Better Don’t Mess It Up This Time

swak elections 2011_1

Don't mess it up this time around? | Credit: Tony Sebastian

There’s a difference between how West Malaysians and Sarawakians perceive politics and its rhetoric. Kelvin Egay explains why in the eve of the 2011 Sarawak election campaign.

Don’t you just love how the whole country is sucking up to Sarawak these days? Just last week, after the April 6 nomination day, a friend from Ipoh called to say, “You Sarawakians better don’t mess it up this time, ok?” He said that to sarcastically remind me of the 2008 political tsunami that never flooded onto Sarawak’s shores.

According to his analysis, if Sarawak had converted to Pakatan Rakyat like its sibling states across the South China Sea in 2008, it would have been very difficult for Barisan Nasional to incubate their corruption, racism, and religious bigotry in this country today. Not to mention the release of new hatchlings in the form of fatwa against yoga and poco-poco, and also the danger of stepping into the MACC building nowadays! I won’t even go into the Bible issue or the cow-head incident. Or that submarine parked in Sabah. Or the missing jet engines. Or the Mongolian. Or the sex scandal.

But wow, really, all this because Sarawak messed it up in 2008?

After my Ipoh friend’s analysis of Malaysian politics and how it has adversely affected our democratic rights, it made me wonder: Is that why Malaysians are now diverting their attention to what’s going to happen to Sarawak on April 16th? Is that why the national TV channels are providing special showcases on Sarawak for its peoples, customs, music, tourism, and environment lately? Is that why the Federal Ministers are flying into the state just to flash their smiles and eagerly shake the hands of the people in the wet markets, coffee shops, house of worship, and on the streets? All this because they are afraid that we might mess it up this time? Again?

I’ve been asking myself if this is how non-Sarawakians perceive us? That we can get rid of our Mugabe-like leaders in two days’ time? And if our votes are short of replacing the current clowns in the government come this Saturday, would it mean that Sarawakians are just not capable of thought? Do we have to do a Penang or a Selangor to change? I think it works differently on this side of the sea.

Let’s get it straight here; I’m not a political analyst. In fact, I’m not an analyst of any sort.

I told my friend from Ipoh there’s a difference between how people in the Malaysian peninsula and Sarawak perceive politics and its rhetoric. I told him that we are like plugs that have trouble fitting into the socket even though it’s the right plug and the right socket.

“Huh? What are you talking about?” he asked in puzzlement.

“You see,” I told my friend, “the town’s been buzzing with all kinds of stories on the election.”

In the coffee shops, in the offices, in the markets, at the bus stops, outside and inside the shopping malls, and even squatting on the kaki lima, everyone talks about politics, its politicians, promises, and whatever was said in the many ceramah. The more seasoned kopitiamers would talk about how they personally know the politicians, the politicians’ life history, and all other kinds of complex conspiracy theories surrounding the election.

But it’s another world in Sarawak’s rural areas. To the people, politicians are special but temporary creatures in their lives.

I visited an Iban longhouse near Kabong during the 2008 general elections. It was election day and I arrived in the evening. People were sitting and talking in the ruai after a hard day’s work in their farms. Some of them were talking about their trip to Kabong that morning to cast their votes but most of them talked about how the belangkas (horseshoe crab) season is nearing. They were excited about the belangkas.

Belangkas caught in Alit

Belangkas caught in Alit

Others were talking about how sea water had flooded over the perimeter bunds into their paddy fields. That wasn’t good, no. Then, they talked about how some people discreetly drive to the beach outside their longhouse to do illegal sand dredging.

When the results of the 2008 political tsunami reached them that same evening, there was a sudden halt and everyone went, “Ooooooh…”

That short silence broke when someone said, “Kasih meh Samy Vellu neh? Nama pengawa ia udah tu deh?” (“I feel sorry for Samy Vellu, eh? What will he do now?”)

Everyone burst out laughing! They continued talking about the looming belangkas season, mending their fishing nets, doing something about the sea water in their paddy fields, and just about everything else that is important to them except politics, politicians and the election.

Later in that same year of the political tsunami, I stayed with a Penan community in Long Seridan. They had built nine sulap (huts) on a hill not far behind a Kelabit longhouse. It’s a temporary settlement belonging to two groups of Penan: four families from Long Medamut and five families from different parts of the upper Magoh River. They were sending their children to school in Long Seridan. One of the women from Long Medamut was six months’ pregnant. Her brother and his children accompanied her Long Seridan so she can deliver her baby at the clinic.

Asok, a Penan from Long Leng, set up my sulap at Long Seridan.

Asok, a Penan from Long Leng, set up my sulap at Long Seridan.

I asked, “Why didn’t you take her to the clinic in Bario since it’s closer than walking to Long Seridan?” Her brother replied that they went to Bario but the clinic was closed due to undergoing renovation. Apparently, while they were in Bario, no one had told them about the temporary clinic further up the road. They had to divert their journey from Bario and walked for three days in the jungle to reach Long Seridan.

During my short stay with them, no one mentioned anything about the political tsunami that swept through Peninsular Malaysia earlier that year. “Didn’t you hear about it,” I asked them.

They looked at each other with an expression as though they had just missed a TOTO jackpot, and said to me, “Be’ jam ame siteu. Ineu neh?” (“We do not know about it. What’s that?”)

Two weeks ago, I went to Tringgus, a small settlement at the foot of the Bengoh mountain range about 50km from Kuching. The village is located along the Pedia River, the headwater that sources the main Sarawak River that passes through Kuching. The community is very aware of the upcoming Sarawak state election but I did not hear them make any mention of it.

A farmer returning from his farm in Tringgus.

A farmer returning from his farm in Tringgus.

When I was there, some youths were hanging out in the small open area under the mango tree next to the river. I decided to join them and was curious about the topic of their conversation. It appeared that they were talking about the durian season coming a bit late this season.

When I asked them on the possible reasons for the delay, all they told me was that the weather has changed over the years and the season isn’t that predictable anymore. But they assured me that once it starts fruiting, there will be a lot of durian this season and that I should come! When I asked them what do they think about the upcoming election, they posed a question back at me: “Do you know who’s going to be nominated?” I told them that I didn’t have a clue. “Neither do we,” they said with a smile. The conversation quickly returned to the weather and upcoming durian season.

Tema is a Bidayuh village situated along the lower Kayan River in the Tebedu district. On most evenings during the weekdays, 8-15 people from different age groups would gather outside the village’s sundry shop. Some would sit on the wooden bench attached to the shop’s cement wall, some standing up and leaning on the shop’s round pillars, and some would sit down on the floor along the pavement, leaning against the wall of a shack where the shop owner keeps her petrol supply. On those evenings at that sundry shop, they talk about their farm work, the yield of their rice harvest, the reduction of fertilizer subsidies, the unpredictable weather, the river condition after last night’s rain, and anything that affects their daily living.

Kids in Tema earn their pocket money by carrying sand to build a house.

Kids in Tema earn their pocket money by carrying sand to build a house.

I was there less than a month ago, and on those evenings I was there, no one talked about their wakil rakyat or the upcoming elections. One of them casually told me, why should they really care about ‘something’ when ‘it’ doesn’t really care about them in the next five years after the elections? By ‘something’ and ‘it’, they’re referring to the wakil rakyat.

I can go on talking about the many other villages I’ve been to in the past weeks, months or years but you get the drift.

My friend from Ipoh said, “Still, I can’t see what are you trying to say. What do these stories have to do with plugs and sockets? What does this have to do with the elections and change of government?”

“Disconnection,” I said. More or less like how you are disconnected from my stories.

It’s not that people don’t care about the political welfare in their area. It’s not that people are contented with the stunted development in their community. And it’s definitely not because they are short-sighted about their future as many of us have claimed.

They do not embrace this so-called ‘change’ because there is a disconnection between the political or development rhetoric, the critical thinking among the educated middle-class population, and the people’s realities on the ground.

The state, the wakil rakyat, the urban middle-class: we are disconnected from their realities. While the middle-class of N.11 Batu Lintang interpret change as getting rid of the Pek Mo, the grassroots at N.16 Bengoh see change as how food is put on their table after the election.

And while you and I in the urban towns can rigorously discuss and provide all sorts of (what we consider as) constructive criticisms, suggestions, recommendations, and even ‘donations’, we will still be sitting at home thinking about ‘change’.

Even better, I have heard people say that the rural communities do not have the ability to think far into the future. They said people in the villages should change their mindsets and think about their future generation, so they won’t easily fall into the corrupt hands of Pek Mo and his posse.

But how can you think about the future, let alone far, when you are being deprived of the opportunity to do so?

This luxury belongs to those who are able to open their laptop, connect to the internet, type a subject, and press ‘search’ in the search engines; while they who are isolated, is restricted to television and radio channels that harp on government agenda. Even for that, you need to have electricity connected to your house.

How far into the future can one go with this? How can we talk about change when we do not understand their realities from their eyes? How can we do that if we do not constantly engage with the people on the ground?

Sarawakians, especially in the rural areas, do not need political heroes or party rhetoric. They need people like you and I to understand and constantly engage with them in their struggles, instead of merely discussing them in the comfort of our homes.

So, better don’t mess it up this time, Sarawakians? Let’s just say it was already messed up on that fateful day in 1963.

Kelvin Egay has the habit of brushing his teeth with sugarcane wine in the morning.

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Posted on 15 April 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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