Campaigns come and go but nothing changes here

By Debra Chong (The Malaysian Insider)

TAIPING, April 2 — A straggly line of some 50 houses stand on stilts above a muddy flat strewn with refuse and cockle shells, long ago bleached white in the sun, about a half hour’s ride by motorboat from Kuala Sepetang. Pulau Sangga is one of the most remote reaches — if not the most — in the Bukit Gantang parliamentary constituency.

There is no spring on the mangrove swamp island; neither is there piped fresh water from the mainland. Instead, rainwater collects in the giant plastic barrels lining the rickety wooden boardwalk and is crudely filtered for drinking, cooking and washing clothes.

A village elder said it sometimes smelled, but the islanders drank it any way.

“No choice. Buying water from the mainland costs too much. Difficult to bring over,” the 60-something man added in Hokkien.

Have boat will travel. The Pakatan Rakyat squad on their campaign trail. – Pictures by Choo Choy May

The electricity that allows the 27 pupils from Primary 1 to 6 at SRJK (C) Poay Chee to learn in relative comfort and the pre-schoolers to laugh at the Tom and Jerry broadcast on Astro’s Cartoon Network are hooked up to the generators in front of their homes.

The island’s sole public phone is fixed at the community hall, a dirt-encrusted, peeling wooden building opposite the whitewashed brick school. It ceased to work long ago. The receiver now rests on a metal ledge off the hook.

Mobile phones have poor reception on the island. Sometimes there is a signal, sometimes there is none, an elderly man shrugged in reply to the question by The Malaysian Insider.

A newish-looking church stands on the other side of the island, a cross fixed to the peaked roof. It looked cared for, though the local population, wholly Chinese, are mostly Taoists. Charms in Chinese calligraphy are fixed above the doors of most homes. A temple dedicated to a local deity faces the sea on one side of the island. Smoke from the joss sticks curled lazily in the air amid the distant shrill chatter of swiftlets bred by the residents for their prized nests (bird’s nest soup is a Chinese delicacy) as an extra means of income.

The 'ping pong' flag is riding high at Pulau Sangga.

When Pas candidate Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin dropped by the island around noon yesterday, he was heartily received by a handful of tanned, old men on the jetty chanting “Hijau! Hijau!” referring to the green colour associated with the party.

It was a sharp contrast to the tepid welcome he had at another Chinese fishing village across the channel. No chants trilled at his arrival in the cluster of brick-and-tiled homes there heavily draped in Barisan Nasional flags and posters of Ismail Saffian. Instead, they offered polite smiles and limp handshakes to Nizar’s enthusiastic greetings.

Seemingly the only time he managed to crack their impassive masks was when he messed up cracking an egg with one hand while trying his hand at an old lady’s wok, frying koay teow. The noodle seller who had watched worriedly and the passers-by cracked up at his clumsiness.

Back on Pulau Sangga, his campaigners spread out; stapling his posters to the weathered wooden walls and tying Pas flags to every post and pole, adding to the existing flurry — the green-and-red flags of Gerakan as well as the blue-and-white of Barisan Nasional marked their earlier presence.

A way of life on the island. A fisherman sorting his net with a Gerakan flag in the background.

While Nizar engaged in sewing crab nets — or trying to — during the door-to-door visit, his campaigners from DAP and PKR sought to gauge support from the ground. They seemed pleased by the pretty positive response.

“Ping pong can go very high,” quipped one woman in Hokkien, referring to the party’s moon-shaped logo, after the pro-PAS campaigners finished their sales pitch promising changes to the islanders.

But her slumped shoulders and passive face seemed to suggest a different story.

One of the islanders remembers asking for basic amenities years ago. But they failed to obtain fresh water and electricity supply despite umpteenth visits from politicians every election season.

Show me how you do it. Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaluddin learning from a local how to sew a crab net at Pulau Sangga yesterday.

The village is about a hundred years old, said a man in his late 60s who was born on the island, as was his mother before him.

The Chinese know it as “Lau Kang” he added. Generations of families had settled there, fishing for fish and crab, though fewer and fewer remained if they could help it, he recounted.

The younger ones who had some money moved back to the mainland, seeking better prospects. It was only the seniors left now.

“Where will I stay if I go across the river?” the garrulous old man asked.

“My son moved out and lives across as a fisherman but he also has a hard time. Can’t get a licence,” he added, referring to the red tape surrounding the necessary boat licences the fishermen need to apply for to take their vessel out to sea.