The last Rajah’s battlefield

By Wong Chin Huat (The Nut Graph)

If BN loses a 95%-Dayak constituency, all the 28 Dayak-majority seats in the state may be in danger. And if the Chinese Sarawakians continue their rejection of BN as they did in 2006, another 15 Chinese Malaysian-majority or mixed seats may fall to the opposition, too.

THE 7 April Batang Ai by-election actually has more similarities with the 2007 by-election for the Selangor state seat of Ijok than to the other two by-elections in Bukit Gantang and Bukit Serambau that will happen on the same day.

Batang Ai is certainly different from Ijok in a few ways. But in their difference lies similarities.

The Sarawak inland constituency of Batang Ai is much more backward compared to the semi-rural Ijok. Most longhouses have no external supply of electricity and tap water. Many can only be reached by motorbikes, four-wheel-drive or boats. Many locals are unemployed.

But this just makes Batang Ai more like Ijok in 2007 in the sense that monetary benefits are more appealing to voters. Even though the Opposition in Ijok campaigned very hard in 2007, they failed to wrest the seat away from the Barisan Nasional (BN) then because the BN's machinery and development funds were far more persuasive than the Opposition's new politics.

Batang Ai is also different from Ijok in ethnic composition. Ijok was a mixed seat with about 50% Malay Malaysians, 30% Indian Malaysians, and 20% Chinese Malaysians. In sharp contrast, 95% of Batang Ai's electorate are Iban Malaysians, with Chinese Malaysians and Malay Malaysians making up the tiny minority.

Again, strangely, this difference makes Batang Ai more likely to be another Ijok. If the second largest ethnic group in Ijok, the Indian Malaysians, were then staunch BN supporters, the majority of Ibans, too, have the convention of "undi perintah" or voting for the government.

Mental prison

Like the Indian Malaysians before November 2007, the Ibans support the BN, but not because they have been well cared for.

Road leading to Jawah Gerang's longhouse

Far from that, even the road to the longhouse where Jawah Gerang — the former BN five-term parliamentarian and now the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) candidate — hails from is not accessible by car whenever it rains.

One doesn't have to be a rocket scientist to understand why the Ibans would "undi perintah". It is both fear and favour. They fear the government's wrath and they hope for favour from their ethnic representative in government. In this way, they are as Malaysian and mentally imprisoned as many West Malaysians before 8 March 2008.

The Dayaks' strength

While equally loyal to the BN, the Indian Malaysians before 2008 and the Iban Malaysians today are different on one important count.

While the Indian Malaysians constitute no majority in any seat let alone a state, the Iban Malaysians constitute about 30% of Sarawak's population. When other Dayak groups are added together, they form a majority of half.

Despite their numerical strength — an advantage in any functioning democracy — the Dayaks have been left behind in political power and socio-economic development since 1970.

Then, the de facto Prime Minister Tun Abduk Razak helped negotiate a coalition government of the Melanau/Malay-dominated Parti Bumiputera and the Chinese-dominated Sarawak United People's Party (SUPP). The largest and most vocal Dayak-led Sarawak National Party (SNAP) was deliberately left out in the cold and is today seen as irrelevant. The smaller Dayak party, Parti Pesaka, later merged with Parti Bumiputera to form the dominant Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB).

Today, the Dayak constituents are represented in the government by all four BN parties, with the Pesaka faction of PBB holding the deputy chief minister position for the Dayaks.

The two mainly Dayak parties are Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP), a splinter from SNAP, and the Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), the successor of another SNAP splinter, the defunct Parti Bangsa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS).

Even the Chinese-dominated SUPP has a small Dayak wing.

In the opposition camp, Dayaks are now flooding into PKR.

Something to watch for in Batang Ai is whether PKR can become the standard bearer of Dayak nationalism in opposition, even if it doesn't win in the by-elections.

Jawah Gerang with Anwar

While PKR adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has promised to install a Dayak as the chief minister if Pakatan Rakyat (PR) wins the state, many Dayaks have been conditioned to believe that the top post is a prerogative of the Melanau Muslims, or second in line, the Malay Muslims.

Instead of challenging the Melanau hegemony, many Dayak politicians prefer and even compete to collaborate with Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud's clique in exchange for patronage. This explains the fragmentation of the Dayak parties, which in turn perpetuates the Dayaks' political lethargy.

Succeeding the post from his uncle Datuk Patinggi Abdul Rahman Ya'kub, Taib, a Melanau Muslim, has ruled Sarawak since 1981. He is rumoured to be planning for his son, Sulaiman, to be the next chief minister after him.

Sir James Brooke
(painting by Sir Francis Grant, public domain)
Not unlike the Brooke family which produced three generations of White Rajah before surrendering Sarawak to Britain in 1946, the Rahman-Taib family are the new rajahs. Incidentally, silver-haired Taib is widely dubbed as the "white-haired Rajah".

Tsunami needed

While an insistence on a Dayak chief minister is racist, the artificial exclusion of Dayaks from holding the top post is no less racist.

In the context of Sarawak's democratisation, the revival of an inclusive strand of Dayak nationalism may at least rock the "one-family state" and open up room for political competition. And only when political parties compete to effectively champion different social groups can they move beyond patronage and patrimonialism.

Such competition may further lead to some form of new Sarawak nationalism that would serve to correct the imbalance both within the state, and between Sarawak and other parts of Malaysia.

A PKR victory in Batang Ai, even by a wafer-thin margin, would therefore begin the tsunami in Sarawak politics.

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