Heart to heart in the heartland

(NST) POLITICAL wit and manoeuvring came to the fore during the nine-day campaign period in this Iban hinterland.

They reached every nook and corner of the 150-odd longhouses and settlements in this remote constituency.

There are only 8,006 voters, including 274 Chinese, 117 Malays and another seven "lain-lain". More than 95 per cent or the bulk of the voters are Ibans, numbering 7,608.

With the Ibans forming the majority, almost every ceramah and talk has been conducted in Iban, except when leaders from the peninsula dropped by to share their thoughts.

The ability to speak the language is definitely an added advantage and not surprisingly, quite a number of non-Iban local leaders could impart their message in the language of the legendary Rentap.

Rentap was a feared Iban warrior who stood against James Brooke in the early days of Sarawak's history.

Parti Keadilan Rakyat leaders stay confident of grabbing the Batang Ai state seat from Barisan Nasional, while leaders from the ruling coalition have basically said "dream on".

A few remote longhouses in Ulu Engkari, one of the most remote traditional Iban settlements, four hours travelling by boat, have been attracting politicians and party workers like a magnet.

While some among the young are attracted to firebrand politics and are busy blaming others for their perceived backwardness, the older generation Ibans, though lacking in modern education, appear to understand life better.

"It has been like a festival of sorts. No one comes to our village here except for 'pegawai perintah' (government officers) but in the last two weeks, we have had many visitors. Some came twice.

"We are simple people and we are not interested in fighting anyone. What matters is the future of my children and my grandchildren," a Tuai rumah in one of the Ulu Eng-kari long houses said.

As I was leaving by a dug-out longboat from the riverine village, he called out "Please don't quote my name in your reports as both the candidates are my relatives".

Both BN's Malcom Mussen Lamoh and PKR's Jawah Gerang are not only old friends but also share relatives in many of the longhouses.

Obviously, the candidates have not been trading insults but the parties they represent have been at each others' throats.

PKR started the ball rolling with provocative banners and insults against state and federal leaders.

BN countered with huge billboards which sent subtle but clear messages that PKR adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was a disgruntled politician who failed to serve his constituents.

Riding on the raw nerves of the younger generation and those with an axe to grind against the government, PKR is confident of a victory.

Anwar says a win in Batang Ai will mark the beginning of the end for the BN-led government, while BN leaders are confident that at the end of polling today, it would actually be the "end of the beginning" for PKR.