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The Dayak urban-rural divide

THE loss of Jawah Gerang and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) in Batang Ai by a shocking majority of 1,854 votes has jolted many party members and supporters to the core. I hear that even on the morning of polling day on 7 April 2009, some of Jawah’s closest associates were still expecting a glorious victory for him.

Onlookers like me were less involved and can afford to be more objective. Something was amiss with Jawah’s campaign in the dying days of the battle. To be fair, the odds were so stacked against PKR that the party’s candidate, whoever he or she was, would not have made much difference.

But one critical question keeps pecking at the back of my mind: what happened to the much-touted groundswell of Dayak support for PKR in Sarawak? What happened to that resurgence of hope among the usually hopeless Dayaks for redemption from poverty and mental enslavement?


Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Jawah Gerang during a visit to Jawah’s longhouse in late March
(Pic by Wong Chin Huat)

Friends of PKR

Remember those phenomenal dinners organised by “Friends of PKR” that drew unprecedented crowds of mainly Dayaks in Sibu, Bintulu, Miri, and Kuching? They cheered PKR adviser and Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim for his vision of a free Sarawak and a better Malaysia. It felt like the ember of hope in their breasts could burst into flames.

Those were the educated, mostly urban-based, new Dayaks; more than likely financially independent, certainly internet-savvy, and capable of independent political analysis. They were the entrepreneurs, former civil servants, former senior officers of the police and armed forces, former teachers, academics, and perhaps former members of Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS).

They were concerned and engaged, poised on the crossroad between the declines of Dayakism and groping for a new alternative political vehicle.

Then there was the very significant seminar in Sibu at about the same time, attracting more than 300 of the top Dayak brains in Sarawak, brainstorming on the Dayak Problem in search of a radical and comprehensive solution.


Dayak Monument in Friendship Park, Sarawak (Pic by unclelim @ Flickr)
These are the Dayak people who have a bird’s-eye view of the Sarawak political landscape, as much as you and I. The fact that most of them do not depend solely on the government for their livelihood means they can afford to take an independent stand.

So my question is, where were all these self-motivated cream of the Dayak crop in the Batang Ai by-election? How many of them turned up at the longhouses to campaign for PKR and Jawah Gerang? Where was the much-anticipated People Power?

Win or lose, PKR’s first real battle in rural Sarawak would have been a victory if the early signs of People Power had been embedded in Batang Ai.

Expensive business

Campaigning in a remote and sparsely populated constituency in Sarawak is always an expensive business. We are talking about basic expenses like logistics, housing and food for campaign workers. For a serious contest aimed at victory, the funds required would usually surpass what can be provided by PKR or the candidate alone. 

Why did not the thousands of Friends of PKR, who attended those overflowing dinners earlier on, rush forward to donate RM10 or RM50 each to boost Jawah’s campaign? They could afford it.

There are possible reasons. For a start, the Sarawak PKR did not make a public appeal in a big way to attract outside support. They had not built up a network of connections with human and financial resources outside the party. 

Even those 200 volunteers from outside the constituency — including those sent from Sabah — returned home a few days after nomination because there was not much for them to do.

There was this other sore point with some Friends of PKR: the mysterious financial backer backing the party’s campaign. Whether this whisper making its rounds was true or not was irrelevant; the perception had set in. In the minds of PKR supporters, there was no need to help in Jawah’s campaign at all.


Rambo (Source: mnfilmtv.org)
In the end, Jawah was fighting a Rambo battle in the deep interior of Batang Ai, out of touch with his aides in Lubok Antu. His operation centre in the town became dysfunctional.

In the longhouses

Meanwhile, the Ibans in the longhouses did not have a bird’s-eye-view of Sarawak politics as the urban friends of the PKR did. They have a much smaller sphere of concern, and an even smaller sphere of influence. Their daily concerns are mostly limited to their farm land, their part of the river and the mountain.

They do not always connect their poverty and marginalisation to the larger political picture of corruption and lack of democracy. They have not had the opportunity of meeting the Friends of PKR face-to-face.

In sharp contrast, the BN state ministers and their minions descended upon their longhouses. Some very big shots from the federal government even turned up at their doorsteps. No matter how rare, the visit is still an auspicious occasion for the hospitable Iban longhouse dwellers. At least the BN dignitaries came to visit them and gave them a lot of goodies, and they were treated as honourable guests according to Iban customs.

Finally, they voted en masse for the BN candidate. To call them stupid and to blame the opposition’s defeat on them is not really fair.

A gulf

So there exists this gulf between urban middle-class Dayaks and the rural poor Dayak farmers. If all the urban middle-class Ibans in Sarawak could vote in Batang Ai, PKR would have won. But they did not have voting rights in Batang Ai, so that’s that.

Then the question is, how do you bridge the urban-rural political divide in the Dayak world in Sarawak?

While the BN has no problem dispensing a barrage of Maggie Mee development in Sarawak’s rural constituency during an election, the opposition has no such solution in the Dayak heartland of Sarawak.


Sim Kwang Yang was DAP Member of Parliament for Bandar Kuching in Sarawak from 1982 to 1995.

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15 Responses to “The Dayak urban-rural divide”

  1. D Lim says:

    PKR must continue the it’s rural-urban divide if it is to make headway into the core of BN’s electorates. Just as in West Malaysia, most PKR supporters are more urbanised.

    To do that, PKR must understand how the rural community thinks. It is important to start now because building trust and reputation takes time. PKR will never have the monetary resources but if there’s a will to change the country for the better, there’s a way. All the best…

  2. Karcy says:

    I’m not holding my breath that all urban Dayaks will flock to PKR either and will sweep the elections next time around. The whole thing has a very Reformasi feel to it: it attracted a large number of unhappy and dissatisfied people who want greater justice (in this case, economic justice) but in the end the “silent majority” probably want things to remain as they are.

    The thing about the Chief Minister’s rule is that he never let people raise machetes threatening to kill minorities in government meetings. There are no reports of hardcore PBBB members destroying Buddhist temples. The people of Sarawak do not feel pushed into a corner, like the people of West Malaysia do. Poverty and unemployment affect some people, especially the young, but many of the older generation are (sadly) happy to earn a pitiable sum of RM400 that they can spend on a few beers and cigarettes.

    But of course conditions in West Malaysia are changing things. People in Sarawak, especially the young ones, know that Pakatan is very likely the future of Malaysia, so this may translate to a vote – if they can afford the air fares home in time for elections, of course.

    In any case, anything that highlights the great discrepancy between Sarawak’s earnings and the immense poverty of the Dayak community is good. In 1995, Sarawak’s GDP rose from RM6.5 million to RM19.7 billion, and in 1999, the figure was RM29.9 billion. During that same era, about 25%-30% of Sarawakians lived in poverty and 10% in hardcore poverty. All this info can be found on PBBB’s official website.

  3. dominik says:

    If PKR plans to penetrate the stronghold of BN, then for the next three to four years, they must send educated men [and women] to the interior to educate them, especially the older generation.

    Enligthen these people with what is going on around Sarawak through the method of teacher/student communication. Have sessions with them once or twice a month showing pictures/graphics and having dialogue, and I am sure by the time the next elections comes around, these people will be able to make better decisions. They will want to have better living standards and also know their rights as citizens of Malaysia.

  4. tangkup says:

    PKR could have won if there was a level playing field. The process of the by-election in Batang Ai was highly ochestrated by the SPR. Do you remember the 14 ballot boxes, which were transported to the counting centre, without being accompanied by PKR representatives? Definitely there were more then 1,854 phantom votes, slotted into those 14 ballot boxes. This is the SPR of playing magic. Of course BN won.

  5. Karcy says:

    Tangkup, every time opposition loses they always blame phantom voters. This is self-deception. I know people who work carrying those boxes for SPR (not in these elections) and not all of them are corrupt people who will support BN by hook or by crook.

  6. Ling says:

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but generally speaking, I think the Sarawakian attitude to politics is: the government can deliver, the Opposition can’t. The functions of a strong Opposition in a democracy have yet to be recognised and appreciated. This attitude seems to permeate both urban and rural folks.

  7. amde sidik says:

    Rural Sarawak in Batangi Ai. I take it to be similar to rural Sabah, too.

    I’m sure the BN campaigners would have said, PKR has no money and so, can’t form the government and only BN can, and BN then distributes the ang pows as proof. If a PKR campaigner couldn’t even give them maggi mee, what to expect from them?

    The other issue which BN Sarawak could easily exploit is by saying PKR is an outsider while the BN Sarawak is home-grown. The question is, would you like an outsider to control you or a local? The rural people don’t have a bigger picture. Yet this is something that needs to be worked out from a very early stage.

  8. Longhouse Observer says:

    What PKR should do from now onwards is to train a pool of cadres committed to the cause and spirit of PKR. From there, they can further train those longhouse residents about their rights, and to fight injustices on NCR lands.

    Those in the longhouse will be the groundswell of support, and will drum up common issues facing their community.

    Those bloggers and sympathisers to PKR’s cause must pay regular visits to these longhouses to understand the local problems and raise them for these people to understand.

    Rome was not built in one day.

    Constant and persistent contact with these simple folks will win the day.

  9. Sam says:

    If that’s what they want, so be it.

  10. hakim says:

    Jawah was shouting reformasi very loud. Is he clean, himself? His act of taking over a PPRT scheme meant for poor villagers, handed over to his brother-in-laws, is left unanswered. Is that reformasi PKR style?

  11. Kenny says:

    Polling day was a working day which benefited BN greatly and in Sarawak, this advantage is much greater than in the Peninsula.

    Many people have commented that the longhouses are devoid of young Dayaks, leaving the children and aged behind.

    The young Dayaks are frustrated with their poverty. Do you think if they all came back to vote, the BN would get this result?

    Travelling back from the urban centres to their longhouses is a long and difficult journey and may not be an option for many young Dayaks.

    In a statewide election held on a weekend, the young may be more willing to come back and vote especially if there is a chance of changing the government.

    The 14 unaccompanied poll boxes should not be taken lightly. There was a famous “lights off” incident in 1999 where cheating in the dark was suspected. These unaccompanied boxes could be the reason why BN’s margin was so high.

  12. Maozi says:

    An addition to Longhouse Observer’s view, another thing for PKR to solve is the source of fund.

    You can’t really get your work done if you continue to source your funds from certain hot shots, and expect them not to intervene in your cause. This is particularly serious if the hot shot himself [or herself] is a double-dealer.

    Perhaps DAP’s way of fund-raising is more practical — by their way, they avoid corruption and maintain “sovereignty” over their decisions/strategies. But of course, funds raised with this method is insufficient to penetrate the ulu area.

    So, in the end, money is still the naughty part of the game.

  13. ilann says:

    All good.

    At least now that you realise you need their long-term support as voters, you might actually spend some time finding out what their issues are and what they need.

    Not so out of sight out of mind.

    I’m glad PKR lost so it can win properly next time.

  14. Ying says:

    The one thing that Sabah and Sarawak have in common with the Peninsula, is the fact that all three have an ethnic minority population that have been mistreated, under-represented and whose rights and customary laws have been disrespected and bartered way by Peninsula politicians who reign supreme.

    Sure, BN has the resources to slap together some form of short-term development. But if history serves as any guide, BN’s efforts will eventually wane.

    From what I’ve heard, the Orang Asli groups living on the Peninsula have many great things to say about how the Pakatan government has helped them with their cause, i.e. reclaim their rightful land. Pakatan should continue to uphold the indigenous people’s cause. Such actions will be remembered and will spread to the indigenous people in Borneo. This, I’m sure will translate to votes in the 13th general election.

  15. PKR or anyone else cannot expect to beat BN anywhere in rural Sarawak with just a few weeks of campaign, perhaps not even three years of campaign. It [needs] a longer term, sustained execution of a well-planned strategy to bring about change by mobilising grassroot communities. Mobilising grassroot communities starts with building the capacity and capabilities for taking on the journey towards the goal and vision of a renewed Sarawak.

    At the core of the capacity and capabilities to mobilise the grassroots is an army of well-trained, well-equipped grassroots leaders. These leaders are influencers in their respective communities, people whom the community looks up to, not for money, beer or cigarettes, but for wisdom, vision and direction.

    This army of community grassroots leaders needs a common shared vision of a greater, prosperous Sarawak that is formulated by Pakatan leaders. Formulation of the vision must be based on a deep understanding of the real needs of people all over the state.

    Without a vision that is beyond land issues, the army has no direction to march towards. Even if they proceed to march, they would not march in unison.


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