THE hand-to-hand combat has begun in earnest for the 7 April 2009 Batang Ai by-election between the Barisan Nasional (BN) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
It is a torturous and expensive battle for both the contesting parties. Lodged under the shadow of the mountain range that separates Sarawak from the Kalimantan side of Indonesia, Batang Ai is vast, remote, and underdeveloped. Nearly a third of the over 100 longhouses can only be reached by water transport.
Modern Iban longhouse, Rumah Ugat, in Kapit division of Sarawak (pic by Aron Paul, source: wikipedia.org)
Like all other rural constituencies in Sarawak, the difficulties in transport and communication remain the greatest enemy for a candidate in any election campaign. I just do not see the feasibility of either candidate going to meet voters face-to-face in all the longhouses throughout the state constituency during this short campaign period between 29 March and midnight of 6 April 2009.
Both Party Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), a component of the Sarawak BN, and PKR would have their own campaigners stationed in all the longhouses — to mingle with the villagers, lobby door-to-door for votes, and collect information. The BN will depend on their paid workers, while PKR campaigners tend to be volunteers.
It is a tough campaign for the BN candidate Malcolm Mussen and the PKR candidate Jawah Gerang. You travel by boat or four-wheel drive for a few hours, and you reach a longhouse with 50 doors or less. There, you talk to your voters numbering in the scores. Then, you make the bone-crunching journey back.
Iban people (pic by Matthew Timbang, source: wikipedia.org)
Election campaign in the Sarawak longhouses is what you would call one-kind-one in Kuala Lumpur. It is usually a loud boisterous affair, more so if it is also accompanied by feasting and drinking. Unlike the traditional ceramah, the candidate’s speech in the longhouse ruai (communal corridor) will likely be interrupted by interjections, short exclamations, and retorts from the crowd, including the women.
After the candidate’s speech, members of the longhouse may want to have his or her say, one way or another. I have met some of the most awesome orators among these humble Iban farmers in the remotest parts of Sarawak!
Sometimes, sitting at the edge of the crowd, or a corner of the ruai, you get small groups, usually dissenters, holding their own counter campaign. As I said, in the closely knit Iban longhouse, political conversation is one-kind-one!
By all accounts, the longhouse chief or Tuai Rumah is the most influential figure in his own community living under one long roof. He is the decisive opinion shaper in this contest.
The Tuai Rumah is paid RM450 per month by the local district office. The appointment as longhouse chief is often recommended by the local BN elected representative. Therefore, the Tuai Rumah is like a civil servant, beholden to the ruling coalition, and is often asked to be the government’s eyes and ears on the ground.
According to blogger Joseph Tawie in his blog The Broken Shield, in elections in the past, all the Tuai Rumah are summoned for a meeting, and given a sum of money to be distributed to all the voters in the longhouse a day before polling. This may happen again in Batang Ai.
Not all the Tuai Rumah are so slavish. In a recent posting, Joseph Tawie had this to tell:
“Joseph Entulu, PRS deputy president and Joseph Salang, PRS information chief, last night campaigned at Rumah Ambau, Kaong for their candidate Malcolm Mussen…Tuai Rumah Ambau, while welcoming the two deputy ministers, called on his people not to vote for the BN candidate and told them why.
“Several people tried to stop him talking, but he continued talking and repeated what he said … The two deputy ministers were clearly not amused, but strong supporters of BN were stunned.”
We urbanites in cities and towns do not really know what is going on with the election campaign in the jungles of Batang Ai. Those interested in the daily blow-by-blow account can rely on Sarawak bloggers at ground zero. Joseph Tawie is a good source. The others are Dayak Nation, Dayak Baru, Letters from Batang Ai, Sarawak Headhunter and Hornbill Unleashed.
In rural Sarawak, the candidate’s personality counts. On paper, Jawah Gerang has the edge over Malcolm Mussen in this department. He was the Member of Parliament for five terms in this constituency, and so must be well known and well connected in Batang Ai. He has been campaigning on land and other issues, spreading the message of a need for change.
Cockfight (pic by SuperBass, source: wikipedia.org)In sharp contrast, Malcolm Mussen is a new bird, whose ability as a fighting cock remains unproven. His father was a local Pengulu, but according to the blogger Dayak Baru, the Pengulu has been accused of cheating local Ibans under his charge of land.
But BN does not need a strong candidate to win. There will be a stellar army of state ministers and assistant ministers descending upon the longhouse. They will be supported by a cast of party workers, civil servants, and members of periphery government agencies like Kemas to spread their gospel of the politics of development.
Already, development projects worth tens of millions of ringgit have been announced for Batang Ai.
Currently, there is only one issue circulating around the coffee shops throughout Sarawak. How much cash will be dished out to the voters to ensure a BN victory? Will it work? Rumours spread like wild fires, and I hear preposterous figures.
All the BN needs is to secure 4,000 votes to win. A few million ringgit can be petty cash for crony capitalists who depend on the state government for their golden rice bowl.
It is easier said than done to ask the Iban voters to take the money and vote for the opposition. They are poor, and do not always have the bird’s eye view of politics as city commentators do.
I would like to be pleasantly surprised with a PKR victory. But for now at least, the BN has a big edge. For the PKR, it is an uphill battle all the way in this tilted playing field. The next days ahead before 7 April will be critical.
Sim Kwang Yang was DAP Member of Parliament for Bandar Kuching in Sarawak from 1982 to 1995.