LoyarBurokker and Sibu native Adrian Chew tells us to watch closely, as change is in the air in Sarawak.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am now locked up in a handcuff that has taken a British mechanic five years to make.
I do not know whether I am going to get out of it or not, but I can assure you I am going to do my best.”
Harry Houdini, London Hippodrome, St Patrick’s Day, 1904.
There’s something heavy in the air in the hornbill state.
Take a walk in any of the cities and towns and you’ll feel that undeniable sense of unity and common purpose.
Thousands upon thousands throng political ceramahs every night. Our placid roads turn into long crawling lines of red brake lights. Normally frugal womenfolk readily take out RM10 notes from their purses to insert into donation boxes. Heavy rains don’t deter thousands from coming and staying.
Sit in any coffeeshop during the day and you’ll notice everyone’s an overnight political commentator and connoisseur of oratory. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the same gripes repeated at every table.
Years of pent-up anger and frustration are coming to a boil. People come to hear all their dissatisfactions with the present government finally verbalised. You’ll empathise because as much as these are our problems, you’ll see that they’re also yours.
This state election is unlike previous ones in Sarawak. It’s obvious that something’s afoot. There is a feeling of empowerment and camaraderie. Everyone feels infused with renewed energy and a single clear mission — Change. Demand It.
Our political awakening is coupled with deep-rooted frustration. And why wouldn’t we feel this way? After all, who isn’t affected by rampant corruption in the state? Who doesn’t notice the few who have and the many who don’t? Who doesn’t have issues related to land? Whose son or daughter needs to leave the state to get a decent education or find a better paying job? And whose children and grandchildren never came back after that?
Symbolic of the detachment between the current crop of leaders and the people, local politicians continue to pose for newspapers, pointing their fingers at clogged drains and potholes promising to fix them if re-elected. Land premiums will be lowered and there’ll be automatic renewals of land leases. “Floods will be a thing of the past because look, we’re raising road levels.” (nevermind that the road is now the same level as your roof).
“This is a state election and these are the real Sarawak issues,” they assert. “Don’t be too concerned and influenced by Semenanjung issues.”
They’ll have us believe we’re a state unto ourselves and that what happens across the dividing sea has no effect on local affairs. And by focusing on the symptoms, hopefully we’ll forget the illness.
But we know better now.
Urban voters have come of age and can identify corruption and failure of governance as the main causes of these problems. We’re aware that the candidates we vote into the DUN or Parliament must be able to carry our voices and translate them into action. They must be capable of formulating policies that are far-sighted and beneficial to their electorates.
We want representatives who will work for us and solve our problems. Not create more.
If they’re elected in and must still sit on the opposition benches, then the least we can do is to make sure we send in those who dare to speak and speak up strongly because so often is it the case in Malaysia that pro-government wakil rakyat (people’s representatives) keep mute on issues that are closest to the people’s hearts.
We’re also very aware that the power structure here that keeps this illness untreated in the state is the same lifeline that enables the wanton abuse of power on the other side of the sea to go unchecked.
While Sarawak may not yet experience religious crackdowns, deteriorating racial relations or the stifling of civil political discourse now commonplace in the peninsula, if we keep quiet and acquiesce, it is only a matter of time before those scenes are seen here.
Already, we share a deeply entrenched culture of economic rent seeking and government-assisted monopolies that are bleeding our economy dry. Already too, there is open discontent and people expressing differing opinions to a government unaccustomed to listening.
The crisis we face today is real and it transcends state boundaries.
Money is being pumped into constructing infrastructures we don’t need. More dams and power supply than we know what to do with. For quick returns, we welcome more industries that pose environmental and health risks to our own population. More displacement of natives to make way for logging and plantation concessions. At every level, benefits go to a select few and seldom to the masses.
On our streets, crime is high. To make matters worse, those we entrust to keep us safe stand accused of brutality. A 15-year-old is gunned down after a car chase. There are deaths in lock-ups. People fall out of windows. Couples are arrested for celebrating Valentine’s Day. Courts, our last bastion of justice, are not seen to be dispensing basic fairness. Even lawyers talk about boycotting them.
Institutions that are supposed to protect us no longer function as such. How can you fault the ordinary Malaysian on the street for having no confidence in the government? We’ve come to the point where we’re begging for protection from all these institutions.
As if it’s not bad enough that we’ve failed ourselves, we’ve also failed our future generations by turning our education system into a farce with all the policy flip-flopping. In Sarawak, there are children entering secondary schools today who are unable to recite the alphabet or read simple words.
They can’t converse in Bahasa Malaysia much less English and speak only Iban in their classrooms. What do we do to address this problem? Certainly, spending more money on laptops and Internet connection isn’t the answer. We’re going everywhere except to the root of the problem.
The 85-year-old Bidayuh market stall owner I know in town speaks more fluent English than most of the schoolchildren today. It is the height of irony that a man who lived his best years under British colonial rule is better equipped today to deal with the challenges of the 21st century than his own grandchildren.
Even natives deep in rural Sarawak who make a deliberate choice to live a life of subsistence and not be bothered with all these issues are also not spared. Thousands have had their land taken from them and forced to defend their birth rights in an alien bureaucracy against corporations that have little care for what they’ve lost. Alone they stand for the state too has conspired against them.
Seek solace, you say? Grab your Bible and pray to God? You’ll only be reminded of another sad fact that our government is everywhere except the places it should be. Everything it does is a mass of contradictions.
What right-thinking Sarawakian can look around and still believe this nation is in good hands? Malaya’s ablaze. Sabah doesn’t even half belong to Sabahans anymore.
It’s obvious what needs to be done on 416.
Something’s got to change.
So watch what we do.
Soon enough your turn will come too.
This article was published on The Malaysian Insider.
Adrian writes about many things. But mainly he writes in search of his voice. Follow his journey through the world of writing on ReadingMonk.com. He has recently succumbed to the seduction of writing for The Malaysian Insider, but says his home will always be LoyarBurok.