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The last Rajah’s battlefield

Police on guard during the Ijok by-election (pic by Danny Lim)

THE 7 April Batang Ai by-election actually has more similarities with the 2007 by-election for the Selangor state seat of Ijok than to the other two by-elections in Bukit Gantang and Bukit Serambau that will happen on the same day.

Batang Ai is certainly different from Ijok in a few ways. But in their difference lies similarities.

The Sarawak inland constituency of Batang Ai is much more backward compared to the semi-rural Ijok. Most longhouses have no external supply of electricity and tap water. Many can only be reached by motorbikes, four-wheel-drive or boats. Many locals are unemployed.

But this just makes Batang Ai more like Ijok in 2007 in the sense that monetary benefits are more appealing to voters. Even though the Opposition in Ijok campaigned very hard in 2007, they failed to wrest the seat away from the Barisan Nasional (BN) then because the BN’s machinery and development funds were far more persuasive than the Opposition’s new politics.

Batang Ai is also different from Ijok in ethnic composition. Ijok was a mixed seat with about 50% Malay Malaysians, 30% Indian Malaysians, and 20% Chinese Malaysians. In sharp contrast, 95% of Batang Ai’s electorate are Iban Malaysians, with Chinese Malaysians and Malay Malaysians making up the tiny minority.

Again, strangely, this difference makes Batang Ai more likely to be another Ijok. If the second largest ethnic group in Ijok, the Indian Malaysians, were then staunch BN supporters, the majority of Ibans, too, have the convention of “undi perintah” or voting for the government.

Mental prison

Like the Indian Malaysians before November 2007, the Ibans support the BN, but not because they have been well cared for.

Road leading to Jawah Gerang’s longhouse
(pic courtesy of Wong Chin Huat)

Far from that, even the road to the longhouse where Jawah Gerang — the former BN five-term parliamentarian and now the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) candidate — hails from is not accessible by car whenever it rains.

One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand why the Ibans would “undi perintah”. It is both fear and favour. They fear the government’s wrath and they hope for favour from their ethnic representative in government. In this way, they are as Malaysian and mentally imprisoned as many West Malaysians before 8 March 2008.

The Dayaks’ strength

Malcolm Mussen Lamoh,
BN candidate
(pic source:

While equally loyal to the BN, the Indian Malaysians before 2008 and the Iban Malaysians today are different on one important count.

While the Indian Malaysians constitute no majority in any seat let alone a state, the Iban Malaysians constitute about 30% of Sarawak’s population. When other Dayak groups are added together, they form a majority of half.

Despite their numerical strength — an advantage in any functioning democracy — the Dayaks have been left behind in political power and socio-economic development since 1970.

Then, the de facto Prime Minister Tun Abduk Razak helped negotiate a coalition government of the Melanau/Malay-dominated Parti Bumiputera and the Chinese-dominated Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP). The largest and most vocal Dayak-led Sarawak National Party (SNAP) was deliberately left out in the cold and is today seen as irrelevant. The smaller Dayak party, Parti Pesaka, later merged with Parti Bumiputera to form the dominant Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB).

Today, the Dayak constituents are represented in the government by all four BN parties, with the Pesaka faction of PBB holding the deputy chief minister position for the Dayaks.

The two mainly Dayak parties are Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP), a splinter from SNAP, and the Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), the successor of another SNAP splinter, the defunct Parti Bangsa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS).

Even the Chinese-dominated SUPP has a small Dayak wing.

In the opposition camp, Dayaks are now flooding into PKR.

Something to watch for in Batang Ai is whether PKR can become the standard bearer of Dayak nationalism in opposition, even if it doesn’t win in the by-elections.

Jawah Gerang with Anwar (pic courtesy of Wong Chin Huat)

While PKR adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has promised to install a Dayak as the chief minister if Pakatan Rakyat (PR) wins the state, many Dayaks have been conditioned to believe that the top post is a prerogative of the Melanau Muslims, or second in line, the Malay Muslims.

Instead of challenging the Melanau hegemony, many Dayak politicians prefer and even compete to collaborate with Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud’s clique in exchange for patronage. This explains the fragmentation of the Dayak parties, which in turn perpetuates the Dayaks’ political lethargy.

Succeeding the post from his uncle Datuk Patinggi Abdul Rahman Ya’kub, Taib, a Melanau Muslim, has ruled Sarawak since 1981. He is rumoured to be planning for his son, Sulaiman, to be the next chief minister after him.

Sir James Brooke
(painting by Sir Francis Grant, public domain)
Not unlike the Brooke family which produced three generations of White Rajah before surrendering Sarawak to Britain in 1946, the Rahman-Taib family are the new rajahs. Incidentally, silver-haired Taib is widely dubbed as the “white-haired Rajah”.

Tsunami needed

While an insistence on a Dayak chief minister is racist, the artificial exclusion of Dayaks from holding the top post is no less racist.

In the context of Sarawak’s democratisation, the revival of an inclusive strand of Dayak nationalism may at least rock the “one-family state” and open up room for political competition. And only when political parties compete to effectively champion different social groups can they move beyond patronage and patrimonialism.

Such competition may further lead to some form of new Sarawak nationalism that would serve to correct the imbalance both within the state, and between Sarawak and other parts of Malaysia.

A PKR victory in Batang Ai, even by a wafer-thin margin, would therefore begin the tsunami in Sarawak politics.

After all, if BN loses a 95%-Dayak constituency, all the 28 Dayak-majority seats in the state may be in danger. And if the Chinese Sarawakians continue their rejection of BN as they did in 2006, another 15 Chinese Malaysian-majority or mixed seats may fall to the opposition, too.

Taib Mahmud
With only 28 Muslim-majority seats to count on, the white-haired Rajah would no longer be the given. Once the field becomes a free-for-all, there would be no incentive for Taib’s Dayak lieutenants to help install his crown prince.

Batang Ai once produced a hero that defied the White Rajah and shouted “Agi Idup, Agi Ngelaban!”  (“I fight so long as I still live”). There is no sign of such spirit yet in the present day.

So, the Rajah may still have his field day come 7 April. He, however, may not be able to avoid the fate of being Sarawak’s last Rajah.

The PKR wrested the Ijok seat from the BN in the March 2008 general election just 11 months after losing it in the 2007 by-elections. But the Opposition’s fortune turned only after the momentous Hindraf rally of November 2007, sparked in part by the demolition of Hindu temples.

“Perhaps, Sarawak does need a DRAF (Dayak Rights Action Force) to defend their Native Customary Rights land,” a Sarawakian journalist commented.

Perhaps. And perhaps that’s why PKR leaders are denied entry into Sarawak.

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He believes all internal colonisation must end, and cannot wait to see a more democratic and autonomous Sarawak.

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5 Responses to “The last Rajah’s battlefield”

  1. Karcy says:

    The writer has ignored a lot of things shaping the pro-Taib argument, and why many Sarawakians up until now, prefer to have him around instead of replacing him.

    Simply put, Taib was the middle ground between the then-powerful Umno-led BN and Sarawakian autonomy. He was part of the establishment, but he was also “one of us”. Keeping him secure meant establishing Sarawak as a middle ground. Umno has been attempting to get into East Malaysia for a long time and generally Sarawakians do not like what has happened in Sabah.

    While you speak of internal colonisation, urban pro-establishment Dayak folk tell me that internal colonisation was actually worse before Taib Mahmud, especially with regards to religious issues. Although I have no way of proving this and this is only what I heard from people, coerced conversions to Islam did happen under previous chief ministers.

    So the fact that Taib Mahmud has been in power for so long is not just because the Dayak Sarawakian community is oppressed. The decision to keep him there was a way of negotiating their way around the business of being in Malaysia, and deciding what can be accepted from West Malaysia and what cannot be. Our state song has a line “Sarawak dalam Malaysia”, and for many Sarawakians we see our identities outlined as such. But with trends in the West changing, Sarawakians will need to re-think and re-negotiate what that title means.

    There’s also the question of whether the Dayak politicians’ interests and battles actually do represent the Dayak people or not. I know that many people just throw in their votes to support their uncle, their friends, their uncle’s friend, their uncle’s friend’s friend, etc. Of course it is to a Dayak politician’s interest that the role of chief minister be made accessible for a Dayak once again. But the issue is, will his/her interests be the interests of the people?

    The best way to look at the future of Sarawak is to look at the young. I can tell you that the young living in the longhouses are often very frustrated with their poverty. Their land and native customary rights are less important than the fact that they are all too aware of how far behind they are compared to the rest of the country. Their issues are urbanisation, unemployment, equal status as bumiputeras, and religious freedom. If you go to any longhouse now, you will see only children and very old people.

  2. lizzie says:

    Sounds to me we need to show the people of Batang Ai the movie “Ants’. They do not realise the power that they have…

  3. Kalam Perak says:

    Sarawakians have been in the dark for so long, the way to keep them voting for the establishment. The time has no come for the people to realise that the country and its wealth is owned collectively by the people, the power that truly is not owned by a particular family or group. I hope for that change to come. Pray for some enlightenment to Sarawakians.

  4. DeePo says:

    I guess I quite agree with karcy’s comment to some extend. Although I am a strong critic of Taib, but I am still proud that Taib can prevent Umno from ”infecting” Sarawakians.

    kalam perak,

    We are not in the dark. Generally, Sarawakians have a good life here (except the politics). We are rich people, even the rural folks; the only thing we lack here is just facilities (roads, electricity)…

    If you think rural folks are poor, consider this a moment: how do you think they bought a RM1000-2000 generator in their longhouse? Or motorboats that costs around RM3000-6000. And they bought CASH without any loan from bank or Along. Frankly speaking, we have good lives here. All from our hard work without NEP policy or even taking advantage of bumiputera status.

  5. Pajustha says:

    Dayaks in Malaysia will soon follow Dayaks of Indonesia in embracing Hinduism to save their Kaharingan customs.

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