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Saturday, April 11, 2009

> Looking for answers in Batang Ai

The defeat of the PKR in the April 7 Batang Ai by-election is a shock to many Sarawakians especially for the new generation of better educated, technologically savvy and upwardly mobile indigenous Dayaks who saw the contest as a battle between Dayak nationalism and "occupation" by a local Melanau elite allied with Umno in the Federal capital.

There is considerable recriminations and soul searching among educated Dayaks over why Batang Ai was lost, who should be held responsible and what the future holds for a change of regime in the resources-rich state which is also one of the poorest in the federation.

The blame game is rampant in Dayak-based blogs and websites and numerous reasons are being given for the defeat, from a shortage of funds and other resources to wrong choice of candidate in Jawah Gerang and money politics by Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib Mahmud.

Some are also blaming the Iban voters for the defeat, pointing to their greed, materialism and folly for failing to see Dayakism as a new force and always staying with the Barisan Nasional to take the goodies dished out in return for their votes.

The Dayak predicament has parallels with the sorry situation of Indians in the Peninsular before the Nov 25, 2007 mass protest.

Like the Dayaks, they too were neglected, marginalised and politically alienated, leading to a build-up of a critical mass that sparked the revolt against the MIC/BN.

Like the Dayaks, Indians too supported the BN for decades and were rewarded for their political loyalty with the occasional trinkets.

But most of the rewards were pilfered by the MIC, leaving a new generation of Indian youths entering the job market without skills and competing with millions of foreign workers for low-paid jobs.

Their rising anger and frustration at their predicament created ideal conditions for a political revolt.

In Sarawak the conditions are far from ripe for a political revolt although Dayak intellectuals at a major conference recently in Miri believed conditions were ripe and a Dayak revolt was gathering ground and that the Batang Ai by-election was the spark.

The huge numbers that gathered for PKR dinners in major towns were read as clear signs that a revolt had started and that it would soon consume the rural Dayaks and provide a critical mass for political change.

Today the same intellectuals are deeply disappointed that the spark failed to light and are giving numerous reasons for the failure.

The fact is Batang Ai is remote, not easily accessible and the PKR methods of mobilisation using IT technology was worthless in a constituency that has few telephone lines and the vast majority are reachable only by boats.

It is remarkable that nearly all of the 200 Chinese voters in Lubuk Antu, the frontier cowboy town that services the interior, voted for PKR.

The only reason for this is that they had superior information and were motivated by the major changes in the political landscape happening in the country.

It was the same superior information that saw thousands of Chinese and urban Dayaks attending PKR dinners in the major towns of Sarawak in the months preceding the Batang Ai by-election, giving the impression a March 8-type groundswell was blowing.

In comparison the Dayaks in the interior were hapless and at the mercy of the only source of information available to them — radio and television — which was controlled by the BN.

A much touted plan by Sarawak PKR to get “educated and politically motivated” Dayak volunteers to combat the information deficiency by going to the interior and staying in the longhouses and campaigning daily did not materialise.

For some reason the laptop-carrying Dayak intellectuals stayed where they were and preferred to battle in cyberspace and not risk the river journeys, live in the longhouses and suffer great discomfort.

The BN also very cleverly manipulated the Ibans, saying PKR leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim should be rejected because he is an “outsider” and not a Sarawakian.

They explain the presence of BN leaders from Peninsular in the by-election campaign as “honoured guests” permitted to visit and bring presents for the Ibans, who form 90 per cent of the voters.

Besides, the PKR candidate Jawah, a five-term MP for Lubuk Antu, also had a difficult time explaining why the constituency he had represented for so long was so underdeveloped.

In the last four days of campaigning, a whole army of federal and Sarawak ministers descended on Batang Ai and dispensed “instant noodle” development aid like providing birth certificates, fuel, ICs and also “duit jalan” (pocket money).

“The rural Ibans are very honest and simple folks. They tend to respect all authoritative figures like government ministers,” said Sim Kwang Yang, former DAP MP for Kuching.

“To take the gifts and then vote for the opposition seems like an act of bad etiquette. Being trustful people, they are also gullible to all kinds of promises, election after election,” he said.

They are also mostly peasants working the land, the jungle and the rivers for sustenance and therefore are disconnected — both in their needs and world view — from the urban Dayak elite.

To them their immediate needs are paramount, not the promise of a paradise in the future.

The PKR’s defeat in Batang Ai is not a total loss unless the lessons are learnt — one of it is misreading dinner crowds as a Dayak revolt - The Malaysian Insider.