats is the apex of injustices.
Secondly, all Dayak communities have their own set of internal rules called adat, handed down from generation to generation through word of mouth and daily practice. They even have their own tiers of native courts to trial offenders and settle disputes. In the hearts of many natives, these rules and these courts have greater force than the laws of the state and the Borneo judicial system.
Limited political horizon
Unfortunately, in recent decades,the state appointed judges of these native courts, the Pengulus and the Temengongs, have often sided with the state government when it comes to disputes between Dayak villagers and timber companies.
It is this common self-identification of all Dayak communities to their extraordinary tie with their land and their common cultural heritage of living by their adat that allows the nationalist idea of a “Dayak nation” to flourish for a while.
Then again, Dayak nationalism could not be sustained for long because they simply do not have an alternative mass medium of communication, for them to imagine themselves as a single nation. According to Benedict Anderson, print capitalism was one of the vehicle for nationalist sentiments to grow.
Living in scattered far-flung and sometimes very remote jungle communities, the Dayaks depend heavily on word of mouth, personal contact, and the government controlled radio for their information. Newspaper delivery would be impossible for most long-houses situated a long way from towns. Many are poor by the standards of modern cash economy; it is unlikely that they can afford the newspaper subscription fees. Without a viable market, there is no chance for an Iban or a Bidayuh newspaper to survive. Naturally, the Internet Is a different universe for them.
Therefore, the political imagination of the rural Dayak voters seldom extends beyond their part of the river or mountain. I have all too often heard Dayak political and community leaders talk about “my people”. What they mean is their folks and kin living in the few villages surrounding their own. This limited political horizon is not conducive towards creating a state wide national consciousness, and it creates ample opportunity for opportunism for the Dayak ruling class at the highest level.
Having been exposed to massive money politics for many decades past, voting means very different things for the Dayaks. The vote is often seen as a currency of exchange for tangible immediate benefits like cash and gifts. I have witnessed how Dayak communities that had protested vehemently against logging voting consistently for the BN during subsequent general elections. They have yet to link democracy with changing their own collective fate.
So now the Dayaks are looking to PKR as another political vehicle to regenerate and revive their political fortune. PKR is a multiracial party, and that means the Dayak leaders should aspire towards a more universal inclusive and enlightened discourse, to educate every Dayak voter on the meaning of democracy first.
Meanwhile, the PKR leaders in West Malaysia must also realise that they should take a crash course in Dayak culture, if they are to campaign effectively in Sarawak. Like Sabah, Sarawak is a cultural universe unto itself. Outsiders wishing to help the disenfranchised people of Sarawak will have a thing or two to learn from Sarawakians first.
Although the demographic composition of the various ethnic communities is vastly different from that in West Malaysia, there have been tremendous pressure from Kuala Lumpur for Sarawak politics to conform to the racial equation that exists in the Umno-led alliance on the Malayan Peninsula even before Merdeka.The idea that then prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and Sarawak chief ministers Rahman Yakub and his nephew, Taib Mahmud (both from the partisan Rakyat Jati Sarawak, or Berjasa) shared was the creation of a Sarawak alliance dominated by Muslim/Malay/Melanau leaders with subservient Dayak and Chinese partners.
From the very beginning prior to and after Merdeka, there was this heavy tendency for federal intervention into Sarawak politics to ensure the creation of a Malay nationalist polity through Malaysia. Even then, Umno was determined to create Sarawak in its own image. This tendency at the Malayanisation of Sarawak politics was resisted by the first Iban chief minister, Stephen Kalong Ningkan of the Sarawak National Party (Snap).
Both Rahman and Taib were consummate Machiavellian politicians. Through their masterly manoeuvre, Berjasa and Parti Negara Sarawak (Panas) merged into a single party, finally uniting all the Sarawak Malay and Melanau Muslims under one umbrella. A further merger with the Dayak-based Parti Pesaka Anak Sarawak (Pesaka) to form the Parti Pesaka Bumiputra Bersatu Sarawak (PBB) in 1973.
Until today, PBB is the dominant partner of the Sarawak Barisan Nasional. PBB itself is a political vehicle for Melanau/Malay/Muslim dominance with a subservient Dayak arm in Pesaka, and a subservient Chinese BN component, the Sarawak United People’s Party (Supp), within the BN coalition. Umno indeed has succeeded in creating Sarawak politics in its own image. As a result of federal intervention, the leaders from the minority Malay and Melanau communities have been able to enjoy political dominance in Sarawak, defying the logic of the politics of race in Malaysia.
Endless series of internal strife
This project for Melanau and Malay dominance in Sarawak politics has been much aided by the fractious divisiveness among Dayak politicians. In the years before and after Merdeka, the two Dayak-based parties, Snap and Pesaka, had been at loggerhead with each other over regional and historical rivalries between the Ibans of the Second and Third Divisions of Sarawak.
Snap left the Sarawak Alliance to fight for state control from the political wilderness. They almost succeeded in 1974 when they won 18 out of 48 seats in the Sarawak state general election that year. But unable to sustain themselves, they decided to rejoin the state BN soon after.
The subsequent history of Dayak politics until this day has been an endless series of acrimonious internal strife, leading to waves of formation of splinter Dayak parties. Unable to remember those dizzying series of Dayak political upheavals, I sought the help of Joseph Tawi, author of the book ‘The Broken Shield – A Chronicle of Modern Dayak Politics’, and the host of a blog by the same name.
This is what he has to report:
“In the 1991 state election, PBDS put up 34 Dayak and Chinese candidates. They were trounced and managed to retain only seven seats. They applied to rejoin state BN after the results were announced on Sept 29, 1991. Finally they rejoined BN on May 31, 1994.
“Power struggle in Snap in 2002 resulted in the expulsion of Tiong King Sing and the formation of Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP), followed by the deregistration of Snap on Nov 5, 2002. SPDP was registered on Nov 8 after three days of application.
“Those remaining partyless members numbering about 100,000 after the deregistration of PBDS wanted to form Malaysian Dayak Congress. But the ROS (Registrar of Societies) rejected the application submitted on May 6, 2005 on grounds of security under Article 7 of Societies Act. Now appeal is still on to the Home Ministry. Now more of the ex-PBDS members are joining PKR.”
The above account shows you how messy Dayak politics can be in Sarawak. The obvious conclusion is that Dayak political leaders are too prone to fight to the death whenever there is a power struggle within their party. Their inability to resolve their differences is the despair of their supporters and commentators. The logical rhetorical question is this: if they cannot find unity among themselves, how can they hope to unite the diverse Dayak people?
The all-powerful ROS
But there is more than meets the eyes. The shrewd observer would immediately note how awesome the power of the Registrar of Societies (ROS) can be, in dissolving political parties, in deciding which faction should retain control of the party, and in approving within days application for the formation of a new political party by a certain faction, while similar applications by other factions can be rejected on flimsy grounds.
In reality, the ROS takes order from the home minister, who answers to the prime minister in turn, and both these powerful federal offices are held by Umno bigwigs. It is then obvious that Umno and federal interference in the internal politics of Sarawak has continued to divide and weakened Dayak political base, as has been the case since the formation of Malaysia.
The root cause of this particular aspect of the Dayak dilemma lies again beneath the demographic reality of Malaysia. Although the Dayaks collectively constitute the largest ethnic community within Sarawak, they form a mere 5% or 6% of the total population of Malaysia. Generally, Dayak political leaders feel that they must belong to the Barisan family in order to be effective to serve the Dayak people. Being in the opposition at federal or state level is not a long-term option.
Once exiled to the political wilderness, Dayak politicians will be excluded from the vast network of largesse made available to BN YBs by the state government administration, such as minor rural development projects and agricultural subsidy schemes. Worst still, opposition Dayak candidates will have to face the monumental task of winning at the poll in the next general election. Electoral contests in the rural and semi-rural constituencies in Sarawak are notoriously expensive, and vote buying in one form or another is the norm rather than the exception. In sharp contrast, BN Dayak candidates have at their disposal seemingly inexhaustible campaign funds.
They need statemen, not politicians
In this context, the arrival of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) in a big way in recent days offer many fresh and interesting opportunities for political redemption for Dayak politics in Sarawak.
They have also announced their intention to march to Putrajaya, and so offer hope for Dayak politicians to free themselves from this fatal slavish dependence on the federal BN.
It is now a famous lesson that if aspiring reformers want to bring meaningful change to their own society, then they must first reform themselves. As Obama used to say on his campaign trail, “We are the change that we seek.”
It is now obvious that appealing to mere ethnic unity has come to a dead end for Dayak politics. If Dayak leaders want to liberate their people from the bondage of ignorance and poverty, they must seek alliance with similarly depressed and disenfranchised ethnic communities to form a pan-Sarawak people’s movement for radical change. They must rethink their agenda, and begin a new conversation based on the common good of all. They need statesmen, not mere politicians.
In this critical process, PKR offers a suitable vehicle, because their ideology speaks of Ketuanan Rakyat, or people’s dominance. To resolve the Dayak dilemma, the Dayaks will have to seek redress in more universal inclusive and non-ethnic terms.
While PKR chief Anwar Ibrahim has made grand declaration of intent on taking power in the next Sarawak elections, very few Sarawakians themselves would be convinced that it would be an easy venture.
I myself would be happy if the opposition coalition can win 24 or more state seats, thus denying BN a two-thirds majority in the Sarawak state assembly. Twenty-four indeed would be well within striking distance, since I expect the DAP and their partners to do well in the urban constituencies.
But in Sarawak, as in other parts of the country, opposition politics can only survive in the urban Chinese areas for a certain time. In native majority areas in Sarawak, opposition parties that have no ambition to rule the state will not attract bright political talent as well as the support of the voters. So what Anwar has announced is not just grandstanding, but the right thing to do.
Again, those of us who are familiar with politics in Sarawak know that the challenge of toppling the BN state government is harder than the ten Herculean Tasks put together. Massive vote-buying is rampant in rural constituencies, and has come to be expected by voters themselves. It has become a way of life in Sarawak.
Equally significant is the unique social structure of the rural communities in Sarawak.
The native communities are very closely-knit communities. They have to be because they live in far-flung isolated terrains and mutual dependence and close social cohesion is the way to be for their collective survival. Blood ties through generations of close marriages between neighbouring villages also mean that members of a local community are often related.
(In an election, the success and failure of a candidate sometimes depends on how many relatives a candidate has within the constituency!)
Within any one village, the most authoritative figure would be the village head, the ‘Tua Kampung’ or the ‘Tuai Rumah’ (in the case of the Ibans)
The village chief used to be an expert in native customary laws so that he could settle disputes between different households on various civil and criminal cases. In that sense, he was also a judge of sort. Nowadays, as the head of the JKKK, the village security and development committee, he has undisputed power over his charges under him. To the outside world, he is also the sole representative and spokesman for the whole village.
Not all chiefs that compliant
These village chiefs used to be freely elected by their villagers. Sometimes, the position was a hereditary one, passed down from father to son.
After the emergence of political parties in Sarawak following independence in 1963, it was increasingly clear that the Tua Kampong and the Tuai Rumah played a critical role in the fight for grassroots political support.
In fact, the Sarawak BN government has been quite successful over the past few decades through all kinds of administrative fiat in bringing these otherwise independent village chiefs under their direct control.
Today, even if a village headman is still elected by his villagers, his status must first be confirmed by the BN-controlled state government. He is answerable to low-grade state civil servants like district officers and the residents above them. Today, a village chief is akin to somebody at the lowest rung of the state civil service.
Joseph Tawi, in a Jan 6 posting on his blog has this to say:
‘Today, the criteria for Tuai Rumah have changed; he must be educated at least up to Form Three, be pro-Barisan Nasional (BN) and not necessarily having a deep knowledge of Iban Adat (this he can learn from the Tusun Tunggu, a book containing all the customs, traditions, taboos, fines, etc.).
‘After being elected, his appointment must be endorsed by the government so that an allowance of RM450 per month can be given to him. His duties include being the ‘eyes and ears’ of the BN government, a judge, a law-enforcer, tax-collector, consultant, and chairman of the JKKK (Village Security and Development Committee) through which government funds are being channelled.’
Be that as it may, not all village chiefs are all that compliant. I have personally met village chiefs who could stand up against powerful logging and plantation interests on behalf of their people. For their bravery and their service, they had been removed from their posts by the state government who then appointed others to replace them.
He felt great shame for being charged with this minor crime. On the day of the court hearing, I brought along a heavyweight lawyer from Kuching to defend him. The ‘Pengulu’ and the ‘Pemanca’ who were supposed to try him evaporated into thin air.
We also attended a gawai in his longhouse and made fiery speeches to exonerate this wonderful Tuai Rumah from his alleged sin. I was still a ‘YB’ then and my words carried quite some weight with the village folks.
But general elections are a different business altogether in the rural communities.
Naturally, it is common for village voters to defer to the opinion of the Tuai Kampong or the Tuai Rumah even on the matter of voting for a candidate. But I have been to some longhouses where the village was split into two over their choice of candidate. After the election was over, the losing side would just move out and build another longhouse for themselves. Only my Iban readers can appreciate the financial difficulty and the emotional pain of such a drastic move.
Now, Joseph Tawi has something new to report on the same blog posting quoted above. The paragraphs below are taken from his soon-to-be-published book The Broken Shield Volume Two – The Dayak Dilemma.
No seat is easy to win
‘In this 2006 election, the BN devised an entirely different campaign strategy, which caught the opposition with their pants down. Previously, the money was passed directly to the voters on the eve of polling. This time the distribution was done through their Tuai Rumah.
‘Three days before polling, all the headmen were summoned for a meeting where they were coached to say something to their own people. And on their return to their respective longhouses, they were given some money that was to be shared with the voters of their own longhouses. In addition to this, there were also minor rural development projects that were promised to be implemented.
‘The Tuai Rumah then called for a meeting of the longhouse folks and ordered them to vote for the BN candidates. Anyone who failed to follow his order or directive would not be given any share of the goodies or any project that the government had promised them. And he was also likely to be expelled from the longhouse.
‘The Tuai Rumah must ensure that his followers must vote for the BN candidate, otherwise the BN candidate would report him to the district officer, the resident or the state secretary. As a Tuai Rumah is like a civil servant, action including the termination of his Tuai Rumahship could be taken against him. He might lose his monthly allowance of RM450 per month. And the promised minor rural development projects might be withdrawn.
After the distribution of money and the threats issued, everything changed; longhouse headmen, their followers and even Tajem’s own relatives voted against him. And a similar tale of vote- buying had also been reported in other Dayak constituencies.’ Daniel Tajem – a long-time personal friend of mine – may be unknown outside Sarawak, but he is still a household name in the Land of the Hornbills. He had held that constituency -Bukit Bangunan - near the town of Sri Aman six times, including the period when he was in the opposition. When an established brand name like that can fall to the hands of vote-buying and puppet-like Tuai Rumah, no seat is easy to win for any opposition party – including PKR.
I suppose that, once the Kuala Terengganu by-election is over, Anwar Ibrahim and his team of advisers would be sitting down over the impending Sarawak battle ahead. They would be thinking of what pledges to make to the people of Sarawak, if and when they take over the Sarawak government with the help of the other opposition parties.
Surely one of those pledges must be the restoring of the autonomy of the democratically-elected village chiefs throughout the state. The state government must recognise whoever is elected by the villagers as their headman, and pay them well nevertheless. Empowering the rakyat at the grassroots level would be the most meaningful reform in rural Sarawak indeed.
This concluding part to my series on the Dayak dilemma is actually about a Sarawak dilemma: Money politics during general elections. The problem is not limited to the rural Dayak and Malay constituencies. It is rampant even in the supposedly middle class financially-independent urban constituencies.
I should know. I contested as an opposition candidate in Kuching eight times. I could tell that most of my opponents spent millions on their election campaigns. Even in my last election in 1995, which I lost to a Supp candidate, vote buying was quite widespread.
My personal experience at the receiving end of money politics can be compiled into huge volumes. Corrupt election practices can indeed take ingenious forms.
In one case, my opponent summoned and feted all the gangs in towns before the nomination days, making offers that these hard hats could not refuse. During the actual campaign, these gangs will take over the town, street by street, hanging up the banners, watching their respective turf, intimidating my campaign workers, and serving as runners when there was heavy betting that would favour the BN candidate. These gangs were paid tens of thousands each, with limitless supply of beer thrown in as bonus.
In another election, my opponent summoned all the tut-tut drivers numbering in the hundreds to his house for a grand dinner before nomination day. The tut-tut is usually a van or a small truck driven by the vendors into every street and every housing estate to sell their meat, fish, and vegetables to housewives every day. Having been paid hundreds and thousands by the candidate, these mercenaries can make a big difference in any election.
More money on trees than hornbills
A blogger by the name of Hantu Laut has this to say on his posting on December 27 2008:
"Sarawak and Sabah are the mothers of money politics, progenitors of vote buying, political arm twisting, and the ultimate money-can-buy-anything. If words cannot convince you money can, and more often than not it works, and Sarawak and Sabah have plenty of it during election times."
"In the Land of the Hornbills, there is more money growing on trees than the legendary birds in the forests. The forests have made millionaires and billionaires."
If money can work in even the literate, affluent, educated and informed voters in the towns, think of what wonders it can achieve in semi-literate, isolated and impoverished rural constituencies.
It starts on nomination day, when thousands of mercenary supporters have to be transported by bus or boats over great distances to the nomination centres to wave flags and shout slogans during the nomination process. The difference between Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia in this particular mode of campaign is the high costs of transport in my home state.Immediately after that, the election agents of the BN candidate would issue as many Form Es as possible; eventually there should be a candidate's agent or two in every village within the entire constituency.
Form E is an authorisation required by our election laws for anyone to canvass for votes on behalf of the candidate. In Sarawak's jungle, it is a piece of IOU from the candidate to the voter, to be exchanged for cash after the election. The promised amount varies, depending on the size of the candidate's war chest, and the extent of the competitiveness in the contest. In small constituencies of less than 10,000 voters say, one can buy an election victory by issuing mere thousands of Form Es,
The greatest enemy for the financially challenged opposition candidates is of course the infamously hostile terrain of Sarawak's vast territory, which makes transport and communication prohibitively expensive.
In many rural constituencies, the only way to gain access to one village of less than 100 voters is by the boat or the four-wheeled drive. The powerful and well endowed BN candidate can just book up all the boats and four-wheeled drives in his entire constituency, leaving his opponent with little or no mode of transportation. Better still, he can book up all the petrol stations, so that the opposition candidates cannot move at all! This tactic is particularly successful in those up-stream constituencies along many of Sarawak's great rivers!
Very common practice
Then again, I know of more than a few BN YBs who would serve up running feasts for their voters and campaigners, day and night, throughout the entire duration of the campaign period. Animals and birds would be purchased and slaughtered in great numbers, while endless supply of alcoholic drinks would stand ready for the usually very thirsty Dayak voters. They can eat and drink to their stupor; naturally they would feel morally obliged to vote for the generous hosts.
In the old days, the local home brew like langkow would have sufficed. Nowadays, I hear rural voters have higher expectations of their brew. Beer and Guinness Stout are now preferred. The candidates must thank God that the rural Dayaks have yet to discover the beauty of single malt Scotch whisky!
The free dispensation of cash is a common practice in rural constituencies. In one Bidayuh village in the Bengoh constituency near Kuching, I met a voter who had four or five party badges. He laughingly told me that whichever party candidate came to his village during the election campaign, he would be a party member with an outstretched hand with its palm up!
A few days before the voting, I used to see at various airports young men boarding helicopters with the tell tale James Bond bags. This would be the time when information reached me that huge sums of money in small notes had been withdrawn from banks. Eventually, on the eve of polling day, voters in even the remotest village would receive their cut.
It would be all too easy to rant and rave at the stupidity of Sarawak voters for selling out their rights, as Sarawak bloggers and coffee-shop analysts are wont to do these days.
Look at it from the poor villagers' point of view. Politicians from both the BN and the opposition parties are irrelevant in their daily life in those long years between elections. Politics is talked about only when election fever arrives at their longhouse.
These voters know quite well that the candidates will disappear after the elections, back to the towns where they would get rich with their business ventures for the next few years. They may as well get the maximum benefits for themselves while the election lasts.
Then again, the high costs of an election campaign have put off many aspiring politicians to join the usually cash strapped opposition parties. The big problem of PKR in Sarawak - at this moment of launching a serious bid for power in the next state election - is the dearth of fresh political talents to be recruited from the native middle class residing mostly in the towns.
The high costs of an election victory have also driven the cleanest of BN politicians into corruption. To sustain such expensive campaign election after election, they have no choice but to get rich on government contracts or government plantation land through their own business ventures. In the process, they have been enslaved to the biggest patron in Sarawak, Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud. That is why defecting to Pakatan Rakyat cannot be such an attractive option.
Mother of all evils
Some cynical commentators have pointed out to me that there is one good thing that ensues from the culture of money politics in Sarawak. At least the huge dirty timber and other wealth in Sarawak can be redistributed into the pockets of the impoverished villagers during the election period. It is a twisted form of socialism.
To me, this pervasive presence of money politics in my beloved home state is the mother of all evils.
It has made a mockery of the democratic process, corrupted the political will of the people, and sent public morality to the sewers. It belies the cynical assumption that the government might as well keep the people poor, so they can more easily be bought during elections!
Not all villagers can be bought of course. In the course of my travel to many remote corners of Sarawak, I have encountered many community leaders who are wise and courageous. The trouble is the lack of dedicated committed and sincere leadership to organise and guide them to fight against the mighty BN juggernaut.
It would be too late for opposition candidates to start the campaign on the eve of another election. The voters do not know them, and would just lump them together with the BN leaders as yet another cash cow. Even if the opposition candidate has a few millions at his disposal, he will be outspent by his BN opponent.
The odds can only be overcome long before the election begins. The aspiring opposition candidate has to build his party structure throughout his entire constituency since yesterday. He has to visit every village during the non-election years, and help solve the villagers' problems. He has to fight alongside them whenever they face problems with their NCR land. It demands tremendous personal sacrifice, but there is no short cut for success in a movement for justice and democracy.
It can be done, but are there enough concerned Sarawakians prepared to pay the price?
Agi Idup Agi Ngelaban