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?


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.


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.


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. Nut Graph

 

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